With Kevin Durant set to miss the first 20+ games of the regular season but prognosis positive on his future health, we turn to what the Thunder need to do in the meantime so that they don't get buried in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. A year ago Durant carved out his own niche in NBA history by winning the league MVP while Russell Westbrook missed nearly half the season with a knee injury. Can Westbrook do the same? What about the rest of the team?
WTLC's writers offer up their own take on the situation, examining where this leaves the Thunder today, who should start now, and where the team will end up down the road.
Question 1: Where does Durant's foot injury leave the Thunder today?
Kevin Yeung: The Thunder probably drop from having a win total in the 55-60 range to about 50-55 or so. That could be a drop to the middle seeds (3-5) but honestly, that's not a huge deal. If you're the best or second best team in the conference, it doesn't matter who you play really. I'm assuming they'll come across the San Antonio Spurs sooner or later anyway.
Down to Dunk crew: It is time for someone else to step up. Someone out of the Andre Roberson, Perry Jones, and Jeremy Lamb crew is going to emerge as a real contributor to the Thunder. They will all get a chance, and one will play significant minutes even when Durant returns. Oh and it also means we will be sad and never take Durant's contributions for granted ever again.
Justin Danziger: Simple. The Thunder start off the season without the league's MVP. Realistically, Durant will only be gone for the first 3-5 weeks of the season. While it may seem like missing a few games in the beginning of the season is no big deal, the Western Conference is always a tight race. Last season, the difference between the 2nd and 5th seeds was just 5 games. The young guys will have to step up and understand their importance now more than ever.
Craig Brenner: I don't know if there is ever a good time to have your superstar, reigning MVP, and the second best player in the NBA to get injured but there are worse times for it to happen. It is better to find out that Kevin Durant is injured two and a half weeks before the season than if this injury happened in January. Timing is everything in the NBA and any time you lose Kevin Durant it is going to suck but losing him in early October gives the Thunder some time to adjust to life without the Durantula.
Chris Hanneke: The Russell Westbrook 4 MVP campaign can officially start. Players rankings are so subjective and can go so many ways, but I've been captain of the "Russell Westbrook is the 3rd-best player in the league" bandwagon for about six months now. It started in the postseason, when Westbrook began influencing games in every way imaginable. He's made it through his own bout with injuries and seems to have come out none the worse for wear. This is a golden opportunity to show just how gifted he truly is at being the leader of an offense. He's improved each and every year in that department, slowly but surely silencing the critics, and his time to shine is now.
Question 2: Who should start while Durant is out of action?
Kevin: For the starting 5, I'd go with Westbrook, Jackson, Roberson, Ibaka and Adams. That lineup is going to be starved for shooting, but you can appease Jackson and make him a starter for a while. Getting the team's two best non-Durant scorers and the offense probably has its best chance of staying afloat (and I don't trust Jeremy Lamb or Anthony Morrow in the starting lineup). Westbrook and Jackson would thrive in a Phoenix Suns-style system where the serve as interchangeable ball-handlers and take advantage of their speed, though that's contingent on Scott Brooks running his offense that way.
There's probably going to be some concern with the backup point guard spot, but Brooks has proven to juggle minutes well before. It shouldn't be impossible to keep one of Russ and RJax on the floor throughout most of a game, and it won't hurt too much if you have to rely on Sebastian Telfair to spot like eight minutes a game. The lesser of two evils, at least.
DTD: I think this is where you let Perry Jones have a chance to prove himself. He is the most natural 3 offensively and can defend the position as well. Keeping the fire power of Jackson, Lamb, and Morrow coming off the bench would be nice for continuities sake. The big question is, what does the offense look like with Westbrook, Roberson, PJIII, Ibaka, and Adams? I expect Westbrook to be in constant triple double mode. If Roberson proves to not provide adequate space for Westbrook to operate, you could sub him for Morrow or Lamb.
Justin: If I am Scott Brooks I want another scorer out on the floor. I don't want Westbrook to feel the weight of having to be the only scorer. Therefore, Reggie Jackson should start at shooting guard and Andre Roberson at small forward. First off, it can be like an experiment to see how Jackson responds to a starting role at the 2. Secondly, missing out on Durant is an immeasurable blow to OKC's offense. Other than Westbrook, Jackson is the only other legitimate scoring threat in the back court. Have Jeremy Lamb energize the bench, it could be a nice role for him.
Craig: I am a firm believer in you start your five best players when at all possible. We saw this happen last season in the playoffs for the Thunder when Scott Brooks started bench superstar Reggie Jackson. That is what the Thunder should do right now. Start Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson, Anthony Morrow, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams. I know this takes away the bench scoring and the the depth the Thunder have come a costumed to over the last few seasons but when you lose Kevin Durant everything else suffers from that. The key for Brooks will be making sure he never finds himself in a situation where neither Westbrook or Jackson are on the floor.
