First it was Paul George. Then it was JJ Hickson. After that it was Rajon Rondo, who slipped in the shower, and while (fingers crossed) no one’s looked at Derrick Rose the wrong way since he blew out his knee a second time, we found out this weekend that Kevin Durant, reigning NBA MVP and general mainstay at the list of “best players in the league right now,” had a Jones fracture. Basically, he’s got a broken bone near the base of his big toe, and he’s set to miss basketball for the next two months. With the NBA’s regular season just a little over two weeks away, this is a serious bummer — not only for fans of Oklahoma City basketball, but also for people who enjoy great shooting. But what does this mean for Oklahoma’s title chances? Does it even affect it?
Assuming that Durant is actually out until the December 11th matchup against the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, he will have missed just over a quarter of the Thunder’s games, and while the team is certainly sitting on a repository of talent beyond the small forward — regardless of what you think about Russell Westbrook, he’s undeniably one of the best scoring ballhandlers in the league right now, and Serge Ibaka is still Serge Ibaka — that should help them weather the storm. This isn’t the Knicks losing Carmelo Anthony and having to rely on the husk of Amar’e Stoudemire or anything.
For the people who have loudly (and wrongly) championed the idea that Durant and Westbrook should go their separate ways, this will provide the ultimate litmus test for this theory. We already know that taking Westbrook out of the Thunder’s equation doesn’t bring in more shots for Durant, which should’ve put at least one persistent rumor about their pairing to rest, but the idea that Russell needs to be the undisputed alpha dog on a team for his talents to really shine still persists. Generally speaking, the people who don’t like the Durant/Westbrook pairing are always going to dislike it, and as long as Scott Brooks is the coach, they’ll play the same kind of simplified ball they always have.
Realistically speaking, though, the path for the Thunder to make it out of the West remains the same: shoot for one of the highest seeds in the Conference, hope that the Spurs wind up battering themselves against one of the grind-it-out teams in the early rounds of the playoffs (ahem, Memphis), and keep their fingers crossed the whole way. To that end, their early season, which sees them go up against the 76ers, the Bucks, the Jazz, and other rebuilding franchises, should help them in that regard, though not having KD for tough matchups against the tougher teams in the West (the Grizzlies and the Clippers, not to mention the Blazers and the Mavericks) could prove challenging.
It’s that early going that often provides teams with the momentum they need to make it into the playoffs when things get tough. Consider Portland last season: coming out to a hot start allowed them to flounder a bit toward the middle of the season, while still managing to pick it up when they needed to (until they ran into San Antonio, of course). The Thunder should likely be fine without Durant in the early going, although it remains to be seen how coach Brooks will manage to replace the scoring from KD; unlike Westbrook’s recent absence, there’s no Reggie Jackson-level player waiting in the wings for the Thunder.