-- The Oklahoma City Thunder can be thankful on this Thanksgiving weekend that help is on the way. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who have both missed the team's past 14 games -- 10 of them losses -- participated in non-contact portions of practice on Monday, and Westbrook is now set to play in tonight's game against the Knicks. Durant should follow soon.
Now, the question for Oklahoma City is whether it's already too late for Durant and Westbrook to lead the team back to the postseason. At 4-12, the Thunder sit 13th in the Western Conference, six games behind the current eighth seed (the 10-6 Phoenix Suns). Can Oklahoma City close the gap?
Projecting the Western Conference
The first thing we need to assess when evaluating the Thunder's playoff chances is how high the bar will be set in the West. Last season, it took 49 wins for the Dallas Mavericks to hold off the Phoenix Suns for the eighth seed. The bottom of the West playoff race might not quite be so tough this season.
Simulating the remainder of the season 1,000 times yields an average of 47.4 wins for the eighth seed in the West. But that's not necessarily the number Oklahoma City needs to hit, since the gap between eighth and ninth may be larger than last season. Indeed, on average the team that finishes ninth in the West wins 45.3 games, which would mean the Thunder have to get to 46 wins to get in.
Obviously, there's a high degree of variability in that projection. Depending on how things fall, Oklahoma City may need to win as many as 50 games to reach the playoffs or fewer than 45. Now let's see how likely the Thunder are to get to those marks.
Projecting Oklahoma City
If Durant joins Westbrook in the next couple days, and the Thunder play at the same level as last season, when they won 59 games. Factoring in Oklahoma City's upcoming schedule (an average team would go about 31-33 the remainder of the way against the Thunder's opponents) suggests the team could expect to finish with 48 wins.
We can repeat that exercise for various Durant returns, assuming that Oklahoma City plays at approximately a 41-win level of play with Westbrook but not Durant, as projected before the season. That yields the set of expectations in the box below.
The Thunder loses approximately one expected win for each five games Durant misses, depending on the level of opposition. (Oklahoma City's chances of beating the lowly Philadelphia 76ers don't really get much worse without Durant, for example.) So if Durant doesn't return until Christmas Day, the Thunder's expected record would drop below 46 wins, putting their playoff chances in jeopardy.
Because Westbrook' is here, it's not necessarily worth repeating the same exercise for him.
Again, there's a lot of uncertainty in these estimates. The Thunder might play at better than a 59-win clip when fully healthy, since last year's record did include an extended absence for Westbrook after knee surgery. At the same time, the possibility of re-injury could keep Oklahoma City from living up to that pace.
Still, the numbers make it clear that it is not yet too late for the Thunder to make a playoff push. Oklahoma City's chances are still contingent on Durant returning to the lineup soon, but in that scenario it's certainly possible for the Thunder to post a win total in the high 40s and reach the postseason.
News and notes
• In the event Oklahoma City doesn't make the playoffs, who's most likely to take its spot? Simulations put the Suns at the front of the line. Factoring in schedule, both the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings have been better so far this season. However, the simulations also take into account preseason expectations, putting Phoenix narrowly on top. The Suns reach the playoffs in 31 percent of simulations, with the Pelicans doing so in 24 percent of simulations and Sacramento doing so in 6 percent.
• To stay in the playoff race, New Orleans is going to have to get more production from its replacements for shooting guard Eric Gordon, who's out indefinitely with a torn left labrum. In the Pelicans' first game without Gordon, Darius Miller moved into the starting lineup with Tyreke Evans sliding to his natural shooting guard spot. Miller was scoreless in 14 minutes of action, and the victorious Kings outscored New Orleans by 19 points in that span. Backups John Salmons and Luke Babbitt weren't much better, combining for two points in 19 minutes.
The most aggressive solution for Pelicans coach Monty Williams is playing Ryan Anderson at small forward, putting his five best players on the court. Such lineups were outscored by four points in seven minutes on Tuesday against Sacramento, and they present a challenge defensively. However, New Orleans is much deeper in the frontcourt than on the wings, so the experiment is worth continuing in Gordon's absence.
• With the Denver Nuggets winning five in a row to briefly get back to .500 before Wednesday's loss at Phoenix, the Nuggets are no longer the most likely candidate to shake things up with multiple trades. That dubious honor belongs to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who have lost eight of their past nine games with a minus-15.0 point differential in a span that began when they lost point guard Ricky Rubio to a badly sprained ankle.
If Flip Saunders acknowledges his preseason hope of competing for a playoff spot is no longer realistic, Minnesota will have some decisions to make. Forward Thaddeus Young can opt to become an unrestricted free agent at season's end, and the Timberwolves might have to trade him to recoup something from the first-round pick they sent to the Philadelphia 76ers for Young as part of the Kevin Love trade. Wing Corey Brewer was already reportedly on the market before Saunders declared him "too valuable to trade," and shooting guard Kevin Martin could be a trade chip once he returns from a fractured right wrist.
Follow Kevin Pelton on Twitter @kpelton.