Durantula is in the operating room again, and a haunting refrain for the Oklahoma City Thunder continues…
One year it was Russell Westbrook bucking knees with Patrick Beverley. The next year it was Serge Ibaka missing time against the San Antonio Spurs, and returning as a shadow of himself in the same series. This year, literally every single player on the Thunder roster has missed time because of injury, from Nick Collison to Perry Jones to, uh, Kevin Durant, who’s having another surgery, who’s slated to miss four-to-six months of basketball activity, and who will return next season on the last year of his contract. So what does this latest setback mean for Durant, the Thunder and the NBA?
- Oklahoma City will not contend for a championship this year. The Thunder are more than likely going to hobble into the playoffs, and given the army of Scott Brooks naysayers—I myself have been a lieutenant in this army—we ought to pause for a second and admire what Oklahoma City has accomplished under Brooks’s direction. Both Durant and Westbrook have missed long stretches of time. Ibaka has, too. And apparently Air Congo wasn’t at full health even before this extended absence. Yet, in the brutal Western Conference, the Thunder are likely going to make the playoffs.
- As soon as the final buzzer sounds, the pressure is on. I’ve touched a little bit on this before, but it’s worth repeating: The moment the season is over, I mean literally the day after Golden State or [insert potential Golden State challenger] wins the title, there will be two or three major stories dominating the offseason, and maybe the most dominating of those stories will be Durant’s health and upcoming free agency. Coming off an injury-plagued season yet a former MVP in the absolute prime of his career, Durant will have decisions to make. Every postgame comment will be scrutinized. Every peep from Sam Presti will be examined under the microscope of the sports blogosphere. Every time Westbrook and Durant look at each other will be meticulously dissected.
- OKC’s front office will go all in. The complaints about Oklahoma City’s front office and its financial willingness to push all its chips into the center of the table are obviously numerous and also completely out of proportion, but this summer, given Durant’s impending free agency, his injury and the future rise of the salary cap, it’ll have no option but to make a big move. That move will probably be in the form of Enes Kanter, who has been nothing short of spectacular—at least on the offensive side of the ball—for Scott Brooks and the Thunder. OKC hasn’t had the opportunity to wield its new-look roster at full strength, but given the quick chemistry between Westbrook and Kanter and the prospect of adding basketball’s most lethal weapon to the mix has to have OKC’s front office planning a number of different potential contracts for the big Turk.
- The league has been robbed of one of the most compelling first-round playoff matchups … ever. My first thought on hearing of Durant’s surgery was: It’s really gone. The chance to see the Warriors and the Thunder each at full strength—wishful thinking, I know—has vanished as quickly as it materialized in the first place. All the same, we’ll still get to see Westbrook trying his hardest to single-handedly beat the NBA’s best team. OKC might win a game or two, but the chances of escaping a seven-game series against the Warriors are slim.
- Absolutely nothing. The Durant injury means absolutely nothing. There’s the temptation to draw metaphors, to connect abstract occurrences and happenstance conflations of events together and paint some sort of cataclysmic basketball future of apocalypse. There’s the temptation to concoct conspiracy theories, to scapegoat coaching or managing or medical staffs or front offices, but in the end, this is what Durant’s injury and re-injury and surgery mean: His foot got hurt. In the end this is still basketball. And if you’ve watched Durant on the sidelines this year you know this is, for him, also about basketball. It’s not about blaming people or contriving a super-deep metanarrative out of anything; it’s about getting back on the court healthy, and playing the best he can play. Let’s all hope that becomes a reality at the start of next season, and if it does become a reality, if we really get the chance to see this Thunder roster at full strength for an entire season and postseason, we might be treated to some of the most beautiful basketball the world has ever seen.