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Assessing The Oklahoma City Thunder In Wake Of Kevin Durant’s Injury

Kevin Durant is irreplaceable. The Oklahoma City Thunder could perhaps duplicate the reigning MVP’s incredible production by using a cavalcade of young reserves in his approximate two-month absence due to a Jones fracture, but the threat of Durant can’t be reproduced. And once you account for the massive strides he made last season as a playmaker and defender, it becomes even clearer that the Thunder will have to make wholesale adjustments while their franchise player recovers.

Is Oklahoma City doomed? Of course not. Scott Brooks boasts arguably the most talented roster in the league, with MVP-caliber performers in Durant and Russell Westbrook, perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate and rare offensive threat Serge Ibaka, the dynamic, ever-improving Reggie Jackson, and a near-ideal combination of established veterans and promising youngsters behind them. If the Thunder’s reality was one that didn’t involve Durant entirely, they’d be a surefire playoff team in the loaded Western Conference nonetheless.

That’s how dominant Westbrook is, how good we’re forecasting Ibaka to be with an expanded offensive role, and how underrated Oklahoma City is defensively. The Thunder ranked fifth and fourth in defensive efficiency over the past two seasons, an accomplishment owed to Ibaka’s supreme influence, the team’s unmatched all-around athleticism, and an increasing commitment to scheme. They’ll miss Durant’s length and versatility on that end, of course, but should still be among the top-10 defensive teams in the league while he sits.

It’s the other end where OKC will hurt the most. There’s no player in basketball like Durant, after all, and the Thunder simply haven’t been forced to play without him for extended stretches at any time since he was drafted: KD has missed just 16 games in his seven-year career, and only two over the past three seasons. He’s an iron man, and it’s highly unlikely Brooks had a legitimate contingency plan in place should Durant go down.

So how will OKC adjust? That’s tough to say right now considering we still don’t how Brooks will juggle his rotation and a lack of meaningful film. 2013 first-round pick Andre Roberson emerged as the likely replacement for Thabo Sefolosha at shooting guard during training camp, and it’s easy to see why. The Colorado product is a versatile, rangy defender with a supposedly improved three-point shot. One wonders now, though, if Brooks will go a different direction given this sudden deficiency in playmaking and floor-spacing.

Considering inserting Jackson as a starter would leave the bench without any semblance of a proven perimeter playmaker, it seems likely Jeremy Lamb – a “prize” of the James Harden trade – will be vaulted into a starting role. But that doesn’t mean Roberson will move to the bench. Instead, he’ll likely duke it out with Perry Jones III for the chance to fill KD’s shoes at small forward.

In that vein, staying the course wth Roberson seems prudent. Not only is he a more seasoned defender and aggressive rebounder than Jones III, but the latter’s positional versatility suddenly looms larger with Durant out of the lineup, and it’s best-utilized coming off the bench to mix and match with lineups of the opponent. But the influence of this unfortunate development extends beyond the perimeter.

Might this be the golden opportunity for Steven Adams to usurp Kendrick Perkins as the Thunder’s go-to center? Not only is Adams a much better finisher, pick-and-roll dive man, and all-around scorer than the mean-mugging Perkins, but the former Boston Celtics intimidator is also a free agent at the end of this season. OKC will need additional scoring punch, basically, and getting some from the interior will help mask the lack of it from the outside.

Click here to read why it’s so important that Brooks and Westbrook adapt without Durant…

But that’s somewhat nerdy analysis, and will mostly be forgotten should the Thunder struggle until Durant returns. The perceived onus falls on Westbrook more than anyone else, and reality doesn’t paint a vastly different picture. For those who still doubt Russ’ worth to OKC even after those disastrous 2013 playoffs his team played without him, this is the time they’ll either feel validated or silenced forever.

This tweet has been making the rounds this morning, and is indicative of the majority’s surface takeaway on Westbrook’s potential performance as Durant sits:

That’s a lot of shots. Russ also took 12 above-break three-pointers during that fleeting court-time last season and shot a putrid 37.1 percent from the field, yet managed a very solid 1.32 points per attempt because he made 50 percent from deep and got to the line an astounding 14.9 times per-36 minutes.

And while those numbers are perhaps indicative of the type of additional responsibility Westbrook will shoulder, they were compiled in such a tiny sample size and are accompanied with enough noise that they’re mostly inconsequential. For instance, there’s a huge, huge difference between merely playing without Durant for a two-minute stretch and knowing you’ll be doing so for a full, 48-minute game.

Don’t get it twisted. Westbrook will be even more aggressive and relentless than his reputation suggests, and will surely put up huge numbers across the board. But the Thunder offense won’t be as simple as possession after possession of high ball-screens and center isolations. Durant’s absence represents an opportunity for Brooks to expand his sometimes vanilla playbook. And for those of you arguing that he didn’t do so when Russ was out last season, it’s imperative to consider the discrepancies between the games of Westbrook and Durant.

There’s a book on defending Westbrook: Go under screens and lay back in transition to force him into pull-up jumpers, and make him see bodies as he gets to the paint. There simply isn’t one written about Durant, and his unmatched ability – this side of Northeast Ohio, we should say – to create shots for himself and his teammates meant that Brooks didn’t need to rock the boat while Russ was injured.

Now that teams can focus on limiting Westbrook first and second, it’s crucial that Brooks develops off-ball, weak-side action so his point guard doesn’t find it necessary to force the issue at absolutely all times. Despite the casual fan’s insistence otherwise, Russ can really, really pass. Affording him opportunities to do so that will yield open shots won’t only make Oklahoma City better offensively, but also increase his inclination to look for others in the first place. But it starts with Brooks.

And the Thunder will need their coach and solo superstar to make the proper alterations so they don’t lose too much pace in a stacked Western Conference – the opening schedule isn’t easy. 13 of the team’s 31 games before January 1 – a realistic date for Durant’s return – are against playoff teams from last season, and Oklahoma City also faces the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, and New Orleans Pelicans twice each in that span while adding a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Essentially, two-thirds of the Thunder’s games are difficult.

Are we writing them off? No way. It’d be more surprising if OKC is 16-15 come the New Year than if it was 24-7 and Westbrook was a runaway early MVP favorite. But Durant’s influence is so rippling that such mediocrity doesn’t seem impossible. And though the narrative will inevitably surround Westbrook, it’s the decisions Brooks will or won’t make that will most decide how the Thunder do without the face of their franchise.

*Statistical support for this post provided by nba.com/stats.

What do you think?

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