The Oklahoma City Thunder, quite literally, have always had Kevin Durant.
When the Sonics ditched Seattle under nefarious circumstances, they had a lanky young superstar who endeared them to fans across the world.
When Patrick Beverley crashed into Russell Westbrook’s knee during the first round of the 2013 playoffs, they had Durant to carry them until the Grizzlies’ expert defense squeezed the Thunder’s all-Durant all-the-time offense in a vise grip. He ran pick-and-rolls, sprinted off pin-down screens for unblockable jumpers, isolated on the wing, and sometimes just pulled up for 28-footers — because he could, and because the Thunder needed him to.
When two more surgeries knocked Westbrook out for much of last season, Durant went bananas with the same solo act, scoring at will and winning the MVP.
When Serge Ibaka strained his calf before last season’s conference finals, the Thunder tried to cope by shifting Durant to power forward more than usual.
Durant can fill almost any hole. He’s a near 7-footer capable of running the point, with a jumper so lethal that he contorts defenses simply by running around the floor away from the ball.
Now he’s gone for at least six weeks with a Jones fracture, a tricky break in a thin bone that runs along the outside of the foot. It is one of the most common injuries in basketball, according to trainers and medical experts, and most players make a full recovery in a time frame at least in the ballpark of the six- to eight-week range the Thunder mentioned Sunday. Some players take longer to heal, some don’t heal properly the first time around, and some — including Yao Ming, Brook Lopez, and Roddy Beaubois — suffer repeated injuries to places along the same bone.
If this is really a 15- or 20-game injury, the Thunder will be fine. Their early-season schedule is on the easy side for a Western Conference team, and they have the horses to tread water. They’ll win three or four fewer games than they would manage at full health, but this team at full health is so damn vicious that it might not even be enough to drop them outside the top three in the West.
But that would be enough to tilt their title odds in the wrong direction, as Kevin Pelton pointed out. Dropping behind the Spurs and Clippers raises the possibility of having to win two Game 7s on the road just to reach the Finals.
The Thunder would surely accept that no. 3 scenario now. Every team is going to have 20 games’ worth of serious injury issues scattered throughout the season. Durant might return in early December, and bad stuff will happen in San Antonio, Los Angeles, Portland, Memphis, and elsewhere in February and March. It may not even out, because there’s no evening out where Durant is concerned, but this is part of life in the NBA. You deal with it.
If this thing lingers into January or beyond, the story changes dramatically — and that’s before we even consider recurrences that could transform this into a multiyear ordeal. God forbid this becomes a chronic issue for a guy who should finish his career as one of the 10 greatest players ever.
The Thunder without Durant for 50 or 60 games could be a lottery team.1 We really have no idea. Any team with Westbrook and Ibaka pick-and-popping should be fine, and if the Thunder were in the East, they might make a run for the no. 3 spot behind Chicago and Cleveland. But this is the West, where it took 49 wins to make the playoffs last season — where perfectly nice professional basketball teams send dignitaries to sweat on the lottery dais with the Kings and Bucks.
What It Means for the Offense
Holy crap, could you imagine if these guys somehow got a lottery pick?
Durant’s singular greatness has allowed the Thunder to thrive on offense without any coherent system. It is part of the reason the Thunder, so young and so good, haven’t rushed the construction of that kind of system in some accelerated imitation of the Spurs. “We have a different team than them,” Nick Collison told me last week. “Everyone looks at us and says, ‘Why don’t they move the ball like the Spurs?’ But so much goes into building that, and we have two guys who can just take their guy and score. We do need to have more ball movement, but those guys can make plays.”
Without Durant, the need for movement and continuity becomes more urgent. This is a key test for coach Scott Brooks. Durant is the league’s most dangerous scorer, the rare player equally effective on and off the ball. He is Kyle Korver, only with the ball skills of a guard and the size to set picks and play power forward.
Westbrook is not nearly as useful without the ball, and the off-ball utility he has is limited mostly to screening for Durant — as part of an unorthodox pick-and-roll2 or in a pin-down play on which Brooks leans heavily. Say good-bye for now to those wonderful bits of Westbrook-Durant synergy.
