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By Jim Brighters, NBA Editor - Archive - Email
Are OKC's title hopes dashed forever?
Kevin Durant Kevin Durant will be gone for two months after he undergoes surgery on his right foot.
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - When the reigning MVP, the second-best player in the known universe, is going to be shut down for two months, everyone panics.

Kevin Durant will be gone for two months after he undergoes surgery for a Jones fracture in his right foot. That's a gigantic loss for sure. No team can overcome losing someone as important as Durant, no matter how differently the Thunder think.

"Our team and organization have been in situations similar to this in the past," general manager Sam Presti said. "This is when we're at our best. One of the things that we traditionally try to do is, within every adversity, we're always looking for where the opportunity is."

The problem with Presti's analysis is that Durant has always been the constant in the lineup. In his seven-year career, Durant has missed 16 regular-season games. I apologize, maybe he was fatigued enough to miss the FIBA World Cup.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are actually equipped to handle his absence decently, better than most teams who lose such a crucial piece. Russell Westbrook is a top-10 player in the league when healthy, which he is as we speak. Durant handled the load when Westbrook missed time last season and they finished with the second seed in the Western Conference.

However, the Thunder will suffer some without Durant in the lineup. Their early-season schedule is littered with difficult opponents. They can't avoid it playing in the Western Conference. Conservatively, if Durant is gone through November, the Thunder do have some matchups on the docket with the Utah Jazz and Boston Celtics. They can endure.

But, any blips during this stretch will lead to potential problems in postseason positioning. The Thunder, who played the last four-plus months of the regular season healthy in 2013-14, won the Northwest Division by five games over the Portland Trail Blazers. That margin was the difference between a home playoff series in the first round and a road one. The Blazers bolstered their bench, so they might improve, especially with the confidence gained from advancing to the second round last season.

And the Western Conference is brutal. In one scribe's humble opinion, 10 of the best 15 teams in the NBA reside out west, so the Thunder could fall down the standings considerably.

If the Thunder play .500 basketball without Durant, they could slip as far as sixth in the Western Conference. The team will explode once Durant comes back, but by then it might be too late. Sure, OKC could easily advance in the postseason, even if they were seeded as low as six.

Or, the Thunder could fall to a team like Portland, the Los Angeles Clippers, or the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. The Dallas Mavericks are improved, the Golden State Warriors are tough and Phoenix, Denver and Houston are all talented opponents.

It's hard to speculate before the season even begins, but the possibilities exist and that should be scary enough. It could be a difficult re-entry for the Thunder once Durant returns. As great as Westbrook is, he's a shoot-first point guard. It's worked with Durant in the lineup since Westbrook has begrudgingly accepted the second-fiddle role. If Westbrook really guides the team to success, it might be hard for him to willingly acquiesce big-dog status.

If OKC does falter with Durant gone, the bigger picture becomes murkier. Durant will be a free agent at the end of the 2015-16 season, which is when the new TV deal goes into effect. If the salary cap goes up, Durant is going to get paid handsomely.

Will the Thunder be the ones to pony up that cash? They'd like to, but Westbrook is a free agent after the 2016-17 season and there could be even bigger monetary concerns by then. There could a work stoppage in 2017 and we might even see the elimination of max contracts, which means a financial free- for-all.

Durant will certainly have his share of suitors. There have been whispers of how impressed he was by LeBron James going home, so the Washington Wizards have loomed as a possibility. The New York Knicks are going to go hard to the basket in pursuit of Durant. The Los Angeles Lakers maybe in the mix as well.

In theory, this leaves the Thunder with this season and next to win a title in its current form. OKC could bring everyone back and stay together, but, if not, we may see the end of the Thunder as contenders.

The Spurs are going nowhere. Just when we thought San Antonio was too old to contend, the Spurs beat the stuffing out of the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals.

The Clippers are really good. Dallas and Memphis are really tough and the Blazers are young and solid. OKC might not have many chances, especially if the Durant-less version struggles in 2014.

There also exists the Cleveland Cavaliers and James. That team is loaded in the Eastern Conference and the Chicago Bulls are legitimate title contenders as well. Neither team, despite the contract status of James and Kevin Love, figure to disband any time soon.

And if it were to be the end of this Thunder group as legitimate title contenders, it would be a shame. They built themselves up through the draft, but never got a true sniff at a ring.

The Thunder faced the super team in Miami in their only Finals appearance. They faced the Spurs in the throws of their dynasty.

OKC has done a decent job building itself as a contender. Obviously, they got lucky to get Durant at No. 2 instead of Greg Oden. They drafted well, but what doomed them were financial woes. They couldn't afford Durant, Westbrook and James Harden so they shipped the bearded one to Houston proactively. The Thunder got peanuts on the dollar and Harden emerged into the best shooting guard in the league.

The Thunder have drafted decently with assets acquired in various trades, including the Harden one. The problem is, none of the drafted players have made a huge impact yet.

This could all be nonsensical bluster, but I don't think so. I see the Thunder struggling without Durant. Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones will have to man the wing spots and no matter how good Westbrook will be, or how many shots Serge Ibaka will blocka (get it?), OKC is not an upper echelon team in the West without Durant.

It could all blow over by playoff time, or Durant's absence will bury them in the standings. Either way, this whole incarnation of the Thunder could be gone by June of 2015.

The window is officially shutting in Oklahoma City.

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