The loss of Russell Westbrook is a blow to Thunder, but things could be worse
The script has flipped quickly for the Thunder, who opened training camp needing to address their looming sixth man hole. Instead of trying to divvy up the minutes created by the free-agency departure of Kevin Martin, Oklahoma City now must concern itself with a much more pressing question: How to make due without Russell Westbrook? It was announced Tuesday that the three-time All-Star point guard is out for the first four-to-six weeks of the regular season after undergoing his second knee surgery since April.
The Thunder have been here before, but not really. Westbrook was lost for most of the 2013 playoffs following his initial surgery; without him, Oklahoma City moved Reggie Jackson into the starting lineup and went 3-6, squeaking past the Rockets in the first round but falling to the Grizzlies in the conference semifinals. It’s difficult to extrapolate from that sample for a few reasons: Martin was still on board, providing 14 points per game, Memphis’ elite defense was a particularly difficult match-up for a neutered offensive attack, and Oklahoma City was forced to improvise without preparation following a fluky collision between Westbrook and Rockets guard Patrick Beverley.
Assessing the conditions facing Oklahoma City this time around, the general sense is that things could be better and they could be worse.
The maxim that it’s better to find out bad news sooner than later definitely applies here. The Thunder have a full month before they open their regular season schedule against the Jazz in Utah, and they will face six 2013 lottery teams in a row to begin the season. That time not only allows Oklahoma City the opportunity to get comfortable with Jackson running the show, it also gives GM Sam Presti the chance to make a roster addition, something that clearly wasn’t at his disposal during the 2013 postseason. (Such a move would require juggling, though, as the Thunder would need to create an open roster spot.)
Even with a grace period of preparation time, this is still a significant chunk of the season to be stuck operating without the irreplaceable Westbrook, who has earned three straight All-NBA Second Team selections and missed a grand total of zero regular season games during his five-year career. Acting under the assumption that Westbrook will require the full six weeks to return, he will miss roughly 21 games, which is a little over one-quarter of the Thunder’s regular season slate. The 21-game segment splits break right down the middle: 10 games at home versus 11 on the road, and 10 games against 2013 playoff teams versus 11 against 2013 lottery teams. Only four of the estimated 21 games Oklahoma City is expected to play without Westbrook will come against teams that are widely-regarded as the West’s best (Clippers twice, Spurs, Grizzlies); two of those four are at home, where Oklahoma City enjoys an excellent home-court advantage, and it’s possible that Westbrook will be back in time for one of the road games (a Dec. 11 visit to Memphis).
Although the Thunder seem to have dodged the big bullets here — they will enjoy a cushy start and don’t have any burdensome early road trips — their status among the West’s favorites means that every extra loss could be a big deal come April. Last year, Oklahoma City captured the West with 60 wins in a top-heavy race, holding a two-game advantage over San Antonio and a four-game lead over the No. 5 seed. In the 2012 lockout-shortened season, the Thunder finished second to the Spurs by three games and were seven up for home-court advantage in the second round. The 2014 race figures to mirror the tight spacing seen in 2013 rather than the looser year in 2012, as the Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors and Rockets all positioned themselves this offseason for runs to the top. In such a competitive field, it’s reasonable to believe that an extra loss or two early could mean the difference between starting the conference semifinals or finals on the road instead of at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
What will the Thunder look like once they do take the court? They will begin games as they did in the 2013 playoffs, with the quick, aggressive Jackson doing his poor man’s imitation of Westbrook. Even though Jackson rose to the occasion in Westbrook’s absence, all things considered, his 13.9 points and 3.6 assists per game in the playoffs offer just a fraction of Westbrook’s production (23.2 points and 7.4 assists last season) and the two players’ efficiency numbers bear out a similar gulf. That discrepancy placed more pressure on Durant to carry the load offensively: Durant’s field goal attempts jumped from 17.7 per game in the regular season to 22.4 in the playoffs, and both his shooting numbers and PER dropped from the added postseason stress. To be clear, Playoff Durant still averaged 30.8 points, 9 rebounds and 6.3 assists, and that should still be enough to beat up on the league’s weaker sisters, even without Westbrook.
While Jackson hasn’t logged many career minutes with his new fellow starters — Durant, Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins — that unfamiliarity, or even his unfavorable comparison to Westbrook, isn’t likely to be Oklahoma City’s biggest issue. That tag falls to its bench unit, which looks to be in tatters, at least in comparison to the 2012 and 2013 models. It’s important to note that the presence of 2012 Sixth Man of the Year James Harden and Martin, who finished fourth in last year’s voting, gave Oklahoma City a headliner in their reserve unit in each of the last two seasons, but the Thunder still relied on their starters — the Durant/Westbrook combination in particular — to climb to No. 2 in the league in offensive efficiency for two straight seasons. To wit, Oklahoma City finished No. 17 in bench scoring in 2012 and No. 22 in 2013; outside of Harden and Martin, no Thunder reserve player, not even Jackson, has averaged more than six points per game over the last two seasons.
Again, things could be better and they could be worse. Filling in the double gap — no Westbrook and Martin — is a tall order and will almost certainly produce a substantial slide in the offensive efficiency charts early in the season. But that slide starts from a rank as the NBA’s second-best offense — a unit that blew out teams left and right and posted a plus-9.2 point differential last season — and not from shaky ground. Durant will need to increase his volume (perhaps at the expense of his otherworldly efficiency) and Serge Ibaka, whose offensive game expanded last season, will see another step up in responsibility. Jackson will need to hold down every minute he can reasonably handle, and possibly more. Meanwhile, Jeremy Lamb, he of the 147 career minutes played, is no longer merely a candidate, he’s officially the sixth man. That’s a designation by default as the rest of Oklahoma City’s available reserves — guard Derek Fisher and big men Nick Collison and Hasheem Thabeet – aren’t equipped for such a task. Lamb’s youth and inexperience will likely lead coach Scott Brooks to ride Sefolosha, the known quantity, like never before.
For neutral observers, there’s at least one bright spot in the wake of this unfortunate injury: watching Durant operate without his running buddy is a captivating sight. Westbrook’s absence forces the three-time scoring champion to operate in a world where “letting the game come to him” is no longer a suitable approach. That makes for a more urgent, and often more ruthless, scorer as well as a more active player on both ends. Someone has to fill the energy vacuum, and Durant’s postseason play suggested that he believed that task was his, before all others. Will that dynamic be enough to help Durant reclaim the scoring title from Carmelo Anthony? Will it manifest into a familiar “he carried his team through adversity” storyline that could turn the MVP voting into an actual race this year? Those will be the questions to ponder as the NBA world resets its clock on the Russell Westbrook Injury Return Countdown.