It’s a tired, boring, not-very-funny joke to make about the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“They sure are a lot better when Kevin Durant(Kevin Durant Jersey) plays.”
It’s an obvious thing to say, like water is wet or Cinnamon Toast Crunch is the best cereal ever (it is). But often that critical fact gets passed over when assessing the Thunder and their perceived stumble during the past year.
Last season, Durant missed 55 games because of three different surgeries on his right foot, and a sprained ankle. The Thunder went 27-28 in those games. This season, he’s missed six games because of a hamstring strain. The Thunder went 3-3 in those. In the past 39 games they’ve played with Durant dating back to last season, they’re 26-13. Without, 30-31.
The Thunder definitely are a lot better when Durant plays.
It’s difficult to evaluate a team after just 18 games, especially one working in a new head coach and a somewhat refurbished roster. Eighteen games is 22 percent of the season, not even a quarter of the way through the full 82. Eighteen games is only one complete month, with four and a half more to go.
But the Thunder, a tried-and-true title contender by basically any measure, are sitting at a disappointing 11-7 through those 18 games, and don’t seem to have many buying them as a threat anymore.
With Durant, though, they’re 8-4. They beat the San Antonio Spurs on opening night, obliterated the Utah Jazz on the road in his return and have won by an average margin of 8.6 points when he’s played. Their four losses were all by six or less and except for the first two, all their wins have been by double-digits.
More proof: With Durant on the floor, the Thunder score 112.7 points per 100 possessions and allow 98.7. His net on/off differential is a robust plus-14.2 (for reference, Stephen Curry’s is 21.8, and they haven’t lost a game yet).
So the question isn’t really if Durant makes the Thunder good. We know that one. The question is if he makes them good enough?
With a mediocre first month (still good for third in the West, though) combined with a forgettable 2014-15 season, the Thunder have slipped from a lot of radars, falling a tier below the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs in the West. They’re currently on a 50-win pace, which would’ve landed them as a seven-seed a season ago. That’s not good enough for a team as loaded as they are.
And for all the triple-doubles and bombastic play by Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are merely a decent-to-pretty decent team when he’s running the show solo. What makes them special is the two-headed superbeast that overwhelms and overpowers opponents.
In the past five seasons, the Thunder have the second-best regular season winning percentage in the league, have won more playoff series than anyone except San Antonio and Miami, and have been to more conference finals than anyone but those two. The West has been run by the Thunder and Spurs the past five seasons until the Warriors kicked down the door.
And the Thunder believe if not for injuries to Durant and Serge Ibaka to end last season, things might still be different. Before Durant was ruled out for good and it appeared OKC was headed for a 1-vs-8 showdown for the ages against the Warriors, those within the Thunder organization felt they had matchup advantages and were positioned to pull the upset. They pointed to last January when the Thunder beat the Warriors 127-115. Durant had 36. Westbrook had a 17-15-16 triple-double. Ibaka had 27.
That was then, though, because the Warriors haven’t slowed down. The Thunder already are eight games back of first in the West, and probably can cross off having homecourt in a series against Golden State already. The West runs through the Bay Area, and the Thunder have a lot more catching up to do than just in the standings. The Warriors are a complete, refined juggernaut. The Thunder are a top-heavy, semi-flawed team in development.
Once an elite defensive team, the Thunder are a nightly toss-up, ranking 16th in defensive efficiency. They turn the ball over with alarming regularity. Their second unit, supposedly a strength, is irritatingly inconsistent. With Westbrook and Durant on the floor, they obliterate opponents, outscoring them by 17.0 points per 100 possessions. In lineups without them, though, the Thunder are outscored by 6.5 per 100.
Durant’s impact is far-reaching, but beyond the scoring, the creating and uncanny clutch-time shot-making, he changes the Thunder defensively. For whatever reason, Durant has rarely been regarded as a high-level defender, but the Thunder are considerably better with him on the floor (3.5 points per 100 this season, 4.8 last season). One key area he impacts: small ball. With so many teams eager to play stretch players at the 4 and 5, the Thunder are at the mercy of mismatching without Durant. With him, they’re one of the best small-balling teams in the business. Without, they’re scrambled, playing someone out of position or leaving two unequipped big men on the floor together.
Then there’s just the simplicity of Durant. For all the talk of Billy Donovan’s offensive reform, system tweaks, ball movement and spacing, Durant has this thing he does where he breaks down the fourth wall and scores. Against the Brooklyn Nets last week, it was Durant dribbling up the floor after a rebound and canning a straightaway 3 to give the Thunder a fourth-quarter lead. There were no passes on the possession, no play called. But it was three points in a big moment that only required the ball to touch No. 35′s hands somewhere in the gym.