So you may have heard... Kevin Durant, reigning MVP and bedrock of the Thunder's championship hopes, was ruled out for the rest of the season to have foot surgery. This is sad. So what is the state of the Thunder? It is a weird place to be for the Thunder, their best player is out for the season, Russell Westbrook is in the MVP race, and there is still an 8 seed to secure. There are a lot of questions that his not playing brings, and we will dive into some of those.
Before we get too into this, we need to talk about the drama that the Thunder bring. I am convinced that in a couple of years, ABC could make a really terrible drama about what goes on with the Thunder on and off the court. It really is unreal how many storylines that come from a team from Oklahoma City. Early on it was the Russell Westbrook vs Kevin Durant thing, there was Russell Westbrook can't play the point, the Harden trade (don't worry, we'll get to that later), the Reggie Jackson vs everyone dynamic, now its their two superstars being hurt. And of course that completely glosses over how the team came to be in OKC in the first place.
Back to the questions.
Do the Thunder have any legitimate chance to win it all this year?
Yes and no. The Thunder still have one of the top 4 players in the league right now and have played in the Western Conference Finals 3 of the last 4 years, so they know how to win. But let's be real. They can't win multiple playoff series the way they are right now. It would be a battle to win just one. If it is the Warriors that the Thunder play in the 1st round, the Thunder have a very small chance of winning more than 2 games. I never thought I would say that, but the Warriors are that good. The Thunder have a small chance first because they have Russell Westbrook. That dude is good enough to singlehandedly win games. They would need a healthy Serge Ibaka, and Dion Waiters would need to suddenly transform into Dwyane Wade.
I think though that if the Thunder want to win in the playoffs (even if it is just one series) they have to get the 7 seed and avoid the Warriors in order to get the Grizzlies, who are the 2 seed right now. That seems a bit presumptuous considering the situation, but I don't think it is the craziest thing. As it stands, the Thunder are 3.5 games back of the Mavericks with 10 games to go. That would be a big jump, especially when you consider that the Thunder still have to play the Grizzlies, Rockets, and the Spurs. But it's also about the team that they are chasing. The Mavericks are volatile to say the least. They are 6-6 in March and still have games with Golden State, the Rockets, the Blazers, and most importantly the Thunder in OKC on April 1st.
The Thunder's chances against the Grizzlies in a 7 games series also aren't great, but they are better than against the Warriors. And that is what is important. If the Thunder want a legitimate chance to steal a series they have a far better chance doing it with the Grizzlies for several reasons. First of all, Memphis just isn't as talented as Golden State. The Grizzlies are an anomaly in the NBA today, a team that relies on paint touches, wants to slow it down a bit, and doesn't shoot many 3's; their offense can be slowed down. The Thunder, when healthy, have 5 legitimate bigs (Steven Adams, Serge Ibaka, Enes Kanter, Nick Collison, Mitch McGary) that they could throw at Randolph and Gasol. I know Enes really struggles defensively, but the Thunder have yet to play the Griz with a big that can score like Kanter. Moral of the story, the Thunder are going to struggle to win a playoff series no matter what, but their chances increase with the 7 seed.
Is Kevin Durant the next Bill Walton?
I really really really really hope not.
Only Michael Jordan (retired) & Bill Walton (injured) played fewer games as reigning MVP than Kevin Durant this year: pic.twitter.com/PcqkGNWEzy— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 27, 2015
Foot injuries are scary. There is a list of people that have had similar injuries and come back fine. Julio Jones of the Atlanta Falconshad surgery 2 years ago and had the best season of his career last year for Atlanta. I know that is football, but it is possible to come back healthy in a sport that puts a pounding on an athlete's feet. And just as there is a list of people who have come back, there is probably a longer list of people that have been largely affected. Yao Ming's career ended prematurely because of feet problems centered around a Jones Fracture. So there is no real way to know how Durant will respond, Thunder fans just have to hope that it all heals well.
What does this do for the Thunder's future?
It certainly makes things a bit more interesting. Next season is going to embody the phrase "championship or bust." Think about it. Next season could be everyone's last chance to win with the core group in Oklahoma City. As it stands right now, Kevin Durant has been in the league for 8 years and has been to one Finals and multiple Conference Finals with one group. The clock is ticking though on Kevin Durant as a player. Michael Jordan won his first NBA championship in his 7th season and Lebron got his first in his 9th season. It's not news that championships are largely what makes a player's legacy, and Kevin Durant has to feel that pressure to cement his legacy. So what does Durant do if the Thunder don't win next year?
Let's just play hypotheticals for a second. Let's say you are Kevin Durant and you come back next season and come back mostly healthy. He might have to sit out a couple games here and there because of the foot but he has another great season and the Thunder finish with the 2nd seed in the west and end up losing to the Warriors in the Western Conference finals. What do you do? It's your 9th season and you came up short again in OKC. You had another great season but you have to be somewhat concerned about your foot and the longevity of your career, you understand that going into your 10th season with questionable foot issues means you better win ASAP. And isn't one of the thoughts you have if you are Kevin Durant is that if you can't win in OKC in 9 years with another top 10 player in the league, it just isn't going to happen there?
Now, I'm not saying that Kevin Durant is just gone if the Thunder don't win next year, but the injury and him losing a year could make it easier for him to leave. I can't say it enough, next year is HUGE!
And that is where the Harden trade effect comes in. That trade will forever mark the Thunder and Sam Presti. It's like Durant's injury hurts even more because everyone still always thinks "what if this team still had James Harden." And if they still had James Harden they might have won numerous NBA championships, and then the stress of getting that first one would be gone. If Kevin had won a championship already, I don't think his injury right now would feel just so large. A part of me thinks that is what has played into Russell and Kevin being so short and frustrated with the media, is that they have such an immense pressure on them to prove to everyone that the trade doesn't matter and they can win anyway. Remember how big of a deal it was that LeBron hadn't won a title, it was all anyone could talk about and how winning the first title was him getting an immense monkey off his back. I think Kevin Durant feels that same weight. And this injury only makes that pressure that much worse.
A lot can change in a year. This time last year, the Thunder were gunning for the number one seed not the number 8. The NBA is a weird place and timing is a big thing. The Thunder have had big injuries the last 3 seasons that have killed them. The young fun upbeat Thunder team that took the Lakers to 6 games is gone. The Thunder's time to win is now...well maybe next year.