There is and will be life after Russell Westbrook for the Oklahoma City Thunder. It may not involve an NBA title coming back to the Great Plains, but, then again, this year's crown has pretty much been the Miami Heat's to lose from the get-go.
Not that LeBron James' prohibitive lording over the basketball world diminishes the sting of losing a key cog like Westbrook for any amount of time. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, the tear in the lateral meniscus in Westbrook's right knee—which likely resulted from a superfluous collision with Patrick Beverley during the Thunder's Game 2 win over the Houston Rockets on April 24th—may be only a slight one. The recovery time, though, could range anywhere from a few weeks to three months, depending on the true extent of the damage and the procedure that Westbrook, the Thunder and the doctors involved choose to pursue.
In any case, OKC must prepare for the worst (i.e. no more Russ until 2013-14), and in Kevin Durant, it has a superstar who can help the team do just that.
Durant had already spent much of the 2012-13 season expanding his game into areas beyond shooting and scoring. True, he did those two things exceptionally well, becoming just the eighth member of the 50-40-90 club while falling just shy of capturing his fourth straight scoring title.
But he also showed off a more well-rounded game, one in which passing and dribbling were more prevalent than ever. With James Harden joining the Rockets during training camp, the onus fell, in part, on Durant's shoulders to make up for the playmaking and creativity that the Beard brought to the table.
By and large, KD delivered. He averaged a career-high 4.6 assists and actually cut down on his turnovers, however slightly, in 2012-13. That uptick was on full display in Game 2 against Houston, wherein Durant racked up nine dimes with just one turnovers while pouring in a "ho-hum" 29 points.
That performance merely mirrored what Durant had done all year. He'd tallied seven or more assists on 16 different occasions during the regular season, thanks in large part to the preternatural passing skills that he finally had a more consistent chance to show off.
Much was made early on of KD's improvement in the post, though the real revelation was his ability to serve as a multi-faceted hub close to the basket, from which point he could hit cutters with pinpoint passes:
Though he's just as capable of finding his teammates off the dribble:
And, of course, if Durant wants to take it himself with a nifty handle or two, he can do that as well:
There's also a fair amount of data that suggests the Thunder will be okay with Durant holding the fort while his superstar sidekick is on leave. According to noted NBA stat head Daniel M, OKC outscored its opposition by a wider margin with Durant and without Westbrook than vice versa:
Daniel Myers @DSMok1
So: OKC played 523 minutes with Durant on and Westbrook off this season. OKC was a +14 / 100 possessions in those minutes. via @nbawowy2013-4-26 18:41:29
Daniel Myers @DSMok1
Vise versa: OKC was only +7 per 100 possession in 250 minute w/ Russ on and KD off.2013-4-26 18:43:43
To be sure, this shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Durant is the better and more important of the two in OKC. If anything, it'd be a shock if Kevin weren't the more impactful one.
More importantly, the Thunder have been dominant (particularly on offense) against Western Conference playoff teams when Durant hasn't shared the floor with Russ:
Daniel Myers @DSMok1
OKC has played 184 min w/ KD on and Russ off vs. West playoff teams. +14/100 poss in those minutes as well! (and 1.20 PPP on O!) @nbawowy2013-4-26 19:00:06
With much of the glory going to KD, who's been blisteringly efficient against quality competition when he hasn't had Westbrook by his side:
Daniel Myers @DSMok1
In those 184 minutes vs. West playoff teams w/o Russ, KD had 70.4% true shooting on 33.5% usage. @nbawowy2013-4-26 19:07:45
Similarly, as Royce White of Daily Thunder suggested, the black cloud of Westbrook's absence could provide OKC with the silver lining of a more dominant, more focused and even more determined Kevin Durant. Perhaps this latest bit of adversity will spark Durant to take his game to the next level, not unlike how LeBron James—Durant's workout partner/rival/totem pole suppressor—stepped up his play for the Heat during last year's postseason in the wake of Chris Bosh's abdominal injury and Dwyane Wade's persistent knee problems.
However more transcendent Durant becomes, though, he won't be able to lift the Thunder by himself. He has the requisite skills to provide at least a measure of what Westbrook brought to the table, and might even replace some of Russ' more frustrating possessions with highly efficient ones of his own.
But none of that matters unless Durant's teammates do their part as well. No man is an island, especially in the NBA, wherein smart defenses shift to take away options from one threat or another. Beyond the specific skills that he brought to the table, Westbrook also served an important function as another dangerous offensive force who drew significant defensive attention. The more defenses keyed in on Russ, the less mind they (necessarily) paid Kevin.
With Westbrook gone, opposing defenses can now devote a much larger share of their effort, energy and schematic expertise toward stopping Durant at all costs. Therein lies the challenge for OKC—creating offense with Durant navigating his way through a stormy sea of differently colored jerseys.
There are myriad means by which to accomplish this, be it more post-ups for Serge Ibaka, more two-man game between Kevin Martin and Nick Collison and/or more pick-and-roll involving Durant in some significant capacity.
All of which leads back to the rest of OKC's remaining players and their collective responsibility to step up to the challenge. Durant (and, to some extent, Kevin Martin) can't be expected to perform all of the Thunder's point guard duties while Westbrook is away.
For the most part, OKC will turn to Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher to fill the void, for better or worse. Jackson, a 23-year-old in his second year out of Boston College, has often been compared to a poor man's Russell Westbrook on account of his size, strength, athleticism and aggression at his position. He showed promise at times during the regular season, with per-36-minute averages of 13.6 points and 4.4 assists to accompany the many thunderous dunks (both made and missed) that he attempted. Surprisingly enough, the Thunder have fared well this season in non-fourth-quarter minutes in which Jackson was featured at the point over Westbrook:
Daniel Myers @DSMok1
In 460 non-4th quarter minutes, OKC w/ Reggie and w/o Russ was +12.5 / 100 possessions via @nbawowy2013-4-26 18:47:12
Simply put, the kid's a fearless, attack-minded athlete who has the potential to rock the rim on offense and be a pest on defense...when he's not too busy making boneheaded mistakes.
What Reggie isn't, though, is a reliable shooter who can stretch a defense. He's hit 3-of-6 three-point attempts in two playoff games but was successful just 23.1 percent of the time during the regular season. Jackson also lacks much in the way of experience, with his two playoff appearances against the Rockets being the very first of his career.
That can't be said of Derek Fisher, who has a long and storied history of making plays and hitting big shots in the playoffs. In fact, Fisher ranks third all-time in postseason games, 17th in minutes, sixth in three-point makes, 31st in three-point percentage and 37th in assists. It certainly helps that he's been to the playoffs 15 times in his 17-year career.
Granted, at 38, Fisher is merely a shell of the clutch performer he once was. But, at the very least, he'll never be overwhelmed by the moment and he's enough of a proven three-point threat to merit some measure of attention from a defense.
If only there were some way to confer the strengths of Jackson and Fisher onto one player, the Thunder would have themselves a strong replacement for Westbrook. Unfortunately, modern science hasn't yet demonstrated the capacity to pull off such a medical miracle. Instead, it'll be up to head coach Scott Brooks to figure out how best to balance minutes between the two so as to maximize their effectiveness in different situations.
And, ultimately, it'll be Kevin Durant's responsibility, as his team's lone remaining superstar, to reach even higher in pursuit of excellence while his fallen comrade works his way back.