Serge Ibaka is out for approximately four to six weeks after undergoing surgery to address soreness in his right knee today, the Thunder announced via press release. The news is troublesome for Oklahoma City, which holds just a half-game lead on the Pelicans for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference with four weeks and one day to go until the end of the regular season. The team is already missing Kevin Durant, who hasn’t played since February 19th after injuring his right foot. Durant is expected back soon, but another significant injury adds to a season of ill health for the Thunder that threatens to keep them from the playoffs.
Oklahoma City has 15 players signed through at least the end of the season, as our roster counts show, and it’s too late for the team to apply for a disabled player exception. The Thunder don’t have enough missing players to apply for a hardship exception that would give them a 16th roster spot, either, so their avenues for injury relief are limited. The team used hardship to sign Ish Smith as a 16th man earlier this season, but that was a temporary measure, and two more players would have to turn up with long-term injuries to put the team back in line for that provision.
It’s conceivable that Ibaka’s expected absence would encourage the Pelicans to make a move to try to pass the Thunder. New Orleans has one of the league’s most flexible rosters, with 14 players and only 13 of them signed through the season, and the Pelicans have a sliver of their mid-level exception to dangle on one of the more sought-after free agents if they choose. The Suns loom two and a half games back of Oklahoma City, and Phoenix has more than $3MM in cap room along with only 14 players signed through the end of the season. The Thunder have portions of their mid-level and biannual exceptions remaining, but they’d have to waive a player and risk eating his salary to sign anyone else, and they’re already a taxpaying team.