A while back, after the Kevin Durant injury, I wrote on the Oklahoma City Thunder's run of bad luck in the playoffs. What I said then was that with two more seasons before Durant is faced with the opportunity to leave, excuses of bad luck won't cut it. This team needs its success now, no matter what.
As it's turned out, we hadn't even seen the worst of it. Anthony Morrow quickly followed Durant to the inactive list with a sprained MCL that will likely keep him out until December, and he was joined by a number of others that were sidelined with shorter day-to-day injuries, including Reggie Jackson (since returned) and Jeremy Lamb. On opening night, the Thunder were fielding a total of nine players, including a hodgepodge bench of Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, Sebastian Telfair and Lance Thomas.
And as you undoubtedly already know, the next blow would be the worst. Russell Westbrook is out for the next 4-6 weeks after fracturing his right hand against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Westbrook-for-MVP banner that the team's fans could rally under (or more accurately, follow the charge led by WTLC's Chris Hanneke) through the Durant-less stretch has now been stolen away as well.
The Thunder have been knocked down from their pedestal at the top of the league to a place much closer to the netherworld where teams like the Philadelphia 76ers dwell. This was their starting lineup in their third game of the season: Telfair, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams. Their bench was cut down to three players, all forwards, pushing Jones into double duty as the backup point guard.
This is going to be a war of attrition for the Thunder. They've seen bad luck before, like the Westbrook injury of the 2012 playoffs and the Ibaka injury in last season's, but nothing like this that knocks out their two best players, plus a number of their supporting cast, for significant time. Unlike the 76ers, the Thunder are still thinking championship this year, but now they're faced with the unenviable task of having to claw their way into the playoffs. They have to grit their teeth and outlast the injury bug so that they can even have a shot at the deep postseason run they can surely make. It's a bizarre and frustrating existence for a team that won 59 games last year with two of the NBA's best players leading the way.
Today, the Thunder are 1-3. Jackson came back against the Brooklyn Nets, and Lamb is due back soon. Still, they might go 20 games before Durant and Westbrook return. If they go 5-15 (a completely arbitrary guess), then they'd have to go 44-18 (a 0.710 winning percentage) just to get to 49 wins, which was what the 8th-seeded Dallas Mavericks had last season.
It's not impossible for the Thunder to make the playoffs, and the Thunder had a .720 winning percentage for all of last season. But it'll likely be a tight finish, and the margin for error will be uncomfortably slim for a team with so much on the line. Durant's free agency in 2016 looms over everything related to team success right now.
Adversity can make one stronger, and the guys being thrown into the fire may emerge with the very tangible benefit of real experience molding them into helpful contributors. Since Westbrook went down, Jones has averaged 23.7 points per game. Ibaka, who has never had to create offense before, is averaging 18.3 points as he begins to expand his game past the same catch-and-shoot shots that were his sole domain under Durant and Westbrook. The freshly returned Jackson will finally have a chance to step into the lead role he's wanted and prove he's capable of being the star player that he wants to be.
That's the spirit it'll take to survive the coming weeks. In spite of a turn to flex sets by Scott Brooks, this isn't about X-and-O's anymore. Incorporating natural motion to sets may help later, but the pressure is on today. Individual guys, many of whom have never even chipped in to a successful team's effort in the NBA, will now be pushed into the front and center to lead the way. Things weren't supposed to happen this way, but now we'll truly get to see the mettle of guys like Jones and Lamb. For the Thunder to tread water, they'll need everyone still standing to rise up.
Sam Presti is sure to be working the phones these days, even if only to swap for somebody else's third string point guard. The Thunder might have some success filing a request for an extra roster spot, even if it's only temporary. But these only help fill out the edges, without guaranteeing what it'll take to survive in a cutthroat Western Conference. That will only come with internal improvement. Sink or swim, our hopes are anchored to the Thunder B Team now, until Durant and Westbrook return.
These next weeks will be tough, and it's a terrible way to kick off the counter-#KD2DC era that the Thunder are in now. But if there's one bright side, it's that this war of attrition isn't an endgame like the injuries of the past that knocked the Thunder down a man in the middle of the playoffs. This one lets hope live on, even if it has to squirm through the 39-minute, 4-point nights from Sebastian Telfair to do so. There is a day where the bad injury luck dries out. The Thunder just have to remain in play until then.