The Oklahoma City Thunder has long been jonesing for a break on the injury front. It got one Sunday, albeit the kind that makes you wonder whether Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook voodoo dolls really exist.
Durant was diagnosed with a Jones fracture in his right foot, an injury that could keep the reigning NBA most valuable player sidelined for up to two months and jeopardize his team’s bid for a top seeding in the Western Conference.
Durant’s injury is only the latest in a series that has torpedoed recent Thunder seasons. Maybe now we know why the team built its practice facility directly across the street from a health clinic.
Westbrook sat out most of the 2013 playoffs and sat out two lengthy stretches last season because of knee issues. Serge Ibaka was unavailable for the first two games of the conference finals last season — losses that doomed Oklahoma City against the San Antonio Spurs — after injuring his calf in the previous game against the Clippers.
Durant’s absence will take about 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists off the board each game he misses starting with the Thunder’s season opener against the Portland Trail Blazers on Oct. 29. Oklahoma City plays the Clippers the following night at Staples Center.
The first serious injury of Durant’s career probably will prompt Westbrook to start flinging the basketball like a 6-year-old with 10 seconds left on Super Shot at Chuck E. Cheese’s. Westbrook has averaged as many as 19.2 shots per game in a season while playing alongside Durant, so assume he’ll hoist more than 25 shots with regularity.
Westbrook will need to do what Durant did while Westbrook was sidelined last season, carrying the Thunder to a 25-11 record in those games.
The offensive onus will also increase on Ibaka and guard Reggie Jackson, who must go from complementary pieces to primary scoring options behind Westbrook.
It’s unknown whether Durant’s injury will require surgery. Portland guard C.J. McCollum suffered a similar injury in training camp last season and did not return until January.
In a worst-case scenario, according to the timeline provided by the Thunder, Durant would be sidelined two months, meaning he would sit out about 20 games and return in early to mid-December. That’s enough to drastically alter the playoff picture.
Let’s say Oklahoma City loses five games it wouldn’t have otherwise with Durant in the lineup. That could make the difference between being the top-seeded team in the West and falling to No. 3; last season, five games separated the top-seeded Spurs and the third-seeded Clippers.
The teams that figure to benefit the most from Durant’s absence are the Spurs, Clippers and Golden State Warriors, the top contenders in what is once again a loaded conference featuring as many as 10 playoff-caliber teams.
Durant can also forget about winning a second consecutive MVP. In the last 20 years, MVPs have played in at least 71 games in seasons that were not shortened because of lockouts.
The award probably will be LeBron James’ to lose in his heartwarming return to Cleveland, assuming he puts up numbers comparable to his career averages. A fifth MVP would tie James with Michael Jordan and Bill Russell for the second most in NBA history behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s six.
It’s an unfortunate consequence for Durant, a player so steady and durable he was known as Mr. Reliable (before that regrettable headline in the Oklahoman proclaimed otherwise). Durant has missed only 16 games in seven NBA seasons, never sitting out one game in the playoffs.
During his MVP acceptance speech last spring, Durant memorably singled out each of his teammates for their contributions to his growth. He thanked Nick Collison for believing in him since his rookie season, Kendrick Perkins for texting him that he was the MVP after tough games and Westbrook for being “an emotional guy who will run through a wall for me.”
That wall just got about 5 feet thicker. We’ll see whether Westbrook and the Thunder can come out on the other side.