When the news initially hit that Kevin Durant would be out indefinitely, likely long-term, to rehab a Jones fracture suffered earlier in the season, it seemed to be another crippling blow to an Oklahoma City Thunder team already expecting to be without Serge Ibaka for the next 4-to-6 weeks. (Ibaka, the eternal optimist, hopes that timetable will be a bit shorter.)
In reality, this Thunder team has already been materially different from squads of years past. A team once reliant on Durant and Russell Westbrook to goose their offense and Ibaka to anchor the defense has adjusted amid injury woes that aren't just of the moment, but instead have seemed constant all season long.
You have to look no further than the acquisitions the team made on the NBA's trade deadline day for proof. Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler aren't superstars, but for a Thunder front office that has typically erred conservative on the trade market, that particular three-way trade where they moved Reggie Jackson among others is easily the greatest blip in the Thunder's trade history since trading Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins (also moved on deadline day) in 2011.
It's a matter of urgency. The Thunder don't have time to dawdle while their players drop like flies, not when Durant leaving in 2016 amid the league's greatest cap boom ever is a real possibility. Exporting first-round picks for bodies helped the Thunder play catch-up ball against the injury bug.
Getting Kanter, who has become the starting center in part due to an injury to Steven Adams that segued into Ibaka's injury now, and the others (including Dion Waiters, an acquisition made earlier in the season) has radically changed the Thunder. Injuries have played a big hand in the Thunder failing to rediscover their past form as two-way beasts, but even within this season, there has been a seismic shift in the way the team has performed.
Even with those numbers, injuries have made a huge difference: the Thunder missed both Durant and Westbrook for most of November, and a nagging injury bug has continued to skew the numbers in various directions.
But since the trade deadline, the team has become elite on offense – something that has continued even without Durant in the lineup – while seeing a significant drop-off on defense with or without Ibaka. In 238 minutes together, the Ibaka-Kanter duo has allowed 109.2 points per 100 possessions, a mark worse than the 30th-ranked Minnesota Timberwolves has posted all season long.
A free-falling defense
Scott Brooks has always been one to talk up the defensive backbone of this team, and so this new development where the Thunder about as resistant as a sheet of plywood is bizarre and unsettling. Barring further injury (God help us), this is the team that the team will head towards the end of the regular season with. Bizarre and unsettling can lead to concern real quick.
Kanter, a notoriously poor defender when he was acquired from the Utah Jazz, has quite literally been at the center of the problem. Previously, with the Thunder sporting a frontline of Ibaka and Adams, Brooks would never have to worry about such things as rim protection, pick-and-rolls or stretch fours. Whatever the matchup or opposing game-plan, both players could handle it. They were well-coordinated on the perimeter, and one was always behind the other, ready to extinguish easy looks in the paint.
With the change in the starting lineup, the entire defensive ecosystem was thrown into flux. The presence of Kanter, a big man who can neither protect the rim nor defend the perimeter, has forced Ibaka and Adams into roles that even they can't manage. Brooks typically deploys Kanter, a traditional center, against his positional ilk, leaving Ibaka and shifting Adams down to defend rangier big men. Those two are lighter on their feet, and Kanter has the bulk to hold up against post-up bullies.
In today's NBA, however, post-ups are the least of the Thunder's problems. A well-spaced offense, anchored by shooting and triggered by drives, is the norm for most modern offenses around the league. With Kanter, the Thunder can't defend those offenses anymore. Kanter is a liability on defense, and when Ibaka or Adams have to cover for him, this is what happens:
With Ibaka out now, things could easily continue to go south – Adams' natural position is center for a reason. On this play, Adams doesn't even get close to scaring Chandler Parsons out of his shot:
In fact, Scott Brooks might be better off flipping the defensive assignments. Leaving Adams (or Ibaka) against centers will give him a better shot at deterring layups, and even if Kanter is something close to clueless on the perimeter, the Thunder can at least give themselves a shot to recover by forcing a kick-out.
In the era of Kendrick Perkins, problems like this were stuffed by a committee of wingspan and activity that bordered on chaotic. Condors would roam the court in Thunder jerseys, closing out on shooters and forcing extra passes with the length of their arms.
These days, Dion Waiters, Anthony Morrow, D.J. Augustin and Kyle Singler are rotation cogs for the Thunder. Sure, Durant's absence, which has not only meant the absence of his 7'4" wingspan but also a decline in minutes for defensive savant Andre Roberson as more offensive-minded wings are needed to compensate, has exaggerated the problem some. But the threat of collective length in the Thunder rotation is not what it used to be, and with more minus defenders in, it's harder to contain the inside-out attack.
