Do not let the Oklahoma City Thunder’s subpar record sway your opinion on their championship contention. There are plenty of reasons to get hyped for the Thunder this season. Do not let the injuries — from Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook to nearly every other member of the team — get you fooled. Oklahoma City is every bit the contender everyone was saying they were before the injuries.
For Durant, this minor injury is a blessing in disguise. Think about the life of a professional athlete. They are constantly traveling, meeting new people, and pushing their bodies beyond their limits. It is a tiring lifestyle that can get old after a while. As Nike says, there is “no offseason” for these guys.
Durant is finally getting some time off. This is especially nice for a guy like Durant, who has only missed 16 regular season games in his last six seasons in the NBA. During time off, he can rest and reflect on what he needs to do to succeed when he gets back on the court. Despite receiving his first MVP trophy last year, some critics think that Durant has plateaued due to his lack of success in the playoffs.
There is not a professional athlete in the world that could tell you that they enjoy being off the court or field. However, this break will be beneficial to Durant in more ways than just getting a chance to rest. It will help his teammates immensely.
Since 2009, Durant has had a top-10 usage rate in the league every season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Last season, he had the highest usage rate in the league. With Durant out, his teammates are finally getting a chance for more touches and experience. So far, Reggie Jackson has been averaging over 39 minutes a game and Scott Brooks has been running plays for Serge Ibaka to hit three-pointers. Perry Jones III and Jeremy Lamb, despite both missing time with injuries, have also begun to show off their monster potential. Jones and Lamb have a chance to fill that void that James Harden left. The team still feels that pain to this day.
The big knock on the Oklahoma City Thunder has always been that Durant and Westbrook have to carry the load by themselves. Whether they will be winning or losing, the core of Ibaka, Jackson, Jones, Lamb, Steven Adams, Kendrick Perkins, Nick Collison, Sebastian Telfair, Lance Thomas, and Andre Roberson will get a chance to grow for the next few weeks. It is easy to think the Thunder’s hopes for contention are gone, but the NBA is an 82-game season. Durant was always projected to miss around 20-25 games, which is only a fourth of the season.
If everything goes according to the start of the NBA year, then there would be an NBA Finals featuring the Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies. Let’s be honest: We all know that is not going to happen. There is no doubt the Thunder will struggle. The Western Conference is no walk in the park. It will be a push for the Thunder to get into the playoffs, let alone get a favorable seed.
Yet it cannot be forgotten that this is Durant’s year. He is coming off of one of the best regular seasons of all time. His team has continuity, something a lot of teams in the NBA do not have. They have had the same coach and core for a longer time than most of the teams in the league (not named the Spurs). LeBron James, for the first time in his career, actually looks vulnerable on his brand new team. If you look at most championship teams, it takes years to win that Larry O’Brien. It is rare that a team gets slapped together and wins it all right away. The Boston Celtics in 2008 were an outlier. OKC has done the growing and faced the adversity that most championship teams must go through.
Durant will also return with a different mentality. He has taken the steps and proven himself among the NBA’s elite. This is his championship year. It has already gotten off to a rough start, but there is no doubt Durant is building up motivation by having to sit out and watch.
Injuries are not just a good way to get rest, but they are also great for gaining perspective. Players often realize how fortunate they are just to be playing. It is easy to get caught up in all of the attention and critics that bug a professional athlete. A competitor like Durant will be chomping at the bit to come back. This will revitalize his motivation and take him to the next level.
It also does not hurt that KD and Westbrook are injured at the same time. Anyone who has been around a team knows that injured players get to bond on the sidelines during practice and games while everyone else is playing. This can be a time for Durant and Westbrook to bond and create better chemistry. There has always been speculation that the two did not get along well and if there is any truth to that, this time off can be beneficial to their relationship.
Between an improving surrounding cast, coming off an MVP season, getting time to rest, revamping his motivation, and bonding with Westbrook, Durant is poised for his best season yet. With yet another incredible colorway of the Nike KD7 dropping today at Champs Sports — they’re calling it the “Empire State” edition — now is as good a time as any to start talking up the MVP’s return to the court. When he eventually does return, you’ll be looking like a prophet.
Do not let the cold start fool you. Durant is known for heating up right when he needs to. The Thunder might not get a home seed in the playoffs, but you better believe that there is not a single Western Conference team that wants to play them in April. They all know Durant is ready to take his game to unprecedented levels.
Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucashapiro