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Another Year Lost to Injury, Another Reason to Worry About Kevin Durant for OKC

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterMarch 20, 2015

Kevin Jairaj/Getty Images

It's on Kevin Durant this time.

The primary reason for the Oklahoma City Thunder's failures—or more accurately put, the Thunder's successes without a championship—has been a steady diet of injuries.

Russell Westbrook's lack of health in 2013. Serge Ibaka's lack of health in 2014.

Now Durant's lack of health in 2015 (though Ibaka's knee surgery means he is likely also out for the season with Durant).

The reflexive take on this: A championship door closing on the Thunder is a massive setback for the idea of more Durant in OKC. And this season is one of just two doors that remain open for a breakthrough before Durant's free agency in 2016.

It is, however, one thing for Durant to feel that he tried and failed and another for him to not have his own personal shot at it this season.

Great players possess inordinate belief that they can affect change on their own. So it remains to be seen whether Durant takes this more as him letting down the Oklahoma City Thunder and their fans than the vice versa of past years.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti announced Friday that Durant would not return to the court until all soreness in his right foot, which has plagued him all season, is gone.

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"Essentially, that's the direction we're headed right now," Presti said, per Royce Young of ESPN.com, in reply to a question about whether it'd be best to shut Durant down for the season—even though the Thunder are in position to scratch into the playoff picture for a restart.

Foot issues are notoriously troublesome for NBA players.

Draft prospects are downgraded far more for foot concerns than many other ailments. There's just too much wear and tear for imperfection to exist down there, and no one inside the league is ever surprised by a foot complication mushrooming into a bigger problem down the road.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul, president of the National Basketball Players Association, pondered the current injury absences of superstars such as Durant, Derrick Rose and Paul George and said Friday, "It's tough on the league."

In another sense, it's nothing new.

Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell were ousted by the Lakers in the 2004 West finals.
Kevin Garnett, Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell were ousted by the Lakers in the 2004 West finals.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell is still lamenting his hip injury 11 years ago, which cost a Minnesota Timberwolves team built on Kevin Garnett, Cassell and Latrell Sprewell after the T-Wolves notched the best record in the Western Conference.

"If I didn't get hurt, we would've won the championship in '04," Cassell said.

Without their max star power, the Timberwolves lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

A season ending with late injury disappointment has been on a Groundhog Day loop in Oklahoma City, which, like Minnesota, is a small-market team that simply is unlikely to contend for titles all that frequently in the big picture.

The general protocol in NBA management is to build around superstars, but there's always the risk that those superstars won't be healthy to carry the franchise.

The 2004 Detroit Pistons, who upset the Lakers after they eliminated those Timberwolves, cut against that grain with teamwork and shocked the world with exceptional players in Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace. The Atlanta Hawks are trying to do the same this season, but it's natural to be skeptical in this star-driven, five-man sport.

Looking back on Garnett's career, he won his lone NBA MVP award in 2003-04, when Cassell was hurt. Garnett didn't get the ring that special season in Minnesota, and he never did during his long career there.

Garnett reluctantly gave it up and went to Boston in a trade in 2007. He won the NBA title with the Celtics the following fresh-start season.

As much as this Kevin also has roots in his longtime playing home, Durant is less fearful of change. That's why his free agency is a real deal.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

He knows he was naive in not having at least an opt-out in the deal he signed with the Thunder, and he's confident enough in himself to restart somewhere new. The burden of taking over a heralded franchise in a monster market such as Los Angeles or New York under an extreme spotlight is attractive to a guy who has already dabbled in movie-making.

When Durant put together an HBO documentary, The Offseason, after the Thunder lost to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 Western Conference Finals, the basic theme was one he stated near the beginning of the film: "I'm tired of being second."

This season, Durant won't be second. Barring an unexpected recovery, he won't even be in the race.

His absence will be the reason the Thunder fail.

That stands to motivate him even more for his next—and maybe last—season in Oklahoma City.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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