They are the words every team fortunate enough to have a superstar fears the most. Injury. Surgery. Lengthy recovery time.
Fear became reality for the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday when general manager Sam Presti announced that the discomfort Kevin Durant had been feeling in his right foot was a Jones fracture, a crack near the base of the small toe that will likely require surgery and sidelined him for 6-8 weeks.
There are all sorts of implications here for Durant, who led the league in scoring last season (32 points per game) for the fourth time in five years, and the Thunder. The roughly two-month recovery time would put him back on the floor by mid-December, with plenty of season left to get back up to speed before the playoffs, so the injury isn’t necessarily devastating to OKC, though it could hurt their playoff seeding if they have to overcome a slow start without their leading scorer.
For Durant himself, the hope is that this isn’t the beginning of a problem that never fully goes away. Players from Bill Walton to Yao Ming can attest to the damage that lingering foot injuries can do to a career. There’s no reason to think Durant will be affected beyond these next two months, but with so valuable a player, it’s impossible for the Thunder not to be at least a little bit concerned.
Within hours of the announcement, Pacers forward Paul George, who gruesomely broke his leg in a scrimmage with Team USA this summer, tweeted “Get well KD! Speedy recovery,” accompanied by a pair of hands clasped in prayer. Durant withdrew from the U.S. team in August, less than a week after George’s injury, and though he cited mental and physical fatigue as the reason, he wouldn’t have been the only one to have second thoughts about risking injury playing for the U.S team. It’s ironic that Durant now represents a rebuttal to the argument that those games are an undue risk. He’s a reminder that the injuries are random, that they can occur at any time, regardless of the precautions.
But the most intriguing storyline of all from Durant’s injury is Russell Westbrook’s temporary ascension to his throne. There has always been the sense that Westbrook, the Thunder’s All-Star point guard, has felt confined by the limitations of being Durant’s second-in-command. The trusty sidekick role has never been for him. The main criticism of Westbrook has long been that he occasionally seems to forget what everyone else knows, that Durant is Option No. 1 in OKC, that the offense needs to run through him.
Durant and Westbrook have always had what appears to be a fragile alliance. As recently as the Western Conference finals last May, they were barking at each other during a loss to San Antonio. “I was just getting on Kevin about some stuff and he got on me right back,” Westbrook said then. “That’s what teammates do. That’s what leaders do. We get on each other, we come back and we talk about it, and then we come out like nothing ever happened."
Now Westbrook gets the chance to lead by himself. He hasn’t had much of a chance to take the wheel until now because of Durant’s remarkable durability. He has missed just six games in the last five seasons, and he leads the NBA in minutes played during that span. For Westbrook, this is a rare opportunity, one that he will no doubt relish. This isn’t to say that he takes any pleasure in Durant’s injury, but you can almost picture him, a vice-president testing out the Oval Office while the president is away, running his hands along the desk, enjoying the feel of the big chair.
It will be fascinating to see how Westbrook, talented but impulsive, handles his new role. He is a shoot-first point guard, and those shot opportunities will be plentiful, since without Durant OKC has only one big man, Serge Ibaka, who can be considered much of an offensive threat. Westbrook will be freed from the obligation of getting the ball to Durant, but with greater freedom comes greater responsibility. There will be no KD to turn to on the nights that Westbrook’s jumper isn’t falling, no KD to be the voice of the team when the media descends. Does Westbrook want everything that comes with being the alpha dog? Can he handle it all? The Thunder will essentially play two regular seasons, one as Westbrook’s team and one with the Durant/Westbrook combo. To make both adjustments smoothly will take a discipline that Westbrook hasn’t always shown.
If this isn’t the moment that Westbrook has been waiting for, it is at least the moment that he has always believed he was ready for. We are about to find out if he was right.