See that headline? That was the story I was given to analyze in this space. Do I think there's any way the Thunder are better without Durant? No. So instead let's look at how good they can be the rest of the way led by the incomparable Russell Westbrook.
Can Thunder Hold Off Pelicans?
It's a good day to write about Westbrook because if you subscribe to "Sports Illustrated" then you should be receiving the magazine if not Thursday then very soon and Westbrook is the cover boy. Hopefully the SI jinx won't apply to Westbrook because he's the only thing keep the injury-ravaged Thunder alive for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Entering Friday's very tough game at Memphis, the Thunder (42-33) lead New Orleans (40-34) by 1.5 games for that final playoff spot, and the Pelicans, who should win Friday night at Sacramento, have a game in hand. It should be noted that New Orleans won the season series 3-1, which could obviously be huge. If the two teams end up tied, look back to a Feb. 6 game in Oklahoma City. Pelicans superstar Anthony Davis hit a bit of a fluky double-clutch 3-pointer, his first made 3-pointer of the season, at the buzzer to cap a 41-point performance in a 116-113 win. All Westbrook did in that game was score a career-high 48 points, including the tying free throws with 1.2 seconds left, along with 11 assists and nine rebounds.
Here are the remaining schedules of the Thunder and Pelicans after Friday:
OKC -- vs. Houston, vs. San Antonio, vs. Sacramento, at Indiana, vs. Portland, at Minnesota
So that's three lock playoff teams (Rockets, Spurs, Blazers) the Thunder will face, while the Pelicans will face five (Blazers, Warriors, Grizzlies, Rockets, Spurs). So advantage Thunder, but that Pelicans regular-season finale against the Spurs could mean nothing to San Antonio. How crazy would it be for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to rest some of his key guys, as he is known to do, and help New Orleans get into the playoffs? The NBA league office would go ballistic.
At Bovada, the Thunder are -500 on NBA odds to make the playoffs and +350 to miss. New Orleans is -500 to miss and +300 to make it.
Westbrook's Case for MVP
As noted above, no way the Thunder are better without Durant, who is the second-best player in the NBA and its best pure scorer. Of course he is done for the season after yet another foot surgery but should be fine for next season. Durant can become a free agent in the summer of 2016 when every team will have cap room with the league's new TV deals kicking into effect. You still hear rumors Durant might want to return home and play for the Wizards, but this week he said he wants to spend his entire career with the Thunder and have his jersey retired there. We'll see.
What isn't up for debate is that individually Westbrook is better without Durant simply because he is offensive option No. 1, 2 and 3 when KD isn't on the floor taking his 20-plus shots a game. Westbrook had his 10th double-double of the season in Wednesday's home loss to Dallas, the most by any NBA player since Jason Kidd in 2007-08.
Westbrook is just the fifth guard in the past 30 years with at least 10 triple-doubles, joining Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Fat Lever and Kidd. Westbrook has eight triple-doubles since the All-Star break and the only players with more after an All-Star break in the past 40 years are Jordan (12 in 1988-89) and Grant Hill (nine in 1996-97). Since the break, Westbrook is averaging 31.0 points, 10.6 assists and 9.0 rebounds. He has 18 career triple-doubles and the Thunder are 15-3 in those, although just 4-3 in the past seven.
On the season, Westbrook is averaging 27.6 points, 8.7 assists and 7.3 rebounds. The only players in league history to average at least 27.0 points, 8.0 assists and 7.0 rebounds in a season were LeBron James in 2009-10 and Jordan in 1988-89. LeBron was the NBA MVP that season but Jordan was not; Magic was. Currently at Bovada, Westbrook is +500 for MVP with Steph Curry (-400) and James Harden (+300) ahead of him.
NBA Free Picks: For my NBA picks, I'll say the Thunder squeeze into playoffs, lose in first round to Warriors and Westbrook finishes third in the MVP voting.