Russell Westbrook's injury puts Thunder's season in early jeopardy
We're just three days into the regular season and already the Thunder are in hot water. Oklahoma City's two games to date -- competitive and acceptable losses to the Blazers and Clippers -- were actually reassuring in light of Kevin Durant's broken foot. Yet in the latter contest the Thunder suffered a weighty blow: Russell Westbrook, OKC's beating heart, broke a bone in his hand that could sideline him for up to six weeks of action, according to The Oklahoman. A Thunder team without Durant is grounds for growth and experimentation. One without Durant and Westbrook is a harrowing void.
So begins the work of replacing the irreplaceable. All that Oklahoma City does is oriented around Durant and Westbrook in some way, from their massive offensive usage to their collective athleticism on defense. Scott Brooks' playbook is designed as to draw on Durant's shooting ability and Westbrook's speed with the ball as a means of scoring and distraction. To plug the remaining role players into those roles would come up empty, leaving the Thunder to do without their most talented players and whatever structure empowered them.
Making matters worse are those injuries to less notable players that in the last 24 hours have become steeped in consequence. Anthony Morrow, OKC's biggest offseason addition, is still weeks away from returning from an MCL sprain. The absence of Reggie Jackson, who missed both of this week's games with a sprained ankle, is especially cruel. To remove Jackson from a team already missing its primary shot creators defaults responsibility for the Thunder offense to Sebastian Telfair -- the one-heralded point guard who fell out of the NBA entirely last season. On Thursday, Oklahoma City was fortunate enough to ride the hot hand of Perry Jones III to a near-upset, yet when the game bogged down it was Telfair initiating the offense and calling his own number. In due time the Thunder will investigate their options for adding another ball handler to the roster (the 6-11 Jones was Telfair's backup against the Clippers), though no player added via hardship waiver will steady this roster's minute-to-minute wobble.
There will be times, as on Thursday, when the Thunder strike a surprising competence. Serge Ibaka, Jones, Andre Roberson, Steven Adams, Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins still give this team the means to play solid defense. With that, occasional bursts of offense might be enough to keep OKC within winning range on some nights. Where they'll stumble is in closing the gap: It's one thing for role players to overperform through the ups and downs of a regular game, but another entirely for a group lacking experience, familiarity and general talent. There is no point of reference for makeshift offense without Westbrook and Durant, yet over the next few weeks the Thunder will fight to scrounge up whatever offense it can find.
More often, the scoring will not come. Even with Jackson (and eventually Jeremy Lamb, who also missed the opening two games with a back injury) back in the fold, the typically elite Thunder offense will inevitably sputter and fail at times over the next few weeks. Those performances may come against quality opponents or lottery teams. At this point there are no assurances; no longer does Oklahoma City get the benefit of the doubt in any matchup whatsoever, as the current state of the Thunder roster leaves open the possibility of a loss against any opponent. Even the Philadelphia 76ers have now circled the Thunder game on their calendar.
The very idea of succeeding in spite of Durant's absence has been stamped out. Beginning today, the Thunder's priority is survival. Take a look at the schedule over the next two months, accounting for the injuries to Westbrook, Durant and Morrow:
In a best-case scenario, Durant and Westbrook would both be out of the Thunder's lineup for 14 or 15 games -- only a few of which come against upper-tier opponents. That stretch of the calendar could quite literally come to define Oklahoma City's season. With passable performance against teams like the Jazz, Kings, Bucks and Celtics, the Thunder could snag enough wins early to keep their head above water. If not, a mound of early losses could conceivably push OKC out of a competitive playoff race altogether. Phoenix (which won 49 games last season and missed the playoffs) waits on the cusp of the postseason for just this kind of opportunity. All it might take is an early slip, or worse: a complication in recovery.
Should Durant and Westbrook take the full length of their projected timetables, they could be out of action for 20 games or so. That duration could upend a championship contender. Even if one or both stars come back in time to rally the Thunder to a sufficient win total, Oklahoma City might be rewarded for its pluck with three road series against top Western Conference teams before even making the Finals.
That dream isn't dead. Yet for the moment it's surely fractured, left to mend with time alone.