The Thunder likely expected this (though maybe not to this degree) when they added those guys. It was a gamble they took that their defense could take a blow to add some extra spice on offense after years of scraping the bottom of the barrel for Derek Fishers and Caron Butlers to space their offense. At full health, that gamble might've paid off. More of Durant, which also would've meant more Roberson and some relief for Westbrook on offense, might've helped them achieve a better two-way balance.
With Durant's timetable uncertain now, things are harder to predict. Over their last few, the Thunder have won their games on the back of a hyperpowered offense. They haven't scored anything less than the 104 points they managed in their first game out of the All-Star break, and you have to go all the way back to January 31st for when they last finished a game in double-digits. (They mustered just 74 points on that day against the Memphis Grizzlies, a point total which just seems alien now.)
Westbrook and (new) friends powering the offense
The backbone of this run might operate on limited fuel. Westbrook is NBA Jam hot right now, slashing and kicking his way to a league-leading nine triple-doubles with seven since the All-Star break. He's getting to the free throw line at near-James Harden levels, and playing with the maniacal frenzy of a guy who has long waited to have the spotlight to himself.
But as Seth Partnow pointed out at Washington Post's #FancyStats blog earlier this month, nobody has shouldered more of an offensive workload for his team than Westbrook has sans Durant. Fatigue could be on the horizon, as it appeared to be in January after Westbrook's romp through December. His monthly splits then: 28.3 points on a 54.1% true shooting percentage in December, 21.1 on 46.1% in January. You have to figure constant coast-to-coast dashes eventually begin to wear on a guy, even if said guy is half Terminator.
The chaser here is that this offense was, again, revamped with some new faces to actually remain good. There's a reason Kanter plays, and it's because the guy has been so damn good on one end of the floor. He's been the smooth pick-and-roll finisher that Westbrook has apparently been yearning for all this time, a natural target for dump-offs when defenders get sucked into Westbrook drives, and a hoarder of offensive rebounds. Kanter's offensive rebound percentage with the Thunder of 17.9% would be second in the league, and he's gobbled up a great chunk of the misses that Westbrook's high-volume approach generates.
Removing Ibaka for the jumper-less Adams has cramped the interior spacing, so far a real concern. In 97 minutes with Kanter and Adams together, the Thunder have scored just 98.6 points per 100 possessions. Having Nick Collison, who provides a just respectable enough mix of defensive smarts and spacing from the corner, would be nice, but he's out for the next ten days with an ankle sprain.
That being said, don't close the book on the Kanter-Adams duo yet. They've spent almost half of their playing time together with both Waiters and Roberson on the court, and roughly two-thirds with Waiters. With Roberson being a complete non-shooter and Waiters grossly inconsistent, that was always going to be an untenable situation.
The Thunder may yet find luck if they add more perimeter spice into the mix, even if that means renouncing Roberson's defense from the rotation entirely. Morrow is the best candidate for more playing time: he's worked hard to turn around a miserable defensive reputation, and since the All-Star break, has shot a scintillating 51.9% from deep on nearly five attempts per game. Look at what the threat of his jumper can do for Kanter, even with Adams' presence compacting the floor:
It greatly helps that Kanter has a midrange game defenses have to respect, and can finish through contact with a hopstep or good old-fashioned bully-ball. Westbrook will always command the direct attention of at least two or three guys, so there's real leeway here for Kanter.
The Thunder may also benefit from less of Waiters in general. He's been a bust since the Thunder traded for him, shooting 37.9% from the field and 27.4% from three. The prevailing hope may have been that Waiters could replace the since-departed Reggie Jackson as a sparkplug scorer off the bench, but he hasn't been able to break free of the ball-stopping chucker image imposed on him in his Cleveland days.
Scott Brooks' other new toys haven't wowed individually, but they're well worth a look over Waiters for spacing alone. D.J. Augustin is a bit too scrawny for shooting guard and Kyle Singler has a 29.1% field goal percentage since joining the Thunder, but both have respectable three-point percentages after coming from Detroit: 33.9% and 33.3% respectively. From what we know of them by their pre-Thunder past, those marks can reach a higher ceiling, odds less friendly with Waiters. Teams by large still consider Augustin and Singler as sort of dangerous from outside.
The solutions aren't perfect. Such is the case for a top-heavy team with two-thirds of its top tier leveled by injuries. It's to Sam Presti's credit that the trade he made on deadline day, which gave the Thunder additional offensive tools, gives them a chance today. Imagine having to deal with the Durant and Ibaka injuries by plugging in Reggie Jackson, Kendrick Perkins and Jeremy Lamb!
The Thunder may have slim odds at the championship today, with both a bar fight for the eighth seed and a potential first round matchup against the league-best Golden State Warriors ahead of them. But you never know. With Westbrook out for blood and new faces just good enough to avoid sinking, there's life – and hope – yet in this team. In the face of all these injuries, how great would it be to snap off a postseason run?