The Thunder’s starting lineup has yet to play a single minute together this preseason, and by the sound of it OKC’s first five won’t take the floor together at all in any of the remaining exhibition games.
Kendrick Perkins has a bum wrist, which is expected to keep him sidelined through the remainder of these dress rehearsals. Thabo Sefolosha has been slowed by a troublesome quadriceps muscle and has yet to suit up. Serge Ibaka missed the opener with a quad injury. Russell Westbrook got a rare rest at Utah.
Thunder coach Scott Brooks already has said Kevin Durant will sit a game, maybe even two, and Westbrook at some point will get another night off.
Suddenly, chemistry is a concern for a team that returned largely intact following its trek to the NBA Finals.
“That is definitely a concern,” Brooks said. “But like everything else there’s no excuses.”
This year’s training camp was supposed to be a difference-maker, days the Thunder was supposed to use to build on its rock solid foundation and form an even stronger bond while implementing sets and schemes that soon would become the backbone of June success. Hasn’t happened. Rather than developing more rhythm, the Thunder’s core has been cut to pieces.
James Harden, last year’s sensational Sixth Man of the Year, got shelved after the opener because of a faulty groin. He’s day-to-day, and the injury isn’t expected to keep him sidelined for long. But each minute Harden and others miss is one the Thunder never can make up.
Brooks of course is trying to make the best of a bad situation, mixing and matching lineups among a bunch of backups that barely will play this season — if they can even manage to make the final roster.
“If you’re ready to play you have to be able to play at the level that we need you to play at,” Brooks said. “Would you like Thabo and James and Perk playing exhibition and (going through) contact in practice? Absolutely. But we don’t have it.”
So what will it cost the Thunder? That’s the million dollar question.
No matter how much camaraderie these 20-somethings have off the court, some sort of trial period seems required to maintain the chemistry on it. Some players have moved on (Derek Fisher and Nazr Mohammed), others are moving up (Cole Aldrich), roles are being redefined (Eric Maynor and Reggie Jackson) and one wide-eyed rookie could crack the rotation (Perry Jones III).
The feeling-out phase looks like it’ll come in the regular season. It’s possible that the season’s first month could be spent shoring up some of the basics that unfortunately might be escaping OKC now. That’s 17 games, 20 percent of the schedule. Worse, with 11 of those first 17 at home, it’s possible the Thunder wastes an opportunity to jump out to a sizable lead in the standings while straightening things out.
Fortunately for the Thunder, the regular season hardly matters anymore. For OKC, everything now centers on a championship goal, and whatever happens between November and April is only training for May and June.
“We want to continue to build as the season goes along,” Brooks said. “We still want to have a good start. But does it really matter? I mean, it does matter but if you don’t have a good start it’s not like the season’s over. It’s a lot of games, 82 games. But we’d like to have all of our guys.”
When everyone gets healthy, how long will it take for the Thunder to pick up where it left off?
“The track history with our guys, right away,” Brooks said. “I don’t see that being a problem.”