It hasn’t exactly been what you’d call a fun year for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Proclaimed as one of the biggest threats in the NBA’s always-daunting Western Conference, the Thunder got off to an alarming start this season, thanks in part to the worst luck with injuries a team could ever deal with.
With stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook both missing significant time in the beginning of the year, Oklahoma City stumbled out of the gate to the tune of 3-12. What once appeared to be a promising season soon became the ultimate definition of an uphill battle.
However, despite spending almost the entire season dealing with various ailments to some of their best players, the Thunder find themselves in the eighth and final playoff seed this afternoon, with just 14 games remaining. It’s hardly a stranglehold, but with everything Oklahoma City has dealt with to this point, it’s quite impressive they still have a legit shot at the postseason.
As of this morning, the legitimacy of the Thunder’s playoff hopes just took a major blow. Durant, who has already missed the past 13 games with soreness in his foot, is now officially out indefinitely. According to GM Sam Presti, Durant’s surgically repaired foot isn’t healing the way the team was hoping. If there was one key – and albeit supremely pessimistic – takeaway from today’s announcement, it would be Presti’s response to being asked if Durant was done for the year.
“Essentially, that’s the direction we’re headed right now.”
It’s tough to take any positives away from this news. And, with Oklahoma City having a slender one-game lead over the New Orleans Pelicans for the final playoff spot in the West, it’s goes without saying the loss of Durant could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Again, it’s more than impressive the Thunder have stayed this competitive while taking on some of the league’s best teams on a nightly basis without key players. Much of this is thanks to the unbelievable play of Westbrook, who has quickly found his name in any and all conversations about this year’s potential MVP.
However, as impressive as it’s been watching Westbrook set the court on fire lately, Thunder fans were still impatiently waiting for the return of last season’s MVP. Knowing the eighth seed would earn the team a first-round date with the Golden State Warriors, anything less than a full squad would certainly make the idea of advancing a near-impossible task.
As recently as the past week, Durant’s return appeared to be right around the corner. He had taken part in various portions of the team’s practice, and it seemed as though he would be back on the court soon to try and help the Thunder do everything they could to get back to the postseason.
Now, Oklahoma City has gone from practicing with Durant to hearing he’s likely done for the season. Any hope Durant’s teammates had from has apparent progress has now been dashed at the worst possible time. And, while the Thunder have spent all season dealing with this kind of adversity, it’s very difficult to see how they overcome this.
The team was already dealing with a significant dent to their depth thanks to Serge Ibaka needing knee surgery. Now, without Durant or Ibaka, the Thunder are severely limited when it comes to imposing scoring threats. Of their top four scorers, two of them will be on the shelf for the foreseeable future. While trade deadline acquisition Enes Kanter has helped significantly on the front court, the loss of Durant and Ibaka certainly limits the amount of help in this area. Instead of rolling with a formidable pair of scoring forwards, Oklahoma City will now have to rely on players like Kyle Singler and Nick Collison a little more than they’d prefer.
Of course, the Thunder still have Westbrook playing at an MVP-caliber level, so it’s not a total loss. Despite missing Durant for the past few weeks, Westbrook has continued to throw up triple-doubles at a frighteningly consistent rate.
That said, can Oklahoma City still clinch a playoff spot now that Westbrook is literally their sole impact player? Sure, the point guard has proven he can handle the scoring load if need be. But, he’ll certainly be charged with carrying the team from here on out, and the slightest bit of struggle with this task will no doubt put the Thunder in a bad place.
Making things worse for Oklahoma City is the aforementioned lack of breathing room between themselves and the ninth place Pelicans. The race for the final playoff spot has been neck-and-neck for most of the season, but it’s tough to believe New Orleans won’t be able to take advantage of the Thunder’s bad luck. On top of this, of their next six games, four of Oklahoma City’s opponents are above them in the standings. Taking down any of these clubs would be a tough task even with Durant, and without him, said four games could be the final nail in the coffin.
It all may sound like piling on, taking this incredibly unlucky break for the Thunder and going full doomsayer. At the same time, you take away one of a team’s top players – and one of the best players in the league, no less – it makes one heck of an impact. If you take away said player on a team which is already dealing with another significant injury, and which is almost solely relying on one player to carry them through the gauntlet of remaining regular season games, it’s tough to find any sort of positive.
It’s impossible to say for sure Durant’s injury will undoubtedly have the Thunder watching the playoffs from home this April. Who knows exactly how the team will respond to this latest dose of adversity.
That said, the prognosis looks incredibly bleak for this team and their already faint postseason hopes. If Oklahoma City indeed misses the playoffs, we’ll know exactly where to look when trying to figure out where things finally derailed for good.