The Oklahoma City Thunder have again seen their season put in jeopardy by the overlaying implications of multiple injuries. Kevin Durant remains sidelined with an ailing foot, as he has since late February. Soon to join him in street clothes on the Thunder bench will be Serge Ibaka, who on Tuesday underwent arthroscopic knee surgery according to a team release. Ibaka is expected to miss 4-6 weeks, a duration carrying through the end of the regular season at a likely minimum.
Independently, Oklahoma City could survive its upcoming, crucial stretch of schedule without Durant or Ibaka. To have both out of the lineup, however, dissolves the structure through which the Thunder achieve balance.
Consider OKC's starting unit. In good health, the Thunder would presumably begin games with Durant, Ibaka, Russell Westbrook, Enes Kanter, and Andre Roberson. In those five you'll find a healthy mix of scoring from inside and out, rim protection and perimeter pressure, size and speed. Remove Durant (as was done by his follow-up procedure to address an issue with the surgical screw in his foot) and that lineup tilts off its base. Clearly it can still function, but only if Westbrook bears the full weight of creative responsibility.
With that group the Thunder had found a sort of makeshift solvency—good enough to win eight of their last 13 games and keep hold of the West's eighth seed. Losing Ibaka, however, might throw off the team's center of gravity. Scott Brooks had all but attached Kanter to Ibaka in evident fear of how the Thunder defense might crumble without its chief shot-blocker around to clean up the newcomer's mistakes. Now Steven Adams will be tasked with the same, though he is nowhere near as successful in terms of warding off potential shot attempts or challenging those who attack the basket.
This is where Roberson, a natural defensive irritant, comes in handy. By dedicating a starting spot to a defensive specialist, OKC helps to address the precarious mix of its back line. Responsible, preventative work on the perimeter means that Kanter has fewer opportunities to blow a rotation. It also eases the pressure on Adams, demanding fewer of the superhuman displays of rim protection that Ibaka is called to frequently.
The painfully evident catch is that Roberson isn't an NBA-level offensive player. Even his cuts are no sure thing; for as athletic as Roberson is, his layup attempts can go wild under pressure. Otherwise, Roberson is left to camp in the corners while his teammates go about the work of wringing out offense from a 4-on-5. At 25.4% from long range this season (and, in fairness, a shade-better 30.8% from those corners), opposing defenses just don't have any incentive to pay him mind save when he's diving toward the rim.
Ibaka could contribute without clogging the paint or cramping a post-up, keeping the heart of the Thunder offense beating through spacing alone.
Oklahoma City succeeded in spite of Roberson's limitations when Durant was healthy, offsetting the sophomore guard's empty offensive game with that of a virtuoso. Stationed between Durant and Westbrook made sense for a player like Roberson, who could dedicate his energies to tough defensive assignments without assumption of touches or offensive involvement. Since Durant's injury, Roberson's fit has naturally become less tenable. Only so much could be done to disguise the fact that but a single of the Thunder's starters was an above-average three-point shooter.
Now even that long-range outlet is absent. Ibaka (37.4% on threes this season) was both a crucial outlet for Westbrook and a needed counterbalance for Kanter. He could contribute without clogging the paint or cramping a post-up, keeping the heart of the Thunder offense beating through spacing alone. His exchange for Adams challenges that rhythm. With yet another player on the floor incapable of scoring beyond eight feet or so, the attention of opponents is naturally drawn inward to the work of the two Thunder players who can actually do them harm.
In response, Brooks has shifted his starting lineup over the past three games to include Dion Waiters in favor of the more passive Kyle Singler, who was already filling in for Durant. A healthy KD might be a solo fix for the Thunder's narrowing offense. Waiters, a 27.6% three-point shooter since joining OKC, might have range in theory but only tends to complicate the offense in practice. The end-to-end transaction of replacing Durant with Waiters amounts to replacing the battery of a Ferrari with a potato.
Yet when faced with a lineup featuring two interior bigs, a wing without range, and a point guard whose jumper can't quite stretch to distance, Brooks sees Waiters as some kind of answer. Waiters is needed, in thought, because Roberson is needed to defend because Kanter is needed to score while Durant is out. Yet Adams is needed for defensive balance because Kanter is needed while Ibaka is out, and Adams and Roberson's sharing the floor with Kanter and Waiters tends to cause problems. These same issues persist across OKC's variety of lineups, all unsettled by the adjustment of going without two central components. Watch a Thunder broadcast closely enough and you can see Brooks' hair turning white.
Coincidence of injury takes a crippling, complicated toll. It's hard enough to survive the vacuum left behind by the reigning MVP, and all the more brutal to do so without one of the team's most essential pieces. Ibaka draws gripes for his perimeter play and occasionally low rebounding totals, though his extraordinary mix of high-level skills gives the Thunder a flexible backbone. His absence will be felt independently, to be sure, though OKC is at greater risk for all the ways that the losses of their injured stars intersect.
All of which isn't to say that the Thunder are doomed, so much as they're set to be even more thoroughly challenged. Westbrook has played full bore for nearly a month. At some point his play will show signs of drain, thereby paring back this team's capacity to overwhelm. Oklahoma City—as proven against Chicago and Minnesota before losing on Monday to Dallas—can still win games. Yet there are no sure things under these conditions. Even upcoming games against lottery teams like the Celtics and Lakers could prove more difficult than expected, and the Thunder have the added misfortune of catching opponents like the Jazz and Pacers at their most potent.
All it takes is the slightest misstep. A half-game separates Oklahoma City from ninth-place New Orleans in the standings and the nightmare of playoff disqualification. Ibaka's injury (atop Durant's) will give the Thunder every opportunity to falter by casting the outcome of every game in considerable doubt.