When news broke on Monday of Russell Westbrook’s second arthroscopic surgery on his right lateral meniscus, the Oklahoma City Thunder had to be disappointed. The injury will keep him out of the first four to six weeks of the NBA season, and certainly put a load of pressure on Kevin Durant. Westbrook had not missed a single game of high school, college, or NBA basketball until injuring his leg in the Thunder’s first round playoff series against the Houston Rockets.
Without the offense provided by the electric point guard, it is clear that three time scoring champ Kevin Durant will have to shoulder a much larger offensive role. However, Durant was not able to carry the Thunder without Westbrook in their second round series against the Memphis Grizzlies last year, resulting in the understandable question of whether he can lead his team through the first six weeks, or 18 games, of this season.
The Thunder’s first 18 games are predominantly against sub .500 teams from last year, but they do have several important games, which includes the Clippers twice, the Warriors twice, and the Spurs and Pacers once. In a very close Western Conference featuring the Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies, Rockets, and Warriors, a few games can be the difference between the number one and six seed. Considering that the Thunder will be playing without their second and third leading scorers from last year in Westbrook and Kevin Martin, who left for the Minnesota Timberwolves, these are the players who will need to step up and make a difference in the weeks to come.
PG Reggie Jackson
Perhaps the most obvious player on this list, Jackson will take over for Westbrook as the starting point guard. Although he is relatively untested as a starter, the third year player out of Boston College proved that he’s capable as a short-term fill in, averaging 13.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.9 assists in 11 playoff games. Jackson has a similar skill set as Westbrook, using his speed and athleticism to get by defenders. He is nowhere close to the scorer that Westbrook is, but he will have to chip in his fair share of points to ease the burden on Durant.
PF Serge Ibaka
Ibaka made huge strides with his offensive game last year, with his points per game average jumping from 9.1 to 13.2 and his shot percentage jumping from .535 to .573. He also added a midrange jumper to his arsenal of shots. We already know how much of a defensive beast Ibaka is, so if he can step up and further develop his jumper and finish stronger around the rim, he will see another year with a boost to his offensive production.
SG Jeremy Lamb
When the Thunder traded James Harden to the Rockets last offseason, the key piece they acquired aside from Kevin Martin was the first-round pick Lamb. With Martin in Minnesota, the second year guard out of UConn will have an opportunity to take on more playing time than he had last year, where he only appeared in 23 games.
Lamb truly benefited from his time in the D-League with the Tulsa 66ers, as it provided him with much more experience than he would have had sitting the bench with the Thunder. Lamb showed in his time at UConn that he can be a premier outside shooter, something that the Thunder lack. Durant himself said that he expects a lot out of Lamb this year, who has worked a lot this offseason. Although he won’t start, Lamb will have the opportunity to provide a scoring punch off the bench.
Without Westbrook, coach Scott Brooks will have to come up with more ideas to keep the offense from becoming one dimensional. Although Durant has proven he is a scoring machine, he will need his supporting cast to be a scoring threat so that he doesn’t get too much defensive pressure. While I predicted that the Thunder would go 14-4 with Westbrook in their opening 18 games, an 11-7 start would not be bad without him.