But without those stars, Oklahoma City’s win percentage drops to 57%.
When Westbrook got hurt in the 2013 playoffs, Oklahoma City lost in five games to the Grizzlies in the second round. Without Durant for large portions last season, the Thunder missed the playoffs entirely. In surrounding years – 2011, 2012 and 2014 – they reached at least the conference finals and even the 2012 NBA Finals.
At this point, we know this team. Oklahoma City is a championship contender when Durant and Westbrook are healthy, a borderline playoff squad when at least one isn’t.
With Durant and Westbrook healthy right now, can anything hold back the Thunder?
Serge Ibaka is a bona fide third core piece. Oklahoma City has spent to build a suitable bench. Durant remains under contract.
So much appears to be falling in line for the Thunder, but the list of potential pitfalls is long:
1. The NBA’s other contenders, especially in the Western Conference, are loaded. The Warriors, Spurs, Clippers and Cavaliers look about as good on paper as the Thunder. If they successfully integrate Ty Lawson, the Rockets could reach that level, too.
2. Most first-year coaches aren’t Steve Kerr. Looking beyond last season, history strongly suggests Billy Donovan will need more time before he’s capable of leading Oklahoma City to a title. Plus, he has the added challenge of coming from college – a jump few have successfully made.
3. Donovan must balance the Thunder’s fit/talent divide.
Andre Roberson and Steven Adams have played exceptionally well with Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka. That unit posted an offensive/defensive/net rating of 109.8/96.4/+13.4 last season. The year before, albeit in a small sample, it was 103.0/78.0/+24.9. Roberson is a defensive ball hawk, though his outside shooting is putrid. Adams, also defensive-minded, does a lot of the little things. They work well next to the ball-dominant Westbrook and Durant.
So where does that leave Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter? Waiters is a low-efficiency, chucker – an awful fit with other talented players. He doesn’t put enough energy into defense, either. But Oklahoma City surrendered a first-rounder for him for a reason, and he’ll likely be entering a contract year wanting to post big numbers. Kanter already his max contract, but he might see that as validation for deserving a large role. Kanter provides an offensive boost with his pick-and-roll finishing, but it’s not clear that offsets his defensive shortcomings.
Roberson and Adams know their limitations and play within them. With Durant and Westbrook, that’s frequently enough. Waiters and Kanter might be capable of more, but they too often fail to complement their better teammates. If Donovan can reign in those two, that’s ideal, though it will be difficult. It might be even more challenging to use them if they remain committed to their previous styles.
4. The roster is probably set, as is. There’s little room for upgrading. The Thunder are already above the luxury-tax line and might be reticent to accept more salary in a trade. Plus, they can send a team only one guaranteed first-round pick, and they can’t guarantee it will be conveyed until 2022.
5. Durant might get hurt again. His foot injuries were more serious than we initially knew, and they were already pretty troubling. There might be something about his long, lanky frame and playing style that leaves him susceptible to injury. Plenty of players have had their careers derailed by foot injuries.
If Durant has a structural issue, that’s it. The Thunder can’t win without him.
But if he and Westbrook remain healthy, we might look back on this team as the NBA’s best. It will still have to cross several landmines, but the potential is there.