Philadelphia, PA – The Oklahoma City Thunder don't seem like they'll even be in position to defend their Western Conference crown.
The Thunder are one game from elimination in just the second round, or semifinals, of the Western Conference playoff race. Despite being the No. 1 seed, OKC trails the fifth-ranked Memphis Grizzlies, three games to one, with Game 5 scheduled for Wednesday night back in Oklahoma City.
There are two explanations for why the Thunder are almost on the first tee for the summer.
The first is easy - Russell Westbrook tore his meniscus.
During Game 2 of the first round against the Houston Rockets, Westbrook collided with Patrick Beverley when Westbrook was trying to get to the bench for a timeout.
To say they miss now is an understatement.
Westbrook averaged 23.2 points per game during the regular season and handed out 7.4 assists per game. Those numbers ranked him sixth and seventh, respectively, in the NBA. No other player was in the top 10 in both categories except for LeBron James.
The Thunder have no options as great as Westbrook, obviously. Reggie Jackson, not Mr. October, and Derek Fisher, yeah, he's who you're thinking he is, have handled the point guard duties while Westbrook sat his first games as a professional, and even dating back to college.
Let's further the point on how much the Thunder miss Westbrook - in the Game 2 he tore his meniscus, he stayed in the game and scored 29 points. Neither Jackson, nor Fisher, nor Kevin Martin, who was brought in to score off the bench, has matched the output in one game what Westbrook managed on one leg.
"I think we have a tough group of guys finding a way to win," Westbrook said when the Thunder and Grizz were tied at 1-1. "The group of guys we have, I think we have enough to get a ring. My honest opinion."
The Thunder have done everything humanly possible short of drugging the Grizzlies like the 4077th did in "Mash" to beat Memphis, and can't do it.
In Monday's Game 4, OKC outshot the Grizzlies, 43 percent to 40 percent. They shot 45 percent from long range, while Memphis managed 35 percent. The Thunder outrebounded the Grizz by three and still lost in overtime.
"I thought our guys did everything they could possibly do to put themselves in position to win this game," said OKC coach Scott Brooks. "Unfortunately, we came up a little bit short."
Kevin Durant has too much on his plate. He missed two free throws late in Game 3 after shooting 90 percent during the season, and on Monday Durant went 0- for-overtime.
He needs help and he's not getting enough of it.
Martin was the player expected to shoulder the scoring load once Westbrook went down. In the eight games without Westbrook, Martin is averaging 14.75 ppg, which is up a balmy .75 ppg from the regular season.
Serge Ibaka emerged as an offensive player during the season, averaging 13.2 ppg. That number is down a full point in the playoffs.
If only the Thunder could find a legitimate scorer with incredible playmaking abilities. They don't grow on trees. Must be hard to have one, let alone two, or three including Durant and Westbrook.
Oh, that's right, they did have a third one of those. His name is James Harden. You know him, he'll be the All-NBA guard who now toils for the Houston Rockets after a preseason trade from the Thunder.
And that's the second, more complex explanation - parting with Harden, when they did, why they did and why they didn't need to, all doomed the Thunder.
Harden was traded to the Rockets just days before this season started. The Thunder locked up Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka to long-term deals, meaning Harden was the odd man out.
He was only the reigning Sixth Man of the Year at that point. Harden had a bad run in last year's NBA Finals and turned down several less-than-maximum offers from OKC.
"We wanted to sign James to an extension, but at the end of the day, these situations have to work for all those involved. Our ownership group again showed their commitment to the organization with several significant offers," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said at the time.
The Thunder got a decent haul for the player Harden was. They got Martin, a capable NBA scorer, although nowhere near Harden as a playmaker, promising rookie Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second.
Harden turned into a franchise star in Houston and the deal looks lopsided. It's unfair to say you couldn't see this coming since Harden never got the chance to display that sort of game with Durant and Westbrook ahead of him. But, by all accounts, Harden was a little better than we realized.
Let's say for the argument, the Thunder didn't see Harden's 2012-13 season (25.9 ppg, 5.8 apg and 4.9 rebounds per game - all career highs) coming even a little bit. Or let's say the decision to keep Ibaka over Harden is valid, after all, Ibaka is an improving offensive producer and a first-team All-NBA Defensive player.
None of that still excuses the Thunder from not keeping Harden for the season. The reason is simple. It's the reason for every decision made in every phase of life.
Harden made a very manageable $5.8 million this season. Harden is only 23 years old. The beard throws people. He's still playing on his first contract.
The common belief is to trade a player so you get something in return. That's a fine theory and a few months ago, it looked like the Thunder did well under that premise.
Reality has sunk in for OKC. Martin is not a long-term part of the plan, or shouldn't be. He's a good shooter, nothing more. Lamb shuffled back and forth so much from the D-League to the main roster that he should've just lived out of a van. The extra pick in this year's draft, which will probably be 12th overall, will be borderline worthless because this draft stinks.
Had the Thunder kept Harden, paid him his very affordable contract, maybe they have a chance to not only reach the NBA Finals, but win it. Obviously, OKC couldn't predict a Westbrook injury. But a Thunder team with Harden instead of Martin, even without Westbrook, still has a good shot at a date with the Miami Heat. Harden would finally have the chance to shine in Oklahoma with Westbrook in a sky box.
Then, if Harden walks, he walks. Sorry, Thunder, you don't get Lamb. The return on the trade wasn't so high that OKC had no alternative but to do it.
Now, they have no shot to see the Heat. Oklahoma City will probably win Game 5 at home on Wednesday, but can they beat the Grizzlies three in a row to advance? Not likely, since the Grizzlies' defense is stifling and their big men dominant.
Westbrook's injury was the nail in the coffin, but this thing started to rot in October. Hope Ibaka, Lamb and Mason Plumlee or Kelly Olynyk are worth the second-round exit.