Until their mercurial floor general returns, the Thunder must lean on backup Reggie Jackson to fill the void.
Jackson stepped in for Westbrook after the star point guard tore his meniscus against the Houston Rockets in last year's playoffs. He played well in that situation, but keeping the Thunder afloat for two months as they try to secure the Western Conference’s top seed is a different story.
As The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry notes, the post-All-Star break timeline does not mean Westbrook will be back first thing after the New Orleans festivities. Given the nature of Westbrook’s knee issues, this could continue to be a major issue going forward.
Bleacher Report’s lead sports injuries writer Will Carroll notes that these kinds of injuries tend to have a significant impact on the length of a player’s career.
The recurrent nature of Westbrook's knee problems is very concerning. In both the short and long term, we have to worry about any player who has cartilage issues. We've learned that meniscus and articular cartilage problems tend to escalate and shorten careers.
Until some of the experimental techniques for repairing and even replacing these structures advance to the point where they can be used on pro athletes, we'll continue to lose athletes to these kinds of injuries.
The worry now is that the meniscus repair failed and that either it was re-injured or that his knee is given forces it can't handle. The Thunder medical staff is one of the best around and they have shown a long-term bias in dealing with Westbrook. We'll have to see what the next step is while wondering if we're seeing Westbrook's chances at a long productive career fade away as he heads under the knife.
The Thunder are lucky to have one of the league’s premier backup point guards. To replace the stellar production Westbrook was giving them, they'll need Jackson to play the best basketball of his young career.
On the year, Jackson is averaging 12.4 points, 3.8 boards and 3.4 assists on 45.1 percent shooting overall and 30.9 percent from three-point range. He averaged 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists on 47.9 percent shooting in the 2013 playoffs, logging 33.5 minutes of work per night.
He obviously won’t be able to replace Westbrook’s all-around production, but as we saw in the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Thunder need someone besides Kevin Durant providing offense or they simply become way too one-dimensional.
Now that we know a little about Westbrook’s injury and his timeframe for return, let’s look at whether Jackson can adequately hold down the fort for Oklahoma City.
At 6’3”, Jackson has the size of a point guard and the mentality of a scorer. He has improved as a playmaker and as a pick-and-roll guard, but when Jackson plays, his primary goal is to score.
That is not overly different from Westbrook, who thrives while either attacking the basket in the half-court or pushing the ball in transition, rather than playing the role of unselfish facilitator.
Jackson has been improving his outside jumper, but the Boston College product is still at his best when he drives into the paint and goes hard to the basket. He is surprisingly athletic and explosive, as evidenced by his pulverization of Amar’e Stoudemire on Christmas (see right).
Defensively, Jackson should be able to step right into the Thunder’s starting five and play well. He is long and quick on his feet, able to stay in front of his man and make opponents shoot contested shots.
Jackson is not great at deflecting passes and coming up with steals, but he is a pest who can pressure opposing guards full-court and really make them work to initiate the offense.
He's tied for fifth on the team in terms of defensive win shares (0.9), per Basketball-Reference, a number consistent with his role on the team.
Jackson can also cover some shooting guards, and though his defense will likely slip slightly due to an increased offensive burden, he’ll be able to make plenty of positive defensive contributions in Westbrook’s stead.
Jackson started three games in place of Westbrook early in the season and averaged a decent but unspectacular 10.7 points, 2.7 boards, 4.7 assists and 2.7 steals per game while shooting 48.1 percent from the floor.
He also averaged a troubling four turnovers per game, but for a young guard, he generally did a good job of running the Thunder’s offense when needed and deferring to Durant otherwise.
Jackson, however, isn't nearly as adept at drawing fouls as Westbrook. He averaged just 1.3 free-throw attempts per game in his three starts and 2.6 per game in the 2013 playoffs. Oklahoma City relies on Westbrook to penetrate and draw contact, so Jackson needs to do a better job of getting to the line to replace some of Westbrook’s production from the charity stripe.
The third-year guard is averaging an impressive 17.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.3 steals per 36 minutes, albeit with just 2.8 free-throw attempts. If Jackson can put up numbers of that caliber, the Thunder should be fine, but replacing Westbrook's insanely high usage rate will be another problem.
Westbrook’s usage rate of 32.6 is higher even than Durant’s, per Basketball-Reference. While Jackson’s is third on the team at 23.7, there is a different kind of pressure when the ball is in your hands for the majority of the game.
Jackson, like Westbrook, is not a stellar outside shooter, although he has improved his three-point shot considerably. Shooting 32.0 percent from deep isn't exactly Stephen Curry-esque, but Jackson shot just 23.1 percent last year and 21 percent as a rookie, so at least he's trending upward. He is also shooting a borderline-acceptable 36.1 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), which is the type of three-point shot he should be taking most of the time.
Jackson has also become a solid pick-and-roll guard who hits 49.6 percent of his shots out of those situations, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). Given that much of the Thunder's offensive production relied on Westbrook running the pick-and-roll, Jackson's proficiency in that regard will be a major asset.
Defensively, Jackson’s numbers are even better than Westbrook’s, although he was mainly going against other bench players. Jackson holds opponents to 33.8 percent shooting overall, compared to Westbrook’s 37.7 percent, per Synergy (subscription required), and just 23.3 percent on isolations, compared to 38.5 percent for Westbrook.
His defense will inevitably slip as his usage rating increases, but Jackson is a solid enough defender to be a positive contributor on that side of the ball.
He won't be an explosive scorer on Westbrook's level, but the numbers say that Jackson is more than capable of playing starter’s minutes and producing at a very high level.
Can Jackson Hold It Down for Westbrook?
The Thunder have enough talent to survive Westbrook’s injury, but their chances at the Western Conference’s top seed appear shaky for now. They will likely lose significant ground to the Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs, as there's still no official date when Westbrook will return.
Jackson is a very good player and one who has proven that he can produce while playing heavy minutes, so it’s not as if the Thunder will fall out of the playoff picture or likely even below the fourth seed, but this will definitely change the dynamic for teams playing OKC.
Durant will see more frequent double-teams, particularly since Jackson is a shaky shooter. As a result, KD will have to work even harder for his points, as he did in last year's playoffs following Westbrook's injury. OKC’s only other point guard is Derek Fisher, so it’s safe to assume Durant will be doing more ball-handling than usual, and Jackson has shown the ability to work off the ball and move around screens to get open.
Thanks to Jackson, Westbrook's most recent surgery is not the end of the world or even the 2013-14 season for OKC. But if Westbrook cannot come back and stay healthy for the playoffs, the Thunder likely will suffer the same fate they did in 2013: a dispiriting second-round playoff loss.