Kevin Durant's 48-Point Night Shows Thunder's Dilemma Without Russell Westbrook

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistJanuary 8, 2014

Jan 7, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Derek Fisher (6) and small forward Kevin Durant (35) react during the second half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. The Jazz won 112-101. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

With Russell Westbrook expected to miss the first four-to-six weeks of the regular season, some couched their disappointment by gleefully looking forward to the Kevin Durant, unapologetic gunner, era. Well, it's here now instead. 

And it is—hold your breath because I'm about to give some hardcore analysis—awesome.

Durant scored 48 points for the second time in three games on Tuesday, as the Thunder dropped a surprising game to the Utah Jazz, 112-101, in a contest that doubled as the best night in Gordon Hayward's life. The MVP runner-up two years running went to the free-throw line 19 times, added in seven rebounds and handed out five dimes in the latest of what's been a University of Texas-level usage period. 

In the seven games since Westbrook's injury, Durant is averaging 35 points, 9.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists. Despite taking 23.3 shots per game, verging on five more than this with-Westbrook average, Durant is shooting 49.7 percent—the slightest improvement over his regular-season rate. It's unfair to prorate this over an entire season, but if we'll all turn off our snobbish buttons for a second, Durant would join Wilt Chamberlain as the only player to put up these types of averages in the same year.

Say what you will about Wilt the Stilt and all of his prodigious records, but it's a damn good thing anytime another player is mentioned in the same sentence. 

It almost makes you wonder just how good Durant could be as a single-season sole alpha dog. Only two players post-merger, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, have averaged 35 points per game in a single season. Durant is in the "best natural scorer since M.J." conversation with Kobe, he's a better rebounder than either guy and is arguably on par with where they were as a passer at their respective points in their careers. 

Where does it stop? Could Durant have the single best offensive season in modern NBA history in an alternate universe where Westbrook disappears for a year? Maybe. 

Kevin Durant, By the (Historic) Numbers
Kevin Durant (2013-14, sans Westbrook)359.15.462.634.7
Kobe Bryant (2005-06)
Michael Jordan (1986-87)

What's certain is that the Thunder have no interest in finding out. In case the big fat 48 in the third graph caused your angular gyrus to disengage for a second, it is worth noting again that Oklahoma City lost. To the Jazz. The Utah Jazz.

The Utah Jazz, in case the italicized emphasis was not indication enough, are not good at professional basketball. The win brought them to 12-25 on the season, and they are outscored by more than anyone on a per 100-possession basis

While anything can happen on a single regular-season night, the Thunder are quickly learning that life isn't so grand in the Kevin Durant ball-out ballroom. They are 4-3 since Westbrook's injury and have actually dropped three of five if you want to play around with numbers a bit.

There are some positives. The Thunder are outscoring their opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions post-Westbrook, down less than a point from their regular-season average. The differences statistically are negligible for the most part, attributable only to random in-season variation.

Jan 7, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson (15) drives against Utah Jazz point guard Trey Burke (3) during the first quarter at EnergySolutions Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

That all would be promising if more underlying numbers didn't point to Durant over-exerting himself to the point you'd swear Scott Brooks and Tom Thibodeau switched places. Much was made of Reggie Jackson's improvement from last year, and the theory went that he could be a reasonable Westbrook facsimile.

That's unsurprisingly proved false. Harping on it being seven games has almost been rendered cliche already, which is fair, but Jackson has looked more like a higher-usage version of himself than someone who should reasonably be starting on a title contender. That's just fine; Jackson is an elite backup point guard who would probably rank in the bottom third or so as a starter.

Instead, it's been Durant being tasked with playing both the role of himself and taking on an increasing amount of Westbrook-y things. Nearly a quarter of all Durant possessions since Westbrook's injury finishing in a shot attempt, free throws or a turnover have come as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Synergy Sports. Durant is excellent as a scorer on the pick-and-roll, ranking in the 97th percentile, and he has somehow even been better since the Westbrook injury.

But he has an unsustainable 5.8 percent turnover rate in PnRs post-Westbrook, a third of his regular-season average. Brooks has almost entirely cut out plays where Durant acts as the screener, not trusting the Jackson-Durant combo's lethality as he does the dangerous crunch-time Westbrook-Durant PnR he likes to pull out of his hat.

Keep in mind that Durant needed 34 shots to get to 48 points on Tuesday night. The shots aren't nearly of the same quality as with Westbrook in the lineup to scare defenses (and teammates, I'm sure) half to death. Durant is using about 35 percent of Thunder possessions since Westbrook went down, which is one of just 15 such instances in measurable history, per

The wear is already beginning to show. Serge Ibaka had to sit with flu-like symptoms against Utah, and the greenness of everyone became fluorescent. Only Durant and Jackson scored in double-figures, OKC shot a galling 6-of-34 from distance and perimeter defense on Hayward was a calamity. 

"We fought. We fought, but we can't just play one quarter every game," Durant said, per the Houston Chronicle. "We made too many mental mistakes and they capitalized on them. When you give a team confidence, then it changes the whole game."

Jan 5, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) greets his teammates before action against the Boston Celtics at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

And that's the thing. The Thunder are fighting. Every night this team of young gazelles come out, work their butts off and try to tread water without one of their stars. Durant does almost all of the heavy lifting, and with games against three non-playoff teams upcoming, perhaps Oklahoma City could move to 7-3 post-Westbrook and things will slow down.

But the repercussions of Westbrook's injury won't be felt until May and June. These nightly tasks of foisting an undermanned roster on his back aren't ending soon for Durant. Westbrook will probably be out until the All-Star break as a precaution, meaning Durant will have spent an entire quarter of a season playing with playoff-intensity merely to secure a top-three seed. 

It'd be naive to think this stretch of games won't help contribute to some postseason fatigue. LeBron James, tired from a regular season that included a playoff-esque 27-game winning streak, admitted that everything was catching up to him at Game 1 of the NBA Finals. The Thunder aren't going to go on such a run, but the bodily strain for Durant is similar.

We've always wanted to see just how brilliant an unhinged Durant could be. Now we know. Let's just hope it doesn't come back to bite the league and the Thunder come postseason time.


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