Injuries to Durant, Beal challenge Thunder and Wizards at season outset
Over the course of the weekend, two NBA franchises learned of significant injuries to key contributors. Oklahoma City will have to go without reigning MVP Kevin Durant, who was diagnosed with a stress-induced break of a bone in his foot that carries an indefinite timetable. The course of Durant's recovery has yet to be determined, though surgery is common with his particular ailment due to an otherwise high risk of re-injury. Across the league, Washington learned via MRI that third-year guard Bradley Beal suffered a fracture in his non-shooting wrist. Beal has already undergone surgery, and according to a release from the team is expected to miss approximately six weeks of action.
Both injuries, as individual case studies, highlight the relevance of team structure when it comes to addressing absence. It matters which specific player(s) will slide in to fill a starting spot or complete some other lineup on behalf of an injured player. What matters more, in most cases, is how capable those surrounding players are in accounting for the difference.
This is especially true with Durant, as he leaves a larger void than any single teammate could possibly fill. Oklahoma City's entire wing rotation was destabilized by Durant's injury. Plans to start Andre Roberson at shooting guard (as the successor to defense-first Thabo Sefolosha) must be reconsidered. The small forward reserves (Perry Jones? Jeremy Lamb? Anthony Morrow?) offer no straightforward fit. And, on a more foundational level, the entire offense needs to be restructured around the driving force of Russell Westbrook with his running mate on the mend. This, to some extent, is the cost of a team losing its best player for an indefinite period of time. Yet the Thunder are also uniquely disadvantaged due to just how completely they rely on Durant.
Few are those OKC possessions on either side of the ball that don't draw on Durant's talents in some way. He's the league's best scorer, deadly for his variety of offensive skills, effortless range and quick release. Given his shooting ability he makes for the world's greatest decoy—off of which Westbrook finds lanes to the rim. His positional flexibility and quickness are leveraged to put the Thunder's flurried, high-functioning defense into action. Durant screens, rebounds, contests and creates. That he thrives in all capacities is what makes Oklahoma City so potent.
It's also what allows for the Thunder to be built in their current fashion. Oklahoma City's roster is top-heavy by design, particularly in the way it generates offense. Durant and Westbrook bear that burden because they can, scoring with elite efficiency while their teammates fall into their respective roles as complements. It's by way of their strengths that playing the likes of Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison and Steven Adams is consistently possible. It's because of all that Durant and Westbrook do that Serge Ibaka could be perfectly cast as the Thunder's third star. The collective firepower between them affords the Thunder the chance to contend for a title with just one other capable shot creator (Reggie Jackson).
Losing either Durant or Westbrook, then, leaves OKC at a disadvantage. The offense that Scott Brooks employs is bland in its designs, given a jolt by how difficult it is to defend either star. Things really crackle whenever Durant and Westbrook work in tandem. Every pick-and-roll between them all but forces a defensive breakdown, given that opponents have to make instant reads and responses to a spatial puzzle involving two of the best offensive players in the league. That avenue is obviously off the table now that Durant is sidelined. Similarly, all of those plays in which Durant bailed out a stagnant set or distracted opposing defenders to allow a Westbrook score could go a different way. Everything is complicated by the absence of a player this integral, even more so than was the case in Westbrook's injury-spurred absence.
In those instances, the Thunder made it work. They strained in some matchups to account for the loss of Westbrook's scoring and playmaking last season (mostly for how it compromised the team's depth), yet overall kept with high-level play and finished as the second seed in the Western Conference despite Westbrook missing 36 games. Working in the team's favor were two factors: Durant's elasticity and Jackson's offsetting contributions. Neither is applicable in this case, as the Thunder will have to accommodate for the fact that Westbrook can't bend his skill set in the way that Durant did and doesn't have the same natural chemistry with Jackson.
