Russell Westbrook

It’s always difficult to decide just how much the preseason means. With the Oklahoma City Thunder, it’s less about their record and more about how badly they’ve been playing without Kevin Durant, as taking more shots by Russell Westbrook hasn’t really been helping make up for the MVP’s absence.

It’s simply math. Durant and his 32 points per game are taken away. Someone has to make up for that disappearance. Westbrook isn’t going to score 56 points per game, and Serge Ibaka isn’t going to be that much more effective without Durant. He relies on players grabbing attention and putting him in a position to hit open mid-range jumpers. He might get more touches and shots, but that won’t turn him into a scorer all of a sudden.

The Thunder lost 105-91 to the Utah Jazz with Steven Adams starting in the lineup, while Westbrook was joined by Andre Roberson and Anthony Morrow in the backcourt. Westbrook and Ibaka each scored 14 points while Westbrook also added 11 assists. It’s safe to say he’ll have a lot of opportunities to touch the ball while Durant is out for about a month or maybe more. It’s not quite sure that giving Westbrook so much of the ball is such a great idea.

Perry Jones played 31 minutes off the bench, and he might be the player that makes the most of Durant sitting out. He scored 20 points. We might also see a bit more Nick Collison, playing for the first time in this preseason due to a bad ankle, especially if defense, which is something Scott Brooks knows a lot more about, is the main issue here without Durant.

Durant isn’t an all-defensive kind of player – he’s not focused on 100% of defensive possessions and can’t handle every type of forward. But in the paint-crowding system the Thunder use, his long arms make for a very useful way of stopping ball movement or getting easy looks at the basket. There are no almost 7-foot small forwards in the NBA except for Durant, and it’s even more clear that the presence is missing on this team.

This might mean smaller lineups from Brooks, with three guards and two big men on the court, hoping that Westbrook’s athleticism makes up for lack of size in other positions. The Thunder actually did well in smaller lineups last season, but that worked as long as they had some defensive stopper on one of them. There’s no Thabo Sefolosha anymore, which makes their perimeter defense a bit more vulnerable.

Westbrook is an excellent defender when he wants to. But he also has this tendency to lose his man and think only about the moment he and his team get their hands on the ball. This next month is going to be a great test not just for the Thunder but especially for the All-Star point guard, who’ll have to think about more than just getting more shots and maybe leading the league in scoring, but doing the things necessary for the Thunder so their record doesn’t get all messed up right from the start, giving Kevin Durant too much of a catch-up job once he returns.

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