Even though the Thunder have an All-Star-caliber point guard in Russell Westbrook to carry the load in the interim, the share of their offense tethered to Durant's presence will force the Thunder to shuffle up their sets and personnel groupings.
Oklahoma City will still make the playoffs and finish among the Western Conference's top four. Durant isn't slated to miss too much time (pending a healthy recovery), and his teammates are talented enough to tread water while he's gone.
But seeds in the West are dicey—11 teams, including OKC, the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets, are fighting for eight spots. And what once seemed like a two-horse race for the top spot in the conference is now a wide-open fight.
Assuming San Antonio nabs the No. 1 seed, the second spot is especially crucial. If the Clippers can spring past Oklahoma City by picking up a few extra wins in the beginning of the season, they'll face a far easier path to the Western Conference Finals with the added bonus of home-court advantage for two rounds.
Golden State and Houston are also lurking, and upshot Portland could stick around long enough to keep things interesting. Dallas is always a danger, even more so now with the addition of Chandler Parsons. If Anthony Davis takes another giant leap toward superstardom in year three and the Pelicans can finally stay healthy, they might sneak into the race as well.
There are a lot of moving parts here.
Oklahoma City is head and shoulders above everyone (minus the Spurs) at full strength, but the Durant injury moves the needle rather significantly.
Few teams in the NBA are as star-driven as the Thunder.
Durant is a souped-up Mercedes capable of orchestrating magic by himself. By default, he relieves the pressure on crafting an offense that produces easy baskets. He's an unguardable scorer in isolation, a devastating driver and distributor in the pick-and-roll and a menace in catch-and-shoot situations off screens.
There's very little drop-off when it comes to Westbrook. He's not quite the shooter that Durant is, but he's arguably athletically superior and an aggression junkie. His drives to the rim are so ferocious that defenders resort to turning and hacking.
Head coach Scott Brooks has appropriately structured an offense around the unique talents of his best players. Instead of whipping up rigid play designs, he uses preliminary screening action to put Durant or Westbrook in a favorable position or matchup.
The organic nature of his sets makes OKC more difficult to scout. Defenses can't simply frame their strategy to stop a specific set of plays. Outside of completely denying Durant or Westbrook the basketball, they'll have to make broader and conceptual decisions concerning double-teams and rotations against mismatches.
Brooks relies on Durant and Westbrook to create from these advantageous situations. In a sport that can largely be a matter of execution, Brooks is unleashing his players and tweaking the game toward a battle of talent.
The key to that process is constantly forcing opponents to make strategic decisions. Brooks primarily crashes Durant and Westbrook together in funky 1-4 pick-and-rolls (with either player as the ball-handler or screener), dribble handoffs or pin-downs, and his stars excel at reacting on the fly.
Defensive strategies vary throughout the NBA, but all of them come at a cost—especially against Oklahoma City. Westbrook and Durant are so cerebral that they can diagnose defensive schemes and audible the nuances of their movement to capitalize on whatever looks are available.
Defenses try to counterpunch by switching up coverages at random times, but that's a risky ploy. Most teams hammer down their favored schemes and only practice others on occasion. Winging it defensively, where communication and synchronized movement is a must, can be disastrous.
What might be the right chess move is poorly executed and even more porous than the initial defensive game plan.
Ultimately, there isn't a right answer for defending Westbrook-Durant actions. Fighting around screens leaves momentary gaps to exploit. Switches cause mismatches, and the rangy Durant can post smaller players on the block while Westbrook leaves bigger wings in the dust.
Here's the Thunder running a leaguewide-used "Horns" set, in which two OKC bigs—Serge Ibaka and Durant—act as pick-and-roll options on mirrored locations at the three-point line.
It's Westbrook's job to choose a side, and the screener he uses rolls hard to the rim while the other big pops. The idea is to create pressure on the big not guarding the screener by compelling him to choose between pinching down on the roller or sticking with the popper.
On this play, Tony Allen of the Memphis Grizzlies is that player caught in a bind. As Westbrook comes off the Steven Adams screen, Allen can't help whatsoever because leaving Durant is not an option.
Durant, therefore, pulls him away from the paint by simply walking up toward the three-point line. This forces Mike Miller, guarding Derek Fisher in the weak-side corner, to "tag" Steven Adams—momentarily picking him up to prevent a dump-off pass down low.
The long distance he has to travel means Fisher is wide open, and Westbrook is able to find him. As Miller scrambles back, his momentum is far too strong to handle Fisher's pump fake.
Fisher easily blows by and finishes at the rim.
Sometimes OKC stashes Durant in the corner, limiting the help a back-side rotator can provide. Westbrook has the court vision to find Durant all over the floor, and that essentially pins one defender (Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs in the example below) far away from the action.
This reverberates throughout the entire defense. As the defensive big (Tiago Splitter) guarding a popping Ibaka has no help behind him, he's caught between a rock and a hard place. Whether he sticks with Ibaka or sinks in to help on Westbrook, his decision has to be the right one.
Because basket protection is usually a primary defensive instinct for interior players, he chooses to stick with Westbrook. This leaves Ibaka wide open for the catch-and-shoot jumper.
Now take Durant out of this equation and replace him with Nick Collison, Steven Adams or Kendrick Perkins. None is a threat to shoot from outside. Even if that spot is filled by Anthony Morrow in small-ball lineups, he's nowhere near as threatening off the bounce. Defenders can leap by him to drive him off the three-point line without much consequence.
If it's Serge Ibaka popping, he's only threatening out to 20 feet. Defenses will gladly give up 10 to 15 Ibaka mid-range jumpers to keep Westbrook out of the paint.
The play as a whole is far less threatening without Durant in the equation because no player besides Westbrook warrants extra attention.
Simple sets do not work without the playmakers and scorers to stimulate their success. That's why an offense like Chicago's was so rigid last season: It did not have a single player who could consistently generate offense without the assistance of a pick.
Westbrook is now the only Thunder piece with that capability.
Still, OKC won't make wholesale changes to its philosophies in Durant's absence. The Thunder might emphasize certain team-oriented sets over individually styled plays, but reshaping their entire scheme is neither feasible in the short time frame of the preseason nor reasonable considering Durant's nonpermanent absence.
It will be up to the secondary offensive players, namely Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams, to step up their games.
Brooks also sees it as a group effort (via ESPN.com's Royce Young):
We're not asking Russell to be a 35-point scorer. Obviously, he's going to be a scorer because he can, and he does that at a high level. There will be games he might have 20, there will be games he'll have 30, but there will also be some games where he has 15. He just has to continue to lead like he has been and that's good enough. Everybody has to step up. It's not one guy. You're not going to replace Kevin with one guy. It's the team getting better as a group is what I'm looking to replace him with.
This is the approach that OKC must take. Role players can gain more confidence with more touches, and the team can instill an even better atmosphere of sharing the ball.
By the time Durant comes back, he can fit right back into the fold.
And if things go right, maybe his teammates will be that much better.