To the former, Westbrook finds strength in the directness of his approach. Every defender on the floor knows that he wants to get to the rim. What makes Westbrook so successful is that no opponent can consistently stop him. Oklahoma City will lean on that talent more than ever before to start its season, though that approach leaves little opportunity for synergy between Westbrook and a similarly skilled ball handler. Neither Westbrook nor Jackson is much of a threat off the ball. Both can operate as facilitators or cutters at times, but lack the feel to really make a living off of improvisational off-ball movement. That neither is all that pressing as a three-point threat doesn't help matters either, particularly when opposing defenses will key in on their actions so precisely.
Then, there's the elephant in the game log: Throughout the 2013-14 regular season and the playoffs, Westbrook and Jackson logged all of 56 minutes together without Durant, per NBA Wowy. Those guards work well as a tandem when Durant is drawing tons of attention and carving out space. Otherwise, however, there's almost no baseline for their play together in terms of style or production. One way or another the Thunder are primed for change: Either OKC—by separating Westbrook and Jackson as much as possible—strays from the dual-creator engine it has relied on almost exclusively, or its two lead guards log consistent time together in a way they never have before.
Neither novel course is likely to bring doom, as even in compromised form the Thunder are too good a team to fully collapse. Brooks will have work to do in terms of building out the offense and making the pieces work. Jones, Lamb, and Morrow will be pressed to sop up minutes, as might third-string point guard Sebastian Telfair. Westbrook will need to be his most undeniable self, even at a time when the context of playing without Durant makes his every move more difficult. Those first weeks won't come easy. There's enough talent in play, though, to avoid disaster so long as the Thunder lend themselves to a temporary reinvention.
That such a reinvention is even necessary makes for stark contrast against the Wizards' dealings with Beal's broken wrist. It should go without saying that Beal is not Durant—for as talented and capable as Washington's 21-year-old guard might be, he is but a quality piece on a solid team. As a result, the Wizards will feel his absence without suffering from it on such a fundamental level. Their game plan remains more or less intact. Possessions will need to be re-routed and a starting spot filled, but Washington is structurally more suited to account for this loss than OKC is with Durant.
That is not, it need be noted, due to the Wizards having some reasonable facsimile in reserve. In terms of actually filling Beal's minutes at shooting guard, Wizards coach Randy Wittman is left with no single, appealing option. Martell Webster is still in recovery from offseason back surgery. The next-best natural fits, Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr., have no positive NBA track record outside of summer league and preseason play. Garrett Temple has some serviceable skills but no business logging serious minutes. Andre Miller could conceivably slide out of position to share minutes in the backcourt with John Wall, though not without cost to the Wizards' spacing and rotation.
Those bench alternatives are no more heartening than Oklahoma City's Jones, Lamb and Morrow. Yet the Wizards benefit from greater balance among their best players than the Thunder—a more forgiving architecture when it comes to managing injury. Beal was Washington's second-highest scorer and shot-taker last season, poised for an even larger role in the coming year. His shooting and supplemental offense proved valuable in clearing room for Wall's streaks to the rim. Where the likes of Porter and Rice fall short, though, Paul Pierce, Nene and Marcin Gortat can help compensate.
Figuring out a new balance sans Beal won't be easy, especially considering that Washington may not have the means for consistent spacing without him. Through a wider variety of capable, versatile players, however, comes greater range to tweak and adapt on offense. Pierce, who signed in Washington this summer in place of fellow free agent (and now Rocket) Trevor Ariza, will be crucial in this regard. When at full strength, the Wizards will rely on Pierce to help shake open stagnant possessions while contributing across the board. With Beal sidelined, Pierce's priorities shift to account for all that his new wing counterparts cannot do—likely starting with more off-the-dribble creation. Nene's game also lends itself to slightly higher usage (or facilitation from the elbow), as would Gortat's when the matchup permits.
This is a luxury of the way that Washington is constructed. By making moves while Wall and Beal were still under rookie-scale deals (and now on an initial contract extension, in Wall's case), there was room to pay Nene and Gortat a combined $23 million. With that came a stable, balanced roster that enticed Pierce to sign for the mid-level exception, creating the kind of environment where Beal—or any principal contributor, save maybe Wall—could nurse an injury without risking team-wide implosion. Washington is definitely better with Beal. The rest of the roster is at least qualified, though, to hold a sufficient course as he recovers.