I hope you appreciated Kevin Durant's brilliance last season, because we're going to get about 25 percent less of it this year, and that leaves the Oklahoma City Thunder with a lot of questions.
When the Most Valuable Player will return from his right foot fracture remains unclear. He underwent surgery Thursday to repair the "Jones fracture" — a break in the fifth metatarsal, which runs from the pinkie toe toward the heel — and will be re-evaluated in six weeks. While there's no guarantee that surgery will prevent recurrences of problems with the foot in the future, the surgery will reportedly improve his outlook moving forward ... after, of course, six to eight weeks of recuperation.
Either way, for about 20 games, the Thunder must replace Durant's league-leading scoring and his playmaking. And his long-armed, quick-footed defensive presence. And the openings he creates for teammates when terrified defenses tilt toward him.
Spoiler alert: They won't.
Oklahoma City will be worse than we expected, and the difference is enough to decrease its odds of winning a championship. In a conference thick with contenders, a couple of extra Ls can mean dropping a couple of spots in the standings; running the Western gauntlet without home-court advantage seems unlikely, even with a recovered Durant.
But while Durant's injury depresses, his absence intrigues. What will a team so reliant on his brilliance rely on now?
“One of the ways to improve your team and make up for loss offensively is to play even better defensively and reduce the net rating between the offense and the defense,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti told reporters, according to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman. “[...] in Kevin’s absence, continuing to build a defensive identity is going to be really important in making sure that we are as balanced as ever offensively.”
But doubling down on defense evokes visions of opponents ignoring Kendrick Perkins, gladly leaving Perry Jones III and Andre Roberson alone, and putting everything they have between Russell Westbrook and the rim. Scott Brooks needs new answers; he must get creative, drawing inspiration from the reality that, for now, his team will only go as far as his chaos-agent point guard takes it.
What will that look like? Will Brooks give the Thunder's intriguing but incomplete youth the opportunity to hold down the fort? Or will he hunker down while the storm passes and just hope the roof doesn't collapse? Whichever approach Oklahoma City takes, can it avoid falling so far off the West's pace that even Durant's return can't keep its championship hopes from being dashed once again?
2013-14 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
It definitely helped those eager to discuss Durant leaving Oklahoma City in free agency in 2016. Not sure it helped the Thunder on the court, though.
OKC lost three rotation members — longtime starter Thabo Sefolosha, who joined the Atlanta Hawks; Derek Fisher, who became the head coach of the New York Knicks; and Caron Butler, a February addition who signed with the Detroit Pistons. Then again, considering Sefolosha was nearly unplayable in the playoffs, and that Fisher and Butler were arguably worse — Oklahoma City played 7.2 points per 100 possessions better with Fisher off the floor, and 6.5 points-per-100 without Butler, according to NBA.com — that could be addition by subtraction ... if the guys filling those minutes have improved.
Roberson could replace Sefolosha as a long-armed stopper, but occasional flashes in 408 rookie minutes hardly make him a lock to become Thabo 2.0. Jones' 6-foot-11 frame and athleticism make him an enticing prospect, but he hasn't yet developed the skills to deploy his tools. Jeremy Lamb's defense, finishing and playmaking all need boosts if he's to validate his billing as the jewel of the James Harden trade.
Free-agent signing Anthony Morrow should help goose the offense. Sebastian Telfair will scrap to make his comeback stick. Rookie Mitch McGary should add frontcourt depth after returning from a left foot fracture. But with most key pieces carrying over from last season, the biggest indicator of whether the summer helped will be how Jones, Lamb and Roberson look come live action. If their offseasons brought significant development, then the wing rotation could be in good shape. If not, though, a summer that also saw OKC use a 2014 first-rounder to make Josh Huestis a D-League draft-and-stash prospect (keeping the capped-out Thunder below the luxury tax) rather than add help will look like a miss.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
Down the line, it'll be McGary, whose heady play, largeness and whiteness have had OKC observers calling him the next Nick Collison since draft night. Now, though, it's Morrow, the 29-year-old whom Presti signed to a three-year, $10 million deal to provide the brand of lights-out shooting — third in career 3-point accuracy among active players, No. 8 all-time — that opponents must respect.
The specter of Morrow splashing jumpers when left alone ought to keep defenders a step closer to their marks, and a step further away from helping on drivers. That's important, considering Brooks' predilection toward surrounding his stars with players defenders can ignore; in such configurations, every bit of extra space helps.
Morrow could be particularly useful with Durant sidelined. As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, starting Morrow alongside Westbrook and one more defensive-oriented wings (Jones or Roberson) in front of Serge Ibaka and either Perkins or Steven Adams would help replace some of the shooting and spacing lost with Durant. It would also allow Brooks to continue starting a perimeter stopper and keep using Reggie Jackson "as the lead dog on second units," helping limit the trickle-down effect of Durant's absence. Whether Morrow starts or comes off the bench, though, it seems more will be expected of him this season than anyone anticipated.
Durant's absence could point toward what many have long believed is the Thunder's bête noire — Brooks' seeming inability, especially late in close games, to come up with something beyond, "Hey, Kevin/Russ, go score." (To be fair, that's hasn't been too bad a game plan.)
As SB Nation's Paul Flannery wrote in May, those who decry Brooks' tactics and vet lovin' often overlook his contributions to an environment that's allowed his young stars to thrive, as well as the institution of a system that's led to four top-10 finishes in defensive efficiency in the last five seasons. But giving credit where it's due doesn't eliminate Brooks' shortcomings, and losing Durant for two months could highlight them, as defenses that don't have to load up on Durant could smother Thunder sets short on both player and ball movement.
Oklahoma City's offense had shown signs of featuring more motion and life at the start of the preseason, and with Durant out of the picture, Brooks' task will be to keep building on those gains. His best tools for doing so seem to include starting either Morrow or Jackson to bolster the offense, giving Adams the chance to supplant Perkins, and looking to force defenses into rotate-and-recover situations through screening and motion, as suggested by FanSided's Seth Partnow.
If he can add spice to the offense while boosting his young contributors' confidence, Brooks could make good on Presti's call to "build a better brand of basketball" before Durant comes back. If he can't, the Thunder brass could finally ask whether Brooks has taken his core as far he can.
Contributor with something to prove:
Westbrook, which feels odd. This is a player who has made three All-Star teams and three All-NBA Second Teams by age 25; who has ranked among the league's top six scorers twice and finished top-five in total assists three times; and who's one of just four players in history with career averages of at least 20 points, 6.5 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game. (The others: Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and LeBron James.) Westbrook's already proven a lot.
And yet, because he's played his entire career alongside Durant — and as SB Nation's Tom Ziller shows, it really has been nearly his entire career — Westbrook remains both one of the league's 10 best players and a clear second banana. This is Westbrook's opportunity — or, I guess, crisitunity — to prove his electricity can power a team with title aspirations, the way Durant's did when Westbrook was sidelined last year.
"It's not about me. It's about our team. I can't win games by myself. I can't do anything by myself," Westbrook said, according to ESPN.com's Royce Young. "I kind of want to take the attention off me and put it more on the team. Everybody keeps asking what I'm going to do and how I'm going to change. I think it's more about our team and what we can do."
That's a great sentiment, precisely the sort of thing that everyone who has scolded Westbrook for insufficient genuflection at the altar of KD has wanted him to say for years. It's also, I think, B.S.
Does this strike you as a man eager to deflect attention? Does this player seems unsure he can do quite a bit all by himself? Does this small-sample-size stat unearthed by Young strike you as the behavior of a player uncertain about headlining?
[...] Brooks rarely staggered his star duo's playing time last season as Westbrook spent only 41 minutes on the floor without Durant. In those 41 minutes Westbrook attempted 35 shots and scored 46 points, posting a volcanic usage rate of 47.5 percent. Without Durant on the floor, Westbrook took 45.5 percent of the team's shots and scored 41.8 percent of their points.
Here's what rings true: "Asked how his role might change, Westbrook responded simply, 'It doesn't.'" That, I think, is because Westbrook views his role the same way Alvin Mack described his defensive assignments in "The Program."