The more common variety is Durant screening for Westbrook.
Westbrook’s chief skill, and it’s an amazing one, is a ferocious ability to dribble the ball toward the basket and accomplish something — a dunk, a drawn foul, or a drive-and-kick. We’re going to see a lot of that. You’ve surely read by now that Westbrook played just 41 minutes without Durant last season, and that he shot the ball about 182 times in those minutes.
It will be exciting to see Westbrook stretch himself. He’s probably going to lead the league in scoring and usage rate until Durant gets back. But he is not a multidimensional, on- and off-ball threat like Durant. He doesn’t instill panic running off screens, he can’t shoot over anyone at anytime, and he’s still in the early stages of developing a post-up game that has been useful against smaller point guards.
Defenses in today’s NBA, with loosened zone rules, can clog the paint and strangle even the world’s best drivers when they know what’s coming. Westbrook has come so far in his career, and much of the endless criticism aimed at him has been off base. He takes three or four terrible shots every game, sure, but he’s an unstoppable freight train going to the hoop, and he has made subtle improvements in his passing every season.
Durant’s gravity away from the ball, and his screens for Westbrook, have helped clear those paths to the basket. Space will be tighter now, though Brooks can tinker with the rotation to maximize it. The Thunder’s offense occasionally fizzled out when Durant was the lone scorer; it will happen more often with Westbrook.
It’s tempting to suggest that the Thunder should lean upon their defense, fifth in points allowed per possession last season, but that may not work in reality. Durant has been a huge part of the Thunder’s defensive ascension. His combination of length and quickness on the wing is unmatched; he is everywhere at once, deterring a drive in the paint and then scrambling out to the 3-point arc at a frightened shooter who avoids the jumper. Durant’s not an airtight defender, but he covers so much space — essential in the Thunder’s aggressive system.
When the Thunder want to goose the offense, as they’ll need to now, they shift Durant up to power forward. He can handle that job well enough in most matchups to make the offense/defense trade-off work. With Durant gone, there may not be a small-ball alignment potent enough to merit real minutes in search of some offense.
Who Will Fill the KD-Size Gap?
Prioritizing defense above all else will snuff out the Thunder offense. We see it every year. The Thunder starting lineup, with total offensive zeroes at shooting guard and center, goes through long fits of untenable brickage against tuned-in defenses. The plan until Sunday had been to continue that model, with Andre Roberson at shooting guard and Kendrick Perkins at center.
That has to change now. Brooks has to start an impactful offensive player in Durant’s spot. He cannot slide Perry Jones next to Roberson and hope for the best; Jones can’t shoot from outside the corners, and nobody even guards him there.
Everyone wants Jeremy Lamb to be ready, to bury the James Harden trade debate forever, but he’s a wispy, unaware defender who hasn’t made meaningful strides as a playmaker.
By the way: I get that Oklahoma City fans want everyone to stop talking about the Harden trade. It happened, it’s over, and it’s time to move on. But if Harden had played for any other team, I guarantee Oklahoma City fans today would be discussing it with the same passion it seems to bring out everywhere else. It is a fascinating deal — a landmark event that changed the course of league history.
Lots of variables went into Oklahoma City’s thought process in dealing Harden, but retaining financial flexibility — and nabbing some interesting assets in the process — was the most important. The Thunder didn’t want to pay the luxury tax, and signing a fourth massive deal would have made it difficult to construct a team below the tax — especially as those four core players came up for new contracts.
But the cap and tax are set to jump faster than anyone projected then, and it’s possible the Thunder could have given Harden the max and paid the tax in only one measly season — the 2013-14 campaign. That path would have required some hardships, including the use of the amnesty provision on Perkins and the likely loss of Reggie Jackson, but it appears to have been a financially viable path all the same.
Save for Jackson, the Thunder’s supplementary wing players have yet to work out. They’re very young, but Durant is 26 and headed for free agency in less than two years. Westbrook is 25. The title window is now. “We have all the answers in our building,” Collison said.
