Building Thunder, or a fading storm?
Assistant Managing Editor
The Oklahoma City Thunder and its fans felt quite the boom-crash at the start of the 2014-2015 NBA season.
The boom came when team superstar and reigning NBA MVP Kevin Durant went down with a foot injury, guaranteeing his absence during the first month of action this season. The crash came when Durant’s main running buddy, Russell Westbrook, suffered a break in his hand against the Clippers on Oct. 30.
These injuries add onto other season-starting injuries to power forwards Mitch McGary (foot) and Grant Jerrett (ankle), shooting guards Anthony Morrow (sprained MCL) and Jeremy Lamb (back) and point guard Reggie Jackson (ankle).
In the words of ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez, the injuries have reduced the Thunder to “a small golf clap.”
Thunder GM Sam Presti, in an interview on ESPN.com, said these losses provide some time for the other members of the team to come together and find their niche in the system. This way, the team can have a “collective mentality and momentum that’s only going to be accelerated” upon the return of the Thunder’s key pieces.
However, for fans, seeing beyond these circumstances can be tough when the team is off to a 1-2 start in a stacked Northwest Division within the already tough Western Conference.
The season opener against the Trail Blazers began well, with the Thunder leading at the half, but Portland’s dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge took over in the second to saddle OKC with a 17-point loss on the road.
The next game against the Clippers was a closer affair, but Los Angeles stifled a late-game push from the Westbrook-less Thunder to claim the 93-90 win. Still, optimism arose when the Thunder claimed its home opener with a 102-91 win in OKC.
Thankfully, one piece came back healthy when Jackson returned with a cameo in the starting lineup in a game against the Nets. Despite Jackson’s 23 points in 42 minutes, the team still fell 116-85 in Brooklyn and lost shooting guard Andre Roberson to a foot sprain.
With Durant and Westbrook out for the early part of the season and a laundry list of their supporting cast down for the foreseeable future, the Thunder have a long road to go before blustering up a storm in the West.
Thankfully, these injuries came during a month that many experts predict to be their easiest slate this season. Their November opponents’ combined win percentage from last season is under .450, and the team predicts Lamb will return soon if they don’t by time of print.
For now, though, the main solution to counteract Durant’s Jones fracture is another Jones – Perry Jones, a small forward with a similar build to Durant. While he may not have the skill set of KD, Jones’ performances in the last two games show his worth as a good backup.
Jones rebounded from a lackluster opener in Portland as the top performer in the Thunder’s loss to the Clippers with 23 points and seven boards in 42 minutes of play. He came back the next day with 23 points in a stat sheet-stuffing 41 minutes on the floor.
Though his follow-up in Brooklyn did not go as well, Jones looks to be the stopgap solution on the offensive end for a Durant-less Thunder star – provided he can heal from his recent foot injury suffered against the Toronto Raptors – especially during a stretch that sees OKC facing teams that are, at best, on the bubble for this year’s postseason.
Yet, the rag-tag makeshift needs to get work done to bounce back.
If Jones comes through as a true second option at the three, the next questions to answer will come from the backcourt. Though Roberson has put in consistent minutes, he and flash-in-the-pan guard Sebastian Telfair are the team’s only options at one and two.
Jackson’s return provides some reprieve for Telfair, but the injury to Roberson emphasizes the team’s urgency for scoring threat Lamb to get back on the court. However, Jackson still has yet to fully recover, as was seen in the game against Toronto.
Thus, the question remains as to whether or not any combination of the four will make up for the output Westbrook would bring on both sides of the court.
Furthermore, the four and five will need to step up not only for the first part of the season but also for the entirety. Second-year center Steven Adams pulled ahead of veteran Kendrick Perkins to star in the frontcourt with star power forward Serge Ibaka.
That trio and forward Nick Collison need to bolster the paint this season to counteract the West’s abundance of big men, from Texas giants Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki to Memphis’ duo of Zac Randolph and Marc Gasol.
That list just scratches the surface.
It looks to be a tumultuous way to the playoffs, let alone the top spot, for OKC. Though the beginning of their season would be the “best” time to lose superstars, the Western Conference is a force to be reckoned with – even with superstars in tow. Early struggles can bite you in a paper-thin playoff race with make-or-break pairings.
Thunder fans need not fret too hard yet, though. Looking at the skill set on the team, a healthy Thunder at full force can be a tumultuous tempest to weather. Aside from the superstars, Jones can put up points as easily as Ibaka can swat shots back. Their bench players can be bothers on both sides of the ball with enough time and proper placement.
Don’t dismiss the Thunder yet. Even with a tough break in a tumultuous conference, they can do some great things when they’re on their game.
They just need to weather this storm.
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