Another OKC Injury: Where Do the Thunder Go From Here?
The Oklahoma City Thunder had big plans for superstar Russell Westbrook during the early portion of the 2014-2015 NBA season. With reigning league MVP Kevin Durant sidelined because of a fractured foot, OKC expected to lean on his sidekick, Westbrook, even more heavily than usual. It would be Westbrook who was given free rein to put up as many points as possible, Westbrook who would be the go-to player on every important possession, and Westbrook who would get the team through however many weeks the Thunder were forced to endure without their best player.
All of that changed in the season’s second game Thursday night at Staples Center, as the seventh-year guard injured his hand in the first half of a road loss to the Clippers. While the immediate story was Westbrook’s heated verbal exchange with a fan on his way back to the tunnel for X-rays (which you can watch here), the narrative quickly changed once the team announced that the specifics of his injury: a broken hand. Ouch.
Without Durant, Oklahoma City had no margin for error. In a Western Conference so loaded that the Suns could be left out of the 2014 playoffs despite winning 48 games — a mark that would have tied Phoenix for the No. 3 seed in the East that year — the Thunder desperately needed Westbrook to play at an All-Star level every night until K.D. returned, just to stay afloat. Now Westbrook won’t be playing at any level at all for a while, perhaps four to six weeks.
So where does 0-2 Oklahoma City go from here? How can Scott Brooks, who has taken the Thunder to the playoffs in each of his five previous seasons there, continue that string? There are no easy answers for a team decimated to this extent by injuries, but here are three suggestions for how the Thunder can keep their playoff hopes from completely imploding before Durant and Westbrook take the floor again.
1. Beat the bad teams
The Thunder are going to be overmatched against nearly every NBA team, especially the traditional powerhouses, while OKC’s one-two punch sit on the bench in street clothes. That means it’s critical that Oklahoma City maximizes every realistic opportunity for a win in November and December. Regular-season games against the likes of the Bucks (twice), Celtics, Jazz (twice), Pistons (twice), and 76ers are usually not considered “must-win games,” but for this iteration of the Thunder, over the next six weeks or so, they absolutely will be. Nobody’s going to pick an Oklahoma City team without its two best players to beat the Cavaliers, obviously, but the Thunder at least need to try and solve the most beatable clubs on their schedule. Easier said than done for an 0-2 team.
2. Add a new player or two
As ESPN points out, the Thunder can apply for the NBA’s hardship exception and get a waiver to exceed the 15-man roster limit when a significant percentage of the roster is lost to injury. Since Oklahoma City is currently missing Durant, Westbrook, Grant Jerrett, Mitch McGary, and Anthony Morrow, that seems to be a no-brainer. OKC simply can’t compete like it did last night over the long run, trying to coax maximum production out of a single-digit number of healthy bodies, especially when only one is a point guard. And while we don’t necessarily expect Ray Allen to be walking through that door, the Thunder should be able to find some sort of help from the remaining pool of unsigned free agents who can add some punch to the offense … or at least some depth to the bench.
3. Get big games from Perry Jones
2012 first-round pick Perry Jones (pictured) was a revelation Thursday after Westbrook went down, pouring in 32 points on 10-17 shooting. The scoring outburst more than doubled his previous career high and at least provides a tiny bit of hope that Oklahoma City’s remaining roster isn’t completely devoid of scoring options. Brooks needs Jones to play at that level consistently over the next month or two, because there will be plenty of options to take — and preferably, make — big shots with 47 points per game (Durant averages 27 for his career, Westbrook 20) missing from the team’s lineup. If Jones can step into the void and increase his average significantly, that’s at least a starting point for a Thunder team that has to be a little shellshocked with the way the last three weeks have unfolded, a devastating pair of blows that equals OKC’s worst-case nightmare scenario come to life.