When a player wants to improve his own individual statistics, having a co-star like Russell Westbrook, who takes more than his fair share of shots away from Kevin Durant, get injured, isn’t such a bad thing. But the Oklahoma City Thunder want the NBA title, not for Durant to score at will. And yet, certain numbers from the regular season suggest it isn’t the end of the world.
First of all, in the very short-term way of looking at things, the Thunder won without Westbrook against the Houston Rockets, taking a 3-0 lead. They’re the better team, with the best player on the court and an interior defense that is overwhelmingly better than anything the Rockets have to offer, which is mostly James Harden driving to the basket and often make the wrong decision.
Everyone’s a genius in hindsight, starting to blame Sam Presti for trading away James Harden in the off-season, leaving the Thunder without someone who can backup for Westbrook. But the Thunder couldn’t have four huge contracts on their payroll, and someone had to be sacrificed. The idea was that Westbrook is the better gamble, and he might be. Freak accidents are always a risk, but a risk someone has to take, especially if it is a player who never missed a game because of an injury prior to colliding with Patrick Beverley.
Releasing Eric Maynor to the Portland Trail Blazers might have been a mistake. Reggie Jackson might be a decent player, while Derek Fisher is a point guard, but an old and very limited one. Maynor, who did a decent job as a backup for the Blazers on 21 minutes a night, including shooting 38% from the field, might have been quite useful when you try and look at the next series (Clippers? Grizzlies?) the Thudner will have to play.
But there are promising stats from the regular season, although no lineup has played together as much as the Thunder’s starting lineup across the NBA. Still, Durant increased his scoring per 36 minutes from 25.7 to 29.4 when Westbrook sat while also improving his efficiency; his true shooting percentage went from .640 to .680. This means Durant will be playing at least 45 minutes a night, resting only 44 seconds in the game 3 win over the Rockets.
Reggie Jackson in the lineup seems to be the only answer the Thunder have to this situation. Jackson played over 30 minutes only once during his NBA career, although his PER rise from his rookie season (9.2 to 14.3) shows that more minutes might not necessarily be a bad thing for him and OKC. Durant-Jackson pairings have worked very well for the Rockets this season, although none of them have been really tested.
When Durant is in and Westbrook is out, Nick Collison is almost always on the floor, and while the quality of opposition isn’t the best possible during Collison’s minutes, Westbrook being out means Collison will see more time on the floor looking deeper into the postseason, meaning more small-ball from the Thunder.
Better without Westbrook? Probably not, but things have a funny way of working out. There’s a chance Westbrook does comeback in five to six weeks, if the Thunder last that long. If they do reach the Finals without him, maybe a Westbrook theory will be made up to replace the old Ewing one.