Kevin Durant recently spoke about his stunning decision to withdraw from his commitment to Team USA, and how the much-needed time off provided him with “mental peace” and the “physical peace that came with it.” Durant arrived at training camp for the Oklahoma City Thunder refreshed, recharged and relaxed, believing his team was well positioned to take a hold of the Western Conference, win its first title and that a healthy Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka would relieve him from the extra weight he had to carry during his first most valuable player campaign last season.
“I love the group that we have,” Durant said last week, after scrimmaging with his teammates at Choctaw High School in Choctaw, Okla. “We’re not missing a thing.”
A week later, the Thunder will be missing Durant.
Despite the precaution Durant took by sitting out the FIBA World Cup to save himself for a potential title run in 2014-15, nothing could prevent the unpredictable misfortune that has befallen the Thunder in recent years – and now again in the first few weeks of the preseason.
Oklahoma City announced on Sunday that the four-time scoring champion suffered a Jones fracture in his right foot that will likely require surgery. Thunder Executive Vice President and General Manager Sam Presti told reporters in Oklahoma City the team and its medical staff plan to work with Durant’s representatives to map out the next steps but the break in the fifth metatarsal – the pinky toe – typically requires surgery and six to eight weeks of recovery.
With that timetable – which is probably still generous – Durant would be out until at least December and could miss 20 games, including five against Western Conference playoff teams from a season ago.
The only thing more reliable than Durant’s scoring ability has been his durability. Durant has played in 542 of a possible 558 games in his first seven seasons, led the NBA in total minutes each of the past five seasons – missing a combined six games – and has played more minutes than anyone since he entered the league in 2007-08 (20,717).
Durant’s absence doesn’t doom the Thunder. The team still has one of the NBA’s most dynamic offensive weapons in Westbrook and a borderline all-star in Ibaka. But Oklahoma City was having a brutal training camp even before Durant went down – rookie Mitch McGary broke his foot in the preseason opener; Reggie Jackson has a wrist injury that could keep sidelined for a while, center Kendrick Perkins has a strained quad and Ibaka and Nick Collison have missed time with ankle injuries.
The Thunder didn’t make any major offseason moves — signing guard Anthony Morrow qualifies as their biggest — and will again have to hope that its remarkable player development department can churn out another success story from former first-round picks Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb and Andre Roberson, players who were postseason afterthoughts last season.
The West also remains a gauntlet and the slightest setback could be the difference between having home court advantage for a few rounds of the playoffs or an arduous struggle to advance. The San Antonio Spurs are the defending champions. The Los Angeles Clippers removed the stench of Donald Sterling and have had a year to adjust to Coach Doc Rivers’s system. The Warriors have a new coach in Steve Kerr but maintained roster continuity. The Dallas Mavericks added Tyson Chandler and Chandler Parsons, among others. Memphis, Portland, Houston, Phoenix and even New Orleans have the talent to possibly make surprising runs.
And while simply getting into the playoffs may not be a problem for the Thunder, just getting there won’t be good enough for a franchise that has had higher aspirations ever since Durant became no worse than the second-best player in the NBA. The 1995 Houston Rockets are the last team to represent the West in the NBA Finals without finishing with one of the three best records in the conference.
The Thunder is typically conservative with protecting and preserving its injured players. Westbrook was held out for six months after suffering a meniscus tear during the 2013 postseason and still dealt with complications upon his return, needing two more procedures. Durant started to feel pain in his foot after Saturday’s practice and immediately complained of discomfort.
“We’re really fortunate that we’re catching it when we’re catching it,” Presti said. “We are very fortunate that Kevin notified us yesterday and that we’re kind of catching it on the front end before this became more of an acute issue.”
Durant has not been given an official timetable. Last season, Washington Wizards forward Chris Singleton sustained the same injury in mid-September and didn’t return until after Thanksgiving. Portland Trail Blazers rookie C.J. McCollum also broke his foot in the same spot in mid-October and didn’t make his season debut until January.
While acknowledging that “you don’t replace Kevin Durant,” Presti said the Thunder will remain competitive without him. “I’ve got a lot of confidence that we’re going to do that,” Presti said. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in the team at-large, but also in the mentality that’s been built here. And it’s no mistake that it’s been built here because Oklahoma is built on this type of resiliency. I think that resiliency is a team sport and that’s how we operate, that’s how we’re going to move forward. In these cases, you can either withdraw or advance, and we’re going to advance.”
Since Oklahoma City advanced to the NBA Finals in 2012, Durant’s load has expanded in each season. The Thunder dealt James Harden, requiring Durant to score and create more. Westbrook suffered a meniscus tear in his right knee in the 2013 postseason and Durant was unable to take the team beyond the second round. With Westbrook missing 30 games last season while combating nagging knee troubles, Durant still led the Thunder to the second-best record in the NBA and earned his first Maurice Podoloff trophy as the league’s MVP. Ibaka strained his calf in the postseason and missed the first two games of the conference finals, which Oklahoma City lost in six to San Antonio.
The Thunder had already discussed internally how they would attempt to reduce Durant’s minutes this season. Durant recently turned 26 but said on media day that his decision to stop playing for USA Basketball last August was about being spent, not spooked by the injury to Indiana Pacers forward Paul George, who broke his right leg in a Team USA scrimmage.
“You can get hurt walking outside. You can hurt anywhere. Freak accidents happen,” Durant said two weeks ago. “I’ve been playing this game so long that I know at any moment that something can happen. Just knowing that keeps you kind of level-headed and at peace with what happens on that court. It’s a part of it.”
The unlikely has happened. Now the Thunder will get its first extended look at life without Durant.