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NBA AM: How Big Is Kevin Durant’s Injury?

Will Kevin Durant’s injury derail the Thunder’s quest to win the West?… A Calmer Kobe?

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November Matters:  With the news yesterday that Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant may miss up to eight weeks after a Jones fracture (a small crack at the base of the small toe) surfaced in his right foot, the question becomes does this really matter in the grand scheme of things for the Thunder?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Last season in the Western Conference the difference between first place and home court throughout the playoffs was just three games. The Spurs ended the 2013-14 season with 62 wins versus the Thunder’s 59 wins. The season before the gap between first was just two games in the West with the Thunder notching 60 wins compared to San Antonio’s 58 wins.

So how does Durant missing most of November impact the Thunder?

November has become incredibly important to the overall standings, mainly because the teams that get out to a fast start in November tend to get out front and stay there for the balance of the season.

Last season the Indiana Pacers notched a 15-1 November, which got them a two game cushion on second place Miami, who ended the season two games behind the Pacers in the east, despite an epic collapse by the Pacers after the All-Star break.

The Spurs notched a 14-3 November last season, giving them a three game cushion on second place Oklahoma City, who notched a 11-3 start, those three games ended up deciding the West.

It’s easy to say the first month of the season does not matter, however historically the difference between first place and home court throughout and fifth place and starting the postseason on the road is usually a small number of games, so literally every game matters in the race for first place.

The Thunder aren’t going to fall out of contention because of Durant’s injury, but much like Memphis proved last year, missing your very best player for 10-20 games does put a team in the hole and the West is not a good place to start in the hole.

Fortunately for the Thunder they do have some depth that they can lean on. As they say ‘injury creates opportunity’ and for guys like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and Reggie Jackson they’ll need to find another gear while the league’s MVP rehabs his injury.

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A Calmer Kobe?:  You won’t have to go very far to find a negative comment about Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, especially from former teammates. To say Bryant is driven is an understatement. To say he is demanding of himself and his teammates is even more so. There are few players in the NBA that are as driven as Bryant, so when his new Laker teammates talk of a calmer, cooler, more nurturing Bryant, it seems a little out of place given his 19 season history in the NBA.

“My style is a little different with his group. It’s a little more nurturing,” Bryant said to Arash Markazi of ESPN.com. “They’re so much younger, so it’s a little different. The important thing with this group is learning how to think the game all the way through, which is different than on teams that we have had in the past. We had a lot of veteran guys who had been around. So my teaching style is different.”

Teaching style?

Bryant’s career is littered with confrontation and demands of his teammates, so to hear him label his approach as a teaching style is a little amusing, but the truth of the matter is most of the players that have played with and been on the receiving end of Bryant’s process find themselves as better players in the long run.

New Lakers head coach Byron Scott was something of a mentor in Bryant’s rookie season, so watching him lead is things coming full circle.

“He’s been a mentor,” Scott said. “He’s been a little bit of an assistant coach. I think he’s getting soft in his old age. But seriously, he’s been really good with all the guys, to be honest with you. He’s done a heck of a job of taking guys to the side and teaching them little things about the NBA. He’s done the same thing at practice. He’s been an extension of [the coaching staff].

“It’s fun watching it, because he takes it very seriously. When he pulls guys aside, he’s really trying to show them the little things about being successful in this league. [Kobe and I] had a talk one day with Julius [Randle] and told him if he had anywhere near the work ethic of Kobe, he’ll be an All-Star, and if he doesn’t, he’ll just be a good basketball player in the NBA.”

While Bryant’s approach may have changed a little, it hasn’t stopped teammates from seeking him out and trying to absorb the knowledge that Bryant has, and how it can help them improve.

Laker guard Jeremy Lin has played with some of the league brightest stars, but sees the knowledge he can glean from Bryant as invaluable.

“He’s pushing me and he’s demanding a lot from me. He’s definitely taken on a mentorship role for me on the court,” Lin said. “That’s something that I don’t think I’ve had in my previous four years in the league. It’s just nice to have somebody who is pushing me and helping me and teaching me the tricks. It’s also nice when he’s one of the best to ever do it.”

Having Bryant’s wisdom in his ear every day has helped Lin understand the game in ways, he hadn’t considered in his previous stops.

“He’s a little later in his career,” Lin said. “When I was with Melo, he was younger, and the same with James and Dwight. With Kobe, he’s been around and he understands. He’s done it. He has a great attention to detail and he cares about the little things. The stuff that he talks to me about, I didn’t ever think about.

“He’s challenging me to expand even my perspective. That’s really important and something I love doing. It’s a blessing he’s here in the same locker room.”

Don’t mistake kindness for weakness. Bryant understands that for him to have success this season he’s going to need his young guys to get up to speed quickly and he’s taking an active role in that department.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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