The Thunder recently announced that Kevin Durant will have surgery to repair a Jones fracture and will be out for six-to-eight weeks. Here's GM Sam Presti's statement:
"After practice yesterday, Kevin made us aware of discomfort in his right foot. We proceeded to perform the necessary imaging studies to determine the cause of his discomfort. At this stage, Kevin has been diagnosed with a Jones fracture. Traditional treatment of this injury requires a surgical procedure and recent NBA cases have resulted in a return to play in 6-8 weeks. We are in the process of collaboratively evaluating the most appropriate next steps with Kevin, his representatives, and Thunder medical personnel. Until a course of action is determined, we are unable to provide a timeline specific to Kevin's case."
According to Wikipedia, a Jones fracture is a fracture of the diaphysis of the fifth metatarsal of the foot, at the base of the small toe. Up until this point, Durant had been extremely durable, only missing 16 total regular season games in his seven year career. Now if he only misses six weeks, he'll miss the first 15 games of the season.
I anticipate some comments from the more cynic Spurs fans pointing out Serge Ibaka's miracle recovery and expressing a somewhat understandable distrust for the timetable. And I honestly say that I wish that's the case here. We at PtR never, ever root for injuries and wish Durant a speedy and full recovery. But there is a basketball angle here and we wouldn't be doing our jobs if we didn't cover it.
The first thing to note is this is far from a death blow to the Thunder's chances. If Durant comes back healthy before Christmas, he will have plenty of time to regain game shape before the playoffs. But the Thunder do have a rather rough schedule to start, with games against prospective playoff teams like the Warriors, Nets (twice), Nuggets (twice), Rockets, Grizzlies, Raptors, Clippers and Blazers in the time Durant is supposed to be out. So a less than stellar record to start the year is not out of the question.
Last season the Thunder survived 36 games without Russell Westbrook and still finished with the second best record in the West. They even led for a significant part of the regular season. So they've proved they have the talent to get wins without one of their stars. Unfortunately for them, they were better prepared to replace Westbrook than they are to replace Durant. Reggie Jackson manned the point guard spot more than adequately in Russ' absence and they had a clearly declining but steady Derek Fisher backing him up.
There's no such quality depth at the forward spots for OKC. In all likelihood, Andre Roberson will start in Durant's place and one of Morrow or Jeremy Lamb at shooting guard, filling the spot left vacant by Thabo Sefolosha's departure. With Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins at the big man spots, the only shot creator in that starting unit will be Russell Westbrook. The Thunder could try starting Reggie Jackson and nominally shifting Westbrook to shooting guard but staggering the minutes to give the second unit some punch would be tough.
The problems don't stop at the wing. Sliding Durant up to power forward was an instant mismatch creator for OKC that also allowed them to limit the playing time of their underwhelming deep bench bigs. Now that option is gone for a while. Playing Perry Jones at the four seems like their best bet at replicating some of the success those lineups had but he would only serve as a spot up shooter. The playmaking burden would still fall on one of Westbrook or Jackson, the only two shot creators OKC will have for a few weeks.
Those two guys will have to somehow make up for the 32 points Durant brought to the table. It wouldn't be surprising to see Russ' usage percentage, which at 34.4% would have led the league last season had he had the minutes to qualify for the leader board, increase even further. Whether he can remain efficient while doing so is another matter but it would be fascinating to watch. The Thunder roster is filled with finishers and catch-and-shoot role players, so Jackson will also have the ball in his hands a lot and will be counted on to create shots for them. He's up for an extension or restricted free agency after this season and if he proves he can handle an increased role he might price himself out of the Thunder's reach.
For the Spurs, any decline in the Thunder's performance and, more importantly, their projected win/loss record could mean a chance to put some separation in the standings between them and arguably the team that has the best chance to beat them. For that to happen they will need to go off to a hot start despite missing Patty Mills and possibly Tiago Splitter. But their schedule is a bit easier and their bench a little deeper than the Thunder's, so the opportunity is there.
There are obviously other teams that can claim the top of the West, of course. The fact that it's been a two-team race between the Spurs and Thunder for the last couple of years doesn't mean it will continue to be. And it's always possible Westbrook keeps OKC winning or any of their young players makes an unexpected leap in production, mitigating the loss. So a lot of factors will determine whether this is as bad for the Thunder as it seems now or as big of a potential positive for the Spurs and the rest of the West, for that matter.
It's sad that the game will be without one of the greats to start the season but hopefully he'll come back soon and fully healed. In the meanwhile, it will be fascinating to watch how the Thunder look without Durant and how big an impact his absence has in the race for Western Conference supremacy.