The Thunder could have taken another shot on a rotation player with the no. 29 pick in June’s draft, but they used it instead on Josh Huestis, who will spend the season in the D-League. The Thunder are only about $2 million below the tax, so wiping away the nearly $1 million Huestis would have made on the big club gives them some very limited breathing room. Nobody expected that 15th roster spot to matter, anyway.
That small buffer zone below the tax will make it hard for the Thunder to address the Durant injury with any major trade. They may have to ride this one out in-house. Executives are wondering if teams might be willing to swallow a one-year tax bill now, given the massive influx of TV money coming down the road. But that would not fit Oklahoma City’s past behavioral pattern, and any single tax payment starts the clock on the repeater tax.
Here’s a stat that has gotten a bit less play in the mania over the Westbrook takeover: Westbrook logged a hefty 280 minutes without Durant in the 2012-13 season, and the Thunder were monstrously good in those minutes. They destroyed the league on both ends of the floor, outscoring opponents by nearly 9.5 points per 100 possessions — a margin that would rank first or second overall in most seasons.
Most of those lineups featured Westbrook, Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, and two big men. That is the template to which Brooks can look now, and those numbers, even in that small 280-minute sample, are encouraging. Brooks could start Jackson as a sort of co–point guard for Westbrook, who is big enough to defend most shooting guards. The Thunder could slot a defensive-minded player, either Roberson or Jones, into Durant’s small forward spot alongside the Jackson-Westbrook duo. (This assumes the wrist injury Jackson suffered over the weekend against Dallas isn’t serious.)
Brooks could also insert Anthony Morrow on the wing alongside Westbrook and Jones/Roberson. Morrow isn’t in Jackson’s league as an off-the-bounce creator, but he’s one of the world’s deadliest shooters. Defenders cheat off Jackson, but they stick to Morrow like glue. Morrow also showed a bit more off-the-dribble verve last season in New Orleans, pumping-and-driving past defenders who rushed to close out on him when the ball swung his way.
Starting Morrow would allow Brooks to use Jackson as the lead dog on second units. That may not be politically palatable, since Jackson has agitated for a starting spot and might grow unhappy if he can’t even get one in the wake of a Durant injury. Brooks could start both his point guards and stagger minutes so one is fresh to run the second unit.
Regardless: Morrow or Jackson should start. It is the best way to keep the offense afloat, and the defense should survive as long as Ibaka, Westbrook, and one decent wing defender are out there with a second big.
The Thunder should also ramp up minutes for Steven Adams, a massive offensive upgrade over Perkins — provided he can keep his fouls under control. If Adams isn’t starting by the playoffs, it will mark something of a surprise.
Another silver lining: Brooks’s refusal to separate Westbrook and Durant at all last season gave the Thunder plenty of experience playing without both stars, something they’ll have to do more often during Durant’s absence. Four such lineups logged at least 25 minutes last season, and two of them cracked the 100-minute threshold, per NBA.com.
Those four groups performed unevenly over 299 combined minutes. The Thunder were minus-20 in that time, which sounds bad, but only amounts to a minus-3 scoring margin per 48 minutes — bad, but not disastrously bad.
The Thunder in those non-Westbrook/Durant minutes would revert to almost an entirely different offense than they used when their ballhandling stars were on the court. They ran a lot of Jerry Sloan–style flex offense — simple stuff, with big men at the elbows, and lots of cutting and screening off the ball. Collison’s heady screening, passing, and dribble handoff game is always handy in creating a useful shot, and the Thunder might even consider starting him — as they did twice in the playoffs last season — if the need for more offense proves urgent.
Toss in some Jackson pick-and-rolls, and the Thunder bench groups produced a decent smattering of shots — kind of surprising, considering the talent on the floor.
None of these answers is great. Starting Player X might help at the outset of every game, but it has a bad trickle-down effect. This is life without an all-time-great player. The Thunder can muddle through for two months, but every missed Durant game has, at least, a slight impact on their title chances. An absence much longer than expected, now or after a dreaded reinjury, could put the entire organization in chaos.