Oklahoma City Thunder Turnaround Won't Happen Overnight

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 3, 2014

May 29, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (left) and guard Russell Westbrook (right) before the game against the San Antonio Spurs in game five of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the time and the talent to salvage their 2014-15 season.

But the recent returns of superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are not immediate miracle cures. It's going to take some time for these team leaders to find their rhythm and for the supporting cast to rediscover its place behind them.

Durant needed all of 30 minutes to remind the basketball world how he was able to wrap his 2013-14 campaign with an MVP bow.

The silky smooth scorer dropped in 27 mostly effortless points on 9-of-18 shooting during his season debut Tuesday night. It wasn't quite the eye-popping 32-point, eight-assist, seven-rebound return Westbrook had engineered just one game prior, but Durant looked comfortable with his shot and confident in his surgically repaired right foot.

Thunder fans saw just about everything they needed to see—except for a win. Despite getting 48 combined points out of Durant and Westbrook, Oklahoma City suffered a 112-104 loss to Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.

The defeat may have disappointed the Sooner State, but it shouldn't have surprised many in the basketball world.

For one, the win moved the Pelicans to 6-2 inside the Smoothie King Center this season. Whenever Davis dominates (25 points, 10 rebounds, six steals and four blocks), this team can be a force.

Plus, the Thunder have so many moving pieces in their puzzle. This isn't as simple as just welcoming Durant and Westbrook back into the fold. Not with the pair holding a combined 83.6 usage percentage.

With a 5-13 record and 5.5 games separating them from the eighth-seeded Phoenix Suns, the Thunder need to quickly bring Durant and Westbrook back up to speed. Assuming it takes 49 wins to claim a playoff spot in the Western Conference like it did last season, the Thunder need to win their remaining games at a 68.8 percent clip just to get a ticket to the big dance.

Considering this franchise has held realistic championship aspirations the past several years, OKC will need to play even better to grab a playoff position capable of producing a title run. Judging by the past 10 champions, that means the Thunder need to finish no lower than the third seed.

"What Durant's return hammered home more than anything is that, A) the Thunder don't have much time to start making up ground in the West, and B) it won't be easy," wrote CBS Sports' Ken Berger.

Dec 2, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) look over to guard Russell Westbrook (0) during the second half of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center. The Pelicans defeated the Thunder 11
USA TODAY Sports

There is no way to rush this process.

With a foot injury, there was only so much work Durant could do during his rehab. His debut effort gave him a foundation to build on, but neither his conditioning nor his timing are close to their typical levels.

"I just got to keep putting together good days and I'll keep getting back to where I want to be," Durant told reporters after the loss. "To get back to midseason form like I want to be is going to take some time."

Outside of his scoring, Durant didn't leave any major marks on the rest of his stat sheet. He had as many turnovers as rebounds and assists combined (five), and Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver observed that Durant's mistakes largely stemmed from the coat of rust he was wearing:

His turnovers were generally attributable to timing. Early, he threw a pass out of the post a second or two behind a cutting Serge Ibaka. In the second quarter, he waited an extra beat as he navigated a high screen-and-roll, drawing a carrying call. After halftime, he twice lost his handle while in attack mode, and he was also whistled for a foul call late when he made contact with a jump-shooting Ryan Anderson.

As for Westbrook, he wages wars with consistency even when he's at full strength.

He usually runs hotter than cold, but he's equally capable of freezing his own team or torching an opponent. It's hard to say how much of Tuesday's shaky performance—21 points on 20 field-goal attempts, seven assists and seven turnovers—was health-related, and how much of it was just Westbrook being Westbrook.

Either way, the Thunder have their offense back in the preferred hands. But there's a trickle-down effect behind the superstars, as guys like Reggie Jackson (averaging a career-high 17.0 field-goal attempts) and Serge Ibaka (15.2 points on 14.2 shots) vacate the spots they've held atop the totem pole.

Jackson looked perfectly comfortable as a support scorer against the Pelicans. The combo guard had 17 points on 50 percent shooting and four assists in just under 34 minutes of action.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Jeremy Lamb, another potential stabilizing presence on the second team, had his third-straight strong performance. The 6'5" swingman tallied 15 points and five rebounds in just under 15 minutes of work.

But Ibaka, the third member of OKC's Big Three, looked overmatched and outclassed during a dismal six-point outing.

"Six inefficient points on 11 shots—many of them wide open looks off pick-and-pops with the superstars—is bad," wrote The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater. "The three rebounds are worse."

The Thunder cannot afford to get less than their role players' best when their superstars may be physically unable to perform at their peak levels.

But if any sirens are sounding in OKC right now, they aren't blaring because of Durant's health, Westbrook's decision-making or Ibaka's ineffectiveness. Rather, they are raising a caution flag after watching the NBA's seventh-ranked defense get shredded for 40 points in a quarter, 69 points in a half and 112 points in a game.

"It's not about Kevin's return, it's not about Russell's return," coach Scott Brooks said, per Slater. "It's about how we play and we didn't play the right way defensively. ... We've held teams in the 60's, in the 70's (in whole games). And they had 69 at half."

The Thunder had survived (or avoided complete disaster, at least) without their superstars by relying on their long, energetic, disruptive defense. Ideally, bringing Durant and Westbrook back into the fold would complement that defensive effort with an equally powerful offensive attack. After all, OKC finished each of the past three seasons with top-10 efficiency rankings on both sides of the ball.

The Thunder could certainly exhibit that type of two-way dominance again this year. But Tuesday night showed a team that seemed to relax, as if the magical offensive touches of Durant and Westbrook had lessened the need for a total defensive commitment.

"If there's any cause for alarm in Oklahoma City, it's the team's defense," wrote ESPN Insider Kevin Pelton (subscription required). "There's a natural tendency for players to ramp up their defensive effort when stars are out of the lineup, and a corresponding tendency to let up when there's more margin for error with their return."

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 2:  Tyreke Evans #1 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on December 2, 2014 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledg
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

The Thunder cannot control how long it takes for Durant to get himself going. His body may force him to slowly work his way back into the equation. Considering how many changes are occurring, it may not be a bad thing for him to take on a limited role as a scorer and offensive safety valve.

But Oklahoma City can determine its level of defensive intensity. With all the ground it needs to cover the next four months, there is no reason its energy level should waver.

It's going to take some work to turn this season around, but that opportunity exists. The Thunder have won at least 71 percent of their games each of the last three seasons. Do that from here on out, and they will easily grab a playoff spot—maybe a halfway decent one at that.

"How many games we got left? Sixty-something?" Westbrook said, per ESPN.com's Royce Young. "How many games we out of eighth place? Five, six? Not worried." 

This is far from an impossible task.

More reinforcements are reportedly on the way, and the Thunder's next five opponents have a combined record of 27-63. This is a good time to start making up ground, something OKC desperately needs to do with an astounding seven Western Conference teams holding .700-plus winning percentages.

The competition stiffens over that latter half of the month, though, so the Thunder will need to make their move sooner rather than later.

As long as they stay healthy, they have the pieces in place to force their way back into the playoff picture. But they have to play with the same sense of urgency they showed before their stars returned.

Because even if these faces on the floor seem familiar, it could be a while before the Thunder really start to look like themselves.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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