If you're not living under a rock, you've probably heard by now that Kevin Durant will be sidelined for the first few weeks of the season with a Jones fracture in his right foot. It's pretty devastating news, but nothing that we haven't heard before. In the middle of last season, a season that had similarly high expectations, the Thunder had to deal with an injury to Russell Westbrook. Russ obviously brings a different presence to the team than KD does, but a lot of the issues are the same. Throughout this article, I'm going to compare some of the key areas of the two situations and identify whether the 2014 scenario can give us some insight as to how 2014 will go down.
2013: Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook is the heart and soul of the Thunder team, despite Durant being the official leader. Westbrook might appear distant in pre-game routines, but he's a complete animal on the court. Russ is truly capable of single handedly saving or torpedoing your team at any time, moreso than any other player in the NBA.
Losing such a chaotic force definitely took away a lot of the bite and personality the Thunder once had. The team lost several degrees of athleticism and open floor ability, and definitely had a harder time forcing their game. Still, the team was able to achieve a degree of consistency that the team had never really seen before. OKC dished out additional possessions to players with more known offensive roles, and were thus more able to find the hot hand from night to night.
2014: Kevin Durant
The departure of Kevin Durant is much more worrisome. Westbrook posts some insane stats, but as I mentioned above, his primary impact is on the games pace and attitude. He's like the nitro boost for the Thunder's car. But losing Kevin Durant is like losing the car's engine. KD does so many of the things that make the team what it is so efficiently from night to night. It's almost impossible to see the team seamlessly replacing all of those parts without some serious fine-tuning.
How do the Thunder look without KD? Well, the starting lineup likely loses a lot of scoring punch. Even putting in the team's greatest bench scorer (Jackson or Morrow, depending on how you look at it), there's no way you can really replicate KD's offensive production. The result is a little bit more increased offensive responsibility for Westbrook and whomever the bench replacement might be. Perkins, Ibaka, and Roberson will all likely see little effect on their roles. In terms of the bench, I'm willing to bet that guys like Adams, Jones III, Jerrett, Lamb, and Telfair all have a shot at getting extra possessions during KD's forced vacation. McGary would also be on that list, were he not hurt.
How many games, and when?
2013: 27 Games (20-7 Record). From Dec 27th-Feb 13th.
2014: Estimated 15-25 games. From the start of the season until some time in December.
The key difference here is when. Both stretches are long enough to where you really can't break each one down by matchup. 21 games is basically a fourth of the season and 2/3rds of the teams in the NBA, so it's not likely that either team will have an overtly harder or easier go of it. But the 2013 team had a body of work behind it, and a ready-made replacement for Russell Westbrook in the starting lineup. The 2014 team will be integrating Anthony Morrow, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones III, and Andre Roberson into the regular rotation for the very first time. Everyone but Morrow has yet to prove that they can put in valuable minutes from night to night, no matter how high their hype might be. The Thunder have the rest of the pre-season to work it out, but Brooks has used his rotations so sparingly that it's hard to see those games being of much help.
Thus, it's much more of a possibility that this 2014 team faces some sort of unceremonious collapse. There's a really good article over at Pounding the Rock as to how that scenario might go down, ala the 1996 Spurs. But before you think about how quickly Westbrook returned from his off-season injury in 2013, remember that KD likely won't be able to pull off a similar feat. KD's injury has a much shorter timetable for return that Russ' initial injury did. Furthermore, as shown to us by Dr. David Geier, there's not much the athlete can do to speed the recovery, other than waiting for it to heal.
Was it beneficial?
2013: Mixed Results
The 2013 edition of the Thunder did see some benefit from Russell Westbrook's absence. The most obvious was the emergence of Kevin Durant as the #1 MVP candidate that season. KD had to keep the Thunder competitive, forcing him to keep the ball in his own hands more often than he normally would. The end result were some unrealistically awesome point totals in Westbrook's absence. Overall, KD would shoot below 40% only three times during that period, and never below 38%. All while taking a minimum of 13 shots a game.
Reggie Jackson saw some increased usage as well. His overall performance was a mixed bag, as he was definitely more involved and getting more numbers, but still struggling to shoot and avoid turning the ball over on a consistent basis. However, it could be argued that Jackson got to get his first flirtations with being a crunch time player. This paid off tremendously in the playoffs, as RJ was able to basically single-handedly win us Game 4 of the first round against the Grizzlies, as well as play a role in later key contests.
Jeremy Lamb was probably the last player to get significantly more burn during Westbrook's injury. Lamb was given a few plays to run, and helped a lot on the weak-side. Lamb;s production had peaks and valleys, but he looked to be sustainable enough to give the team some scoring punch during the playoffs. Brooks and the Thunder front office had other plans, though. A late-season signing of Caron Butler would see Lamb back on the bench. Butler, by most accounts, was a net negative for the Thunder. Still, it did enable the Thunder to try someone other than Lamb, who has been a big pile of malaise in the 2014 Pre-Season. The jury's still out on whether Lamb could have done better than Butler, but at least Westbrook's injury let the Thunder know what they had.
I don't see the 2014 injury as being a bad thing. Obviously, the biggest potential benefit is that this clears 38 minutes a game for the Thunder to mess around with their younger players and integrate new faces into the lineup. OKC has been relatively injury-free overall, so they've had trouble knowing exactly what's outside of their regular rotation. This proved to be a serious problem, especially during the Thunder's earlier playoff runs. In short, Big Blue would run into matchup issues against various teams, yet have no real way to majorly shift the lineup to their benefit. Brooks has gotten better about this over the years, but at least this injury will force him to look deep early.
The only real worry coming out of this stems from a lack of wins. It seems like the Thunder are a serious contender, but reality is that only a few games separated them from the hungry pack of animals that is the Western conference. Should Westbrook struggle early, the Thunder could be playing a game of stressful catch up as the season wears on.
Bonus: Ibaka Watch
The one enigma hanging over all of this is Serge Ibaka. Ibaka massively improved over his first two years in the league. He hasn't really plateaued since then, but hasn't really been able to break out as a star on his own, either. His shooting mechanics see improvement, but Ibaka still struggles to create space, and coaches still have their doubts about whether his presence at the three point line is really needed. Furthermore, he still has no sense of a post-up game, which is probably his most major flaw.
So it was assumed that when Russell Westbrook went out in 2013, Ibaka's production might see a major dip. Serge is on the receiving end of a lot of Russ' passes, and really benefits when Westbrook makes room on the floor. A few games into 2013 though, Ibaka quickly managed to resume his previous production. I'm expecting Durant's absence for have a similar effect. Initially, Ibaka might struggle to find room without Durant's presence, but he's the type of player that can score as long as someone else is considered a threat or feeding him the ball. And Westbrook will always feed him the ball.
How do you think this run will play out compared to 2013? Let us know in the comments!