Sunday morning’s news that reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant had suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot sent shock waves through the NBA. Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti hinted that these injuries can take six to eight weeks for recovery, which is a game-changer for the entire league. The Thunder losing Durant for a month or more of the regular season dramatically shifts what was already shaping up to be a brutal Western Conference playoff race, as well as opening up all kinds of questions about how Oklahoma City will compensate for losing their most important player.
Presti wouldn’t commit to a timetable for Durant’s return (we should have some clarity on that after he undergoes surgery), but the Thunder have a history of being conservative with their stars. After Russell Westbrook suffered a torn meniscus during the first round of the playoffs in 2013, he opted for the kind of surgery that would keep him out six months but better ensure long-term health. The Thunder will know more about Durant’s status after his surgery, but he’s the face of the franchise, the league MVP, and the player who holds the key to their title hopes. They know enough to know that having Durant healthy in the playoffs is more important than rushing him back to win a few more regular-season games.
Even assuming a best-case scenario for Durant’s recovery, he will likely miss the entire month of November. The first month of the season contains matchups with some formidable Western Conference playoff teams, including a season-opening road back-to-back against the Portland Trail Blazers (October 29) and Los Angeles Clippers (October 30). They face the Memphis Grizzlies, who took them to seven games in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, on November 7; the Houston Rockets on November 16; and the Golden State Warriors on November 23. If Durant’s rehab spills into December, which it likely will, he could also miss his first matchup with LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers on December 11. In other words, bad news all around for the Thunder.
Playing without Durant is totally unfamiliar territory for the Thunder. He’s never missed more than eight games in a season, and that was back in his second year, in 2008-09. He’s played 81 of 82 games in each of the last two seasons, and played all 66 games of the lockout-shortened season in 2011-12. Durant and the Thunder have been extremely lucky that he’s never suffered a major injury in his seven seasons in the NBA. The responsibility now falls on a few different Thunder players to carry the load while he’s out.
The most obvious one is Westbrook, who will now have more pressure on him than ever to lead the Thunder while Durant is out. He’s going to be counted on to be the team’s offensive focal point, without Durant to take pressure off him. Westbrook is certainly up to that task, but it will be interesting to see how he reacts to commanding a double-team every time down the court without another all-world scorer.
As far as actually replacing Durant, Scott Brooks could go several different ways. Reggie Jackson will probably start at shooting guard alongside Westbrook to give the Thunder another scoring weapon. Durant’s small forward position will likely be filled by either second-year player Andre Roberson or third-year player Perry Jones III. Both of them will see a huge uptick in minutes replacing Durant, who averaged 38.5 minutes per game in each of the last two seasons. Neither has proven that they can contribute consistently, but they’re the only options on the current roster.
Before Durant’s injury, the Thunder were one of the clear favorites to win a top seed in the Western Conference. The west is at least 10 deep with playoff teams, but the general pecking order has been understood to be the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers at the top, and then everyone else. That changes now. With Westbrook, Jackson, and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder still have enough talent to make the playoffs, but depending on how much time Durant misses, they can probably take themselves out of the conversation for the No. 1 seed. They may even lose home-court advantage if his recovery drags out. The door is open for another team to move into that upper tier — if everyone stays healthy, the Grizzlies and the Warriors are the best bets.
With any luck, this ends with Durant sitting out six to eight weeks and returning good as new. But there are no guarantees, especially when it comes to foot injuries for players as quick and as agile as Durant. It could take him a while to get his speed back, or there could be other lingering effects of the surgery. These things are tough to predict. The worst case scenario has Durant sitting out an extended period of time; hopefully, it doesn’t come to that. In the meantime, the NBA will go on, but it will be missing one of its most crucial stars.