He attacks; whether he's playing with the world's greatest scorer or dudes who can't create for themselves, he attacks, attacks and attacks some more. The too-often-overlooked aspect of Oklahoma City's ascent has been that, even with Durant's evolution, the Thunder have needed that attacking to prevent defenses from keying on KD, to create open looks for Ibaka to feast on, and to generally put everyone on edge.
We'll now learn what it looks like when "generally put everyone on edge" is Option No. 1. The result, as Bethlehem Shoals wrote for GQ, will be "either a squad forced into a more balanced attack — something Westbrook certainly has the skill set to facilitate — [or] a Russ-dominated dystopia, which is what everyone is secretly rooting for."
Extended top-dog minutes could highlight Westbrook's warts — the inconsistent jumper, the recklessness that has produced more turnovers than anyone in basketball since 2009, the living-in-the-red amplitude that can leave him running too hot for anyone to handle, etc. — and that the Thunder struggle without Durant's steadying influence. It's also possible, though, that Oklahoma City soars.
The last time Westbrook saw a chunk of solo action — 2012-13, when he played 242 regular-season minutes without Durant — he averaged 33.2 points, 7.9 assists, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes of no-KD floor time. The Thunder scored 108.6 points per 100 possessions while allowing 103 points-per-100 in those minutes, according to NBAwowy.com — far below their full-squad best, as the '12-'13 Thunder outscored opponents by an NBA-leading 11 points-per-100, but still equivalent to a top-five efficiency differential over the course of the season.
Today's Westbrook — who averaged 22 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals in 28 minutes per game after returning from his third knee surgery, and who led all guards in postseason Player Efficiency Rating — is better than the '12-'13 model. So's the Ibaka with whom he'll pick-and-pop, and the Jackson with whom he'll share playmaking duty. Adams is a major upgrade over Perk and Hasheem Thabeet, and while Morrow's not as creative as Kevin Martin was, he's a deadlier shooter. Westbrook isn't Durant — a 6-foot-3 iffy shooter can't change the game like a 7-foot sniper — but this could work.
If it doesn't, it'll give those who focus on everything Westbrook isn't even more grist for the mill. But if it does, maybe those tsk-tskers will finally appreciate everything he is.
Potential breakout stud:
Jackson and Adams. Brooks can make up some of KD's scoring and facilitating by carving out bigger roles for the 24-year-old Jackson, who last season proved a critical supplementary initiator capable of carrying the offense for stretches, and the 21-year-old Adams, who was better than advertised as a rookie and has looked fantastic this preseason, scoring 56 points in 71 minutes of playing time on 24-for-28 shooting. (He looked good before preseason, too.)
Both players have flaws, but they've got enough scoring and playmaking talent to keep the ball moving and do something with it. (In Adams' case, he's an upgrade over Perkins if only because, as Westbrook said after Tuesday's preseason win, "He can catch.") With Durant sidelined, they should have ample opportunity to strut their stuff, and we already know they have chemistry:
Durant hardly looks worse for wear after 20 or so games on the shelf. Westbrook plays MVP-caliber ball, holding Oklahoma City steady through an early slate that starts out brutal (a road back-to-back against the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers) before easing up. OKC's youth, led by Jackson and Adams, thrives in larger roles. No West team runs away and hides, and the Thunder remain within striking distance — say, a half-dozen games back of the No. 1 seed by mid-December — before making a major 2015 run. They hold off Portland to win the Northwest behind a blitzing Westbrook, a rounding-into-form Durant and a Defensive Player of the Year-worthy Ibaka, then make a road warrior's march to the championship.
If everything falls apart:
Durant can't get right and is hobbled all season. Westbrook-as-top-dog produces more agony than ecstasy. All those pell-mell drives run OKC's offense ragged, and Brooks can't produce anything more creative in its place. Jackson proves better suited to a reserve role, and no other young player steps up. The wounded Thunder fight tooth-and-nail just to make the playoffs before bowing out in Round 1.
Kelly Dwyer's Best Guess at a Record:
In September, Kelly had the Thunder at 60-22, tops in the West. Durant's injury knocks them down to 55-27, putting them on the borderline between No. 4 and No. 5.
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