On the occasion of Kevin Durant's injury, Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller got together to talk about what's going to happen to the Thunder.
FLANNERY: Where were you when you found out Kevin Durant needed surgery? I was walking down Mass. Ave. toward Harvard Square with a bunch of lefty marching bands, which is one of those weird Cambridge things that only makes sense if you live here, or like Berkley. Anyway, there was a guy holding up a banner for worker's rights, so naturally I started thinking about Bill Walton and then a few minutes later I heard about Durant, and that was really freaking weird.
The two things are not really the same. The Blazers pressured Walton to play and take pain shots against his better judgment, which is not the case here. And yet! This was going to happen eventually.
The Thunder wear KD's ass out. He's gone over 3,000 minutes in four of the last five seasons and only the lockout stopped it from being five straight. I don't care how genetically unique Durant is: getting hurt was inevitable. Playing 3,000 minutes is no good for anyone. Still, it caught me by surprise because I never imagined Durant getting hurt. This sucks, obviously.
ZILLER: Where was I when I found out about KD? I was getting ready to make waffles. Needless to say, I ended up eating toast instead. Thanks, Durant.
You the Real MVP
You the Real MVP
After Derrick Rose, I no longer take recovery for granted, which makes this injury so terrifying given how vital Durant is to the league and to the sport more generally. He is LeBron's No. 1 foil, a true rival for the title of greatest player on Earth. We can't lose him for an extended period of time. But very tall men usually have a higher propensity for recurring injuries of the foot or knee, so I'm thoroughly worried. The only things that keep me positive about this is that Durant has been so durable, he doesn't carry much weight and that we'll get to see an unleashed Russell Westbrook.
You bring up his heavy minutes load, which is shocking in this era. Should coaches be actively resting their young stars through the season? And shouldn't anyone who ripped Durant for pulling out of FIBA last-minute do like at least 10 Bloody Marys?
FLANNERY: Yes, coaches should be actively resting their young stars but it's not just realistic. Most teams that get a great young player are not very good, so the natural tendency is to ride the great young player too hard. They also tend to have coaches whose fortunes are tied to the young star who wants to play big minutes, score lots of points, make all the All-Star teams and get recognition. Coaches don't often have the clout to tell the young star they're keeping them at 33-36 minutes a night whether they like it or not, so it's up to the organization to make smart decisions and back the coach.
I know, not happening in this lifetime, outside of San Antonio and maybe not even there. Duncan went over 3,000 minutes four times in his first six seasons with a lockout-shortened year in the mix. I'm not saying it's OKC's fault either, but now that we know so much about health, fitness and nutrition, shouldn't a serious examination of minutes be the next big area of study? (Oh, and screw anyone who rips an athlete for taking care of his body.)
You brought up Westbrook and this is the thing that keeps Durant's injury from being a total soul-sucking experience. We've all been waiting for this in some fashion or another, and now we can finally see it. I'm a little worried about Russ. It's not like he's going to change, or care what we think about him, but I think those of us who love him will love him even more and those who dislike his game will dislike it even more. What say you?
ZILLER: I think that's a proper read of the situation, with one caveat. If we, the Westbrook Believers, are vindicated, Russell could convince some holdout doubters that he's not a massive drain on the team. We know OKC will still win most nights without KD. Westbrook is going to get credit for that, I imagine.
But the actual act of Westbrook Being Westbrook ought to be something to behold. It'll be interesting to see how much Serge Ibaka tries to assert himself offensively given how much he relies on being fed by RW and KD. Part of me fears Westbrook may overcorrect and focus on the assist early on. But then I remember who we're talking about.
FLANNERY: Right. I'm not worried about Russ playing his game because he's never once shown a tendency to give one good god damn what anyone else thinks about his play. I'm just anticipating the think pieces and the rebuttals and I'm getting bored with it already. That said, if KD is out for any real length of time we might finally get around to having a proper Westbrook Appreciation Society.
You mentioned Ibaka and he's obviously key here. But what about Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, et. al. I feel like people have been sleeping on these guys for so long that we -- that is, the hardcore NBA types -- may be overrating their talent relative to the role they'll have to play. I'm almost as anxious to see how they do as I am to watch Westbrook go off every night. Say this for Sam Presti: he's drafted a ton of talent over the years in addition to the obvious big scores. I can't think of any other team that could lose the league's MVP and somehow be more interesting.
ZILLER: Presti mentioned that this injury could help the team learn how to play a different, better style since they can't rely on KD's magic. More than that, I think exposure for Lamb and Jones could help Presti's reputation, especially as it pertains to the Harden trade. Not that Presti's job is at risk, but getting real solid production out of one or both could pay dividends.
I wonder whether Scott Brooks is equipped to deal with this. He's not been the league's most creative coach, to put it lightly.
FLANNERY: You know who else this effects? Reggie Jackson. I think he's primed to be the league's best Sixth Man -- or one of the best -- but he has his heart set on being a starter and he's in a contract year so ... big year for Reggie.
I was wondering how long it would take us to get around to Scott Brooks. He's the counter to every OKC subplot. Why yes, they do have interesting talent, but Scott Brooks. I don't know, I argued last year that people were too hard on him and I kind of believe it but then I watched the games and I angrily subtweet myself.
So, bottom line: There's enough talent to survive the loss of KD, but will his absence make them better in the long run or more dependent on him when he returns? I'm leaning toward the former.
ZILLER: That's the rub. To survive in the absence of KD, Westbrook needs to be WESTBROOK. If that happens, there's really little more room to grow for guys like Lamb and Jones than there's ever been. And that's what can make the Thunder better in the long run: confidence among and in the younger guys.
I'm of the opinion that the Westbrook Show will be thrillingly entertaining and that the Thunder will eventually only be so good as the KD-Westbrook offense and the Ibaka-led defense are. It's good enough to win a title, but not by acclamation. I'd love to be proven wrong though.
FLANNERY: Well, they've had five years to convince us and each year it's something. They were too young, then it wasn't their time, then it was LeBron's time, then Westbrook got hurt, then the Spurs happened. We're almost at that point where we look at what the Thunder have and what they've accomplished and ask ourselves: Is that all there is? Because it hasn't been enough.