Chris: I understand the idea that you should start your five best guys, but the Thunder have never really adhered to that, anyway (see: Perkins, Kendrick). The Thunder survived Westbrook's absence largely because Reggie Jackson is a really good sub, sure, but also because they maintained at least some level of continuity. Putting Morrow at the shooting guard spot and starting any of the Lamb/Jones/Roberson lot (heck, try them all!) at SF gives the Thunder at least mild threats on the wing to allow Westbrook more space to attack early on - something he's always been very good at anyway. It also allows Jackson to stay in control of the second unit, something that will be more important than ever now that points as a whole will be harder to come by.
Question 3: What does Durant's injury mean for the Thunder in the long term?
Kevin: The fun thing here is that Andre Roberson, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III are going to be thrown into the fire here. It's a chance for them to prove themselves and gain some valuable real-game experience. If they flop, the worst case scenario is the Thunder end up falling to like the fifth seed or something. If they pan out, the Thunder have a deeper bench for the playoffs and a valuable young depth piece moving forward.
DTD: Long term, the Durant injury gives the duo of Westbrook and Ibaka time to gel more and to refine their pick and roll game. Ibaka is a noted pick and pop player, but with added strength this offseason Ibaka is sure to see more time in the paint this season. Ibaka is going to get his chance to shoulder more of the load on offense as well. With a top flight point guard leading the way it's a perfect storm for Serge Ibaka to take the next step in his career. This is also a chance for Scott Brooks to prove his coaching chops. There has been much talk of a new more pass oriented offense. This team is now lacking the best one on one scorer in the game and will need to rely more than ever on passing. Let's hope this new offense is a real thing. If it is, Durant may find himself with the best Thunder team he's been a part of come December.
Justin: Like I said before, losing some games at the beginning of the season could potentially mean OKC falls to a 3-5 seed. However, I feel like that won't be the case. The only worrisome question on my mind is, "will this be a lingering issue?" Will KD fully recover from the surgery and will he ever come across another foot fracture? Let's wish him a speedy recovery.
Craig: The long term effects of this injury could be very interesting. First off, how time is Durant going to miss? Reports are it is going to be 6-8 weeks and the Thunder are exploring possible surgery options for Durant. What happens if there are complications and that 6-8 timetable now shifts to 8-12 weeks? When you start floating out timetables people start having expectations on when their superstar should be back. And if the timetable shifts people get worried that it is something worse. We saw a little of this with Westbrook and his knee injury. Thankfully for the Thunder when that happened they still had KD to pick up the work load.
Another concern is how big of a hole does this put the Thunder in the Western Conference. Lest we forget how insanely deep the West was last season. There are the reigning champions in the San Antonio Spurs, along with the Clippers, Rockets, Warriors and the Blazers. The Mavericks and the Suns appear to have approved upon last season. And call me crazy but I think the Pelicans will be a force in the West as well being that they have the next great superstar in the league. I don't think the Thunder are in any danger of not making the playoffs but the last few seasons the Thunder have finished at or near the top of the Western Conference. That is going to be a lot harder to do when you are missing Kevin Durant for an extended period of time.
How does the offense look without Durant there? We saw what the offense looked like without the spark plug Russell Westbrook last season. I am a huge Westbrook fan and think he will be up to the task of trying to fill Durant's shoes but what happens to the rest of the guys on offense? Serge Ibaka now becomes the second option on the team and any thought that he is going to make the jump to being a consistent night in and night out offensive force has left the building. Does everyone start trying too hard and pressing too much on offense because they know KD isn't there to bail them out? I am worried about everyone not named Westbrook when it comes to the offense sans Durantula. The silver lining is that this is the chance for Westbrook to show everyone he is a top five player and the best point guard in the NBA.
Chris: Worst case scenario, of course, is that the Thunder struggle, Durant comes back but doesn't look right, continues to battle a foot injury all year (or, gulp, career) and the Thunder never recover. That's obviously an extreme circumstance, and it's also entirely possible that it just means the young guys will get more experience playing basketball at a high level. Then, by the time the games start to actually matter, we won't see the Thunder revert to their old selves and play Westbrook and Durant vs. the world, because the entire roster will be more confident in their ability to influence games.
In truth, it's a giant question mark, but KD seems to be taking it in stride:
It's all good. Thanks for the love. I'll be fine, it's a great year to be a thunder as the great @ROYALTIVEY would say— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) October 13, 2014
He's never led us astray before, so maybe it's best to take his word for it, wait until he heals, and enjoy the Westbrook show in the meantime. It could end up being pretty fun.
Tell us what you think of our experts' opinions below as well as what you think the solution is for the Thunder to stay afloat!