OKC: Stay The Course Or Blow It Up?

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When an NBA team is struggling mightily and no relief is in sight, a typical course of action to consider is blowing up the roster. Start fresh. Build for the future. It’s worked for many teams in recent history. So as the 2014-15 regular season comes to a close, teams are being analyzed and scrutinized – by critics and fans alike – and opinions are being offered as to whether a roster overhaul is in order.

At first glance, one such team is the Oklahoma City Thunder. This oft-contending group has fallen from grace in warp speed. How can a team go from a .720 win/loss record (59-23) last year to a current .553 win/loss record (42-34) with just six regular season games remaining? How is it that they are barely holding on to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference when they earned the second seed last season and the top spot the season before? For the first time since their inaugural 2008-09 season in Oklahoma City, the Thunder may not have a postseason at all.

The answer would be relatively clear if Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti had assembled a group of players who just didn’t fit together well, or if these players did not possess sufficient talent to win games. These are a couple instances that sometimes lead organizations to blowing up rosters in hopes of rebuilding stronger ones. In the Thunder’s case, there is just one reason they are not marching confidently into the playoffs this year: injuries. Oklahoma City has enjoyed many successful regular seasons with healthy players, but that luck came to a screeching halt this season.

In the blink of an eye, an injury to a key player can change the expected path of a team’s season. We’ve seen this happen to countless players on contending teams – Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, to name a few – but in the Thunder’s case, the number of injuries to hit multiple players all season long is beyond incredible. In fact, injuries have occurred with such frequency that it’s no longer surprising; it instead has crossed over to being almost comical. The only surprise now is that Oklahoma City is even in position to be fighting for that last playoff spot at all.

Of all the Thunder’s injuries, only one ended up being season-ending, and that dubious honor befell the league’s reigning Most Valuable Player, Kevin Durant. Amid three foot surgeries in the past six months, along with a sprained ankle, Durant somehow managed to play in 27 games this season (25.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists). We have been assured this last foot procedure, a proactive bone-grafting approach, was successful. He is targeted to return healthy by the start of the 2015-16 season.

That last sentence will be a common thread applied to others as we take a look at the injuries that plagued the Thunder this year. Although there were many players hurt for extended blocks of games this season, and many were sidelined at the same time, all players are projected to be perfectly healthy for next season. With the exception of center Enes Kanter and forward Kyle Singler (qualifying offers), all Thunder players are under firm contracts for next year.

In addition to Durant, let’s look at the injuries the Thunder endured – and in some cases, are still enduring – this season.

Starting point guard Russell Westbrook had to undergo two surgical procedures this season. He missed 14 games in November when he suffered a fractured hand, then missed just one game due to a cheek fracture in March. Novels could be written to describe the phenomenal season the fiery Westbrook is having and the inspiring way in which he’s led this team without Durant by his side. He’s averaging career highs in points (27.5 – tied with James Harden for highest in the league), assists (8.6 – fourth-highest), rebounds (7.2) and steals (2.1 – second-highest). He’s had ten triple-doubles (Harden is second with three) and 28 double-doubles. His Player Efficiency Rating of 28.6 is second in the league to Anthony Davis at 30.9.

Rookie Mitch McGary, loaded with determination and personality in spades, didn’t make his season debut until mid-December due to a foot injury. After just one game, he was inactive until February due to a shin injury.

Starting center Steven Adams missed approximately three weeks in February due to a hand injury.

In mid-March, the Thunder announced Serge Ibaka would miss four to six weeks after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. This puts his return at either the end of the regular season or end of the first round of the playoffs. In his 64 starts, Ibaka has averaged 14.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game.

About one week later, the Thunder’s gritty, do-everything veteran, Nick Collison, suffered a sprained ankle and was ruled out for 10 days. Now, more than two weeks later, Collison still hasn’t returned. Although there’s been no update, he should return soon.

And in late March, guard Andre Roberson sprained his ankle and was projected to miss two to three weeks of action, putting his return around the start of the playoffs.

It’s an amazing feat that the Thunder are collecting wins without three of its starters – Durant, Ibaka and Roberson – playing down the stretch. Three of the four sidelined – Collison, Ibaka and Roberson – are among the best defenders on the team. With such a compromised defensive presence throughout March, it’s just pure effort from those players on the floor that has pushed the Thunder to winning 10 of their last 17 games.

The praise heaped on Presti for the moves he’s been making recently is well-deserved. Signing the Thunder’s first true sharpshooter in Anthony Morrow last offseason provided a piece the team truly needed. Morrow is averaging 10.5 points and 1.8 three-pointers off the bench in 24.1 minutes. Never known for his defensive acumen, his ability to provide instant offense has been a luxury.

In January, Oklahoma City acquired two-way player Dion Waiters, who strengthened the bench and answered the call when disgruntled point guard Reggie Jackson was later traded. He’s moved very well into a starting role this past month in light of the recent injuries. He can be inconsistent at times, but all in all, it was a very solid move.

And, finally, the players acquired at the trade deadline were a pleasant shock. The Thunder added Kanter, point guard D.J. Augustin, forwards Steve Novak and Singler and said goodbye to Kendrick Perkins, Grant Jerrett and, of course, Jackson. Kanter has been a perfect fit, posting 18.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, and looks as if he thanks the basketball gods every day for bringing him to OKC.

Durant hasn’t even been able to play with these four new players yet.

All these roster changes demonstrate the Thunder is not ready to shut down for business. When healthy, their 15-man roster is strong. It’s championship-level strong. There is no reason to blow it up with so many talented players. Injuries happen. It simply cannot be avoided in sports. Presti may move little-used players such as Perry Jones or Jeremy Lamb in the offseason, but OKC will stay the course. They need to stay the course with an eye firmly on a serious run next season.

Think of a healthy NBA team that contains Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Kanter and Roberson in the starting lineup with Waiters, Morrow, Collison, Adams, Singler, Augustin, McGary and Novak off the bench. Or perhaps shuffled around a bit, with Adams starting and Kanter off the bench. Or Waiters starting and Roberson off the bench. The point is this: the Thunder, as constructed, is a team built to win. Unfortunately, coach Scott Brooks didn’t get the chance to fully experiment with it, but he’ll get the opportunity in just a few months.