There was a time a couple weeks back when it looked like Oklahoma City could become the most dangerous eight seed in NBA history. Russell Westbrook was (and is) playing at an MVP level, Kevin Durant was coming back and they not only had the core of a team that went to the Western Conference finals a season before, but also had improved the bench.
But now Kevin Durant is out indefinitely (and may well miss the playoffs) because of his Jones fracture not healing right. (This is not uncommon, there is not great blood flow to that area.) Serge Ibaka is out until sometime around when the playoffs start. Enes Kanter is banged up. The threatening Thunder are no more.
Despite all that, the Thunder are still the favorites to be the eight seed in the Western Conference playoffs.
The Thunder currently have a one-game lead over the Pelicans and a two-and-a-half game lead over Phoenix. There are three reasons the Thunder likely hold on to the eight seed.
1) Oklahoma City has the easier schedule the rest of the way. Both, the Thunder and Pelicans, have 14 games remaining. The Thunder have eight of those games at home, the Thunder six. The Thunder have eight games remaining against teams over .500, three of them on the road; the Pelicans have nine games remaining against + .500 teams, five of those on the road. It’s going to be tough for the Pelicans to make up that game against a tougher schedule.
2) Oklahoma City still has Russell Westbrook. You’ve certainly heard this but here is a reminder: In his last 10 games Russell Westbrook has averaged 35 points, 10.4 rebounds and 10.3 assists a game. He has been the best player in the league. I hear your complaints, that he’s not shooting a high percentage (40 percent), and he’s turning the ball over more than Scott Brooks wants to see (6.4 a game). But that’s the price of how much he has to handle the ball and how much offense he has to generate. Plus the Thunder are playing at a better rate their last 10 games than the Pelicans (something Kevin Pelton broke down at ESPN Insider). He is playing at a level that can carry this team to the playoffs. (If you’re saying “the Pelicans have their own star in Anthony Davis” you’d be right — except he missed Thursday night and is expected to be out Friday with a sprained ankle. And without him the Pelicans are not the same.)
3) Phoenix threw in the towel on this race back at the trade deadline. Thinking they could not keep pace with the surging Thunder (who then seemed likely to keep rolling and stay healthy), back at the trade deadline the Suns shipped out Goran Dragic and Isaiah Thomas. The Suns made moves they saw as needed for the long term (we can debate that another day). Since the trade deadline the Suns are 7-8, and at that pace they are just not going to make up the needed ground on the Thunder or Pelicans.
When the playoffs start April 19, it’s likely we will see Russell Westbrook and the Thunder as the eight seed, facing Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors. The Thunder will be huge underdogs — not the serious threat they looked like a month ago — but they likely get to go to the dance.