Last season, the Oklahoma City Thunder were knocked out prematurely from the playoffs because of Russell Westbrook being injured, and Kevin Durant not being able to carry the team on his own. As the new NBA season approaches, at least the start of the year is going to look quite similar.
After undergoing surgery on his knee back in May, swelling has put Westbrook back on the operation table to get ready for the next season, but it also means he’ll be missing between four to six weeks of its start, which is around 20 games for Kevin Durant to play without one of the best players, not just point guards, in the NBA.
One of the things the Thunder will surely work on is Reggie Jackson somehow helping Durant carry the ball. It seemed like Durant touched the ball on almost every possession for the Thunder last season, resulting in him looking completely exhausted as the series against the Memphis Grizzlies got longer and more desperate for the Thunder.
Jackson did average 15 points per game in the playoffs last year, adapting well to Westbrook’s absence. But the problem is Jackson being used in a different role, or at least designated to one. With Kevin Martin leaving, the Thunder no longer have that third scoring option that was so important as they made the NBA finals in 2012 and finished with 60 wins last season. Jackson can fill Westbrook’s spot early on to a certain extent, but the Thunder will still be missing the points off the bench.
Is Jeremy Lamb the answer? Lamb played only 23 games last season, averaging 6.4 minutes and 3.1 points per game. He didn’t play once in the postseason for the Thunder, but all of a sudden he’s going to be asked to become a productive member of the rotation, and upgrade his scoring average by doubling it at least.
One issue that Scott Brooks has to deal with is the usage factor. Westbrook finished a team-high 33% of plays with a shot, a trip to the free throw line or a turnover created offense for his team, even if it was of the selfish kind quite often. Jackson, with his 18.7% usage rating, isn’t that kind of facilitator. Brooks isn’t that kind of creative head coach from what we’ve seen from him so far, meaning that either Thabo Sefolosha and Kednrick Perkins, players who hardly touch the ball, will suddenly be assigned new roles, or even more responsibility will fall on Durant’s shoulders.
One difference from last year’s playoffs? The schedule means the Thunder aren’t going to play against the Grizzlies 20-25 times. For the regular season, putting that kind of pressure on Durant for a month or so might work, although taking a look at the big picture, which is winning enough games to make Westbrook’s absence seem less important and by that make sure they don’t fall too far behind in the home-court advantage race in the tough west, can’t stop the pessimistic feeling from creeping in. Unless Kevin Durant has another level of basketball and dominance he has yet to demonstrate.