Since the dynamic point guard was knocked out of the lineup with arthroscopic surgery right after Christmas, the Thunder have experienced a rather topsy-turvy run through their schedule.
They started out strong through two games and 36 minutes, then faltered in the fourth quarter against the Portland Trail Blazers and dropped an unfortunate contest to the Brooklyn Nets. After that, they squeezed out a victory when Kevin Love forgot how to make free throws, beat the Boston Celtics in decisive fashion and then bottomed out with a big defeat against the Utah Jazz.
It all adds up to a 4-3 record, and it leaves serious doubts about the team's ability to remain near the top of the Western Conference without Westbrook.
All the while, Kevin Durant has been absolutely unstoppable. And it's still not enough.
Durant Has Been Fantastic
There were some questions about what would happen to Durant once he no longer had the protection afforded to him by Westbrook's presence on the floor.
Based largely on what happened during last year's postseason, when Durant struggled to maintain his all-world efficiency levels once Westbrook collided with Patrick Beverley, it was reasonable to let worry run rampant. After all, it was possible that the same thing would happen, just in the regular season now.
Durant has shut down those concerns.
Since Westbrook's last game—the Christmas Day blowout of the New York Knicks—the league's leading scorer has taken his performance to the proverbial next level. Over the seven contests after the Thunder were forced to wear their hideous sleeved jerseys, Durant has averaged 35.0 points, 9.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game.
Those are insane numbers.
In fact, no player in NBA history has maintained them over the course of an entire season. But Durant isn't throwing up those stats at the cost of his efficiency. He's shooting 49.7 percent from the field, 36.0 percent from beyond the arc and 87.8 percent at the stripe over the stretch, and he's turning the ball over only 1.9 times per contest.
ESPN's Tom Haberstroh (subscription required) even makes a convincing argument that the scoring sensation, rather than LeBron James, should be the NBA's MVP thus far.
Sorry, Skip Bayless, but Durant is making you look like a fool.
It's easier to make a case that the Oklahoma City superstar has surpassed LeBron (he hasn't) than to claim he's not one of the top three players in the world.
He's been that good, much to the shock of people—like yours truly—who doubted his ability to produce gaudy and efficient numbers without Westbrook there for support.
It's Still Not Enough
Unfortunately for the Thunder, Durant's excellence hasn't been enough. Losing Westbrook is a big deal after all, and that's an opinion that ESPN's Royce Young concurs:
Every team wants to preach a "next man up" mentality, but that's a difficult proposition when the first man is Westbrook. Reggie Jackson has filled the spot admirably, but for a team so driven by Westbrook, that's like asking for Coke and hearing, "Is Pepsi OK?" Besides, the shift has taken the super-sub away from the role in which he'd become so comfortable.
Pepsi is never OK (you'd say the same thing if you grew up in Atlanta), but that's beside the point. More relevant is the following question: Has Reggie Jackson struggled?
He's averaged 14.9 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game since stepping into the starting lineup, shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 35 percent on his downtown attempts. And it's not like he's turning the ball over either.
But the numbers aren't vitally important for Jackson.
Even when he plays well, he doesn't bring as much to the table as Westbrook, whose sheer presence opens things up for his teammates. Opposing defenses fear Westbrook to the point that they sag off players like Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Jeremy Lamb in order to pay more attention to his driving ability. The same can't be said when Jackson is running the point.
Based on their performances, the Thunder can't pin the blame on Durant or Jackson, but they're still losing games.
Since Westbrook went down, the team has fallen to the Portland Trail Blazers, Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz. One of those is acceptable, one is starting to become more acceptable and the other is just awful.
A contender should not lose by 11 points to the Jazz. Not even when a star player is out of the lineup. As Young wrote about the Thunder, "With Westbrook, they’re a bulldozer that throttles through the league with a historic margin of victory. Without him, they’re a team eliminated in the playoffs by a No. 5 seed and dispatched on Tuesday by the 12-25 Utah Jazz."
The Jazz overcame 48 points on 34 shots from Durant. Although he struggled from the field, he spent a lot of time at the charity stripe and added seven rebounds, five assists, four steals and two blocks to the tally. They also survived 20 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals from Jackson.
But the rest of this lineup—especially on nights when Lamb struggles—couldn't create looks for themselves, and the overall OKC offense failed to impress.
To be fair, Serge Ibaka was out due to illness, but it's not like he's developed into a dynamic scorer since Westbrook went down. He would've helped protect the rim, but the Congolese power forward is averaging just 12.7 points per game during the post-Christmas portion of the schedule.
Durant can play as much and as well as he wants, but it won't matter without an improved supporting cast.
Can It Change?
I'll spare you the buildup and reveal that it probably can't change.
First of all, Durant can't realistically play any better than he is right now.
Although he's an improved passer, he's not going to morph into a small forward version of Oscar Robertson and start dishing out 10 assists per game while posting gaudy scoring figures. He's not going to get more efficient while posting such a high volume of shots. Durant has just about maxed out his impact, and it's not like he has enough energy to step up his defense while carrying the offense.
No one possibly could.
Jackson is playing as well as anyone could expect, as well. Asking for much more than he's giving the Thunder is wishful thinking, especially because he's never going to control the ball that much while Durant is on the court.
The only true source of improvement could come from Ibaka.
Will the Thunder figure things out without Westbrook?
But what makes you think that would happen? The Thunder have been hoping for him to develop into more than a pick-and-pop player for years now, and they're still waiting on him to reward them for their patience.
Oklahoma City—barring an unforeseen trade—is essentially going to tread water while waiting for its All-Star point guard to return to the lineup. The team built up enough of a cushion during the early portion of the season that it can survive the rigors of the Western Conference and remain competitive in the playoff picture, but don't expect anything more than that.
Even Durant's superstar act isn't going to fill the void that Westbrook left. Apparently nothing could.