Russell Westbrook initially announced over the weekend that he was “unsure” if he would be ready for the start of the season, and that no timetable had been set for his return. After making that cautious statement, it was announced that he had to undergo a second knee procedure on Tuesday, due to swelling in the knee. Russell’s health was definitely one of my biggest fears coming into this season, and the Thunder are obviously a better team when he is playing, but there is an interesting side to this that has gotten me a little excited.
You see, Russell Westbrook has never missed a regular season game. Since the start of Kevin Durant’s second season, Westbrook has played in every single game, averaging 16.4 shots per game, and about 18.3 over the past three seasons. Without Russell on the court, it means more shots for Kevin Durant, and possibly some pretty historic scoring stretches. The best scorer in the league, one of the best ever, has never been forced to do it all without his number 2. We have the rare opportunity to see what he can do in that scenario for a short stretch. Why not embrace it?
When Westbrook was injured during last season’s playoffs, Durant had to step up. He saw his regular season average of 17.7 shots per game increase to 22, with most of that coming against the Memphis Grizzlies, a suffocating defensive team who led the league in points allowed per game, had the second best defensive rating and also finished the regular season with the second lowest pace (possessions per 48 minutes). Because of that, Durant’s scoring output against the Grizzlies may not be the best indicator of how he performs without Westbrook.
The first 10 games of the upcoming regular season (my initial hope for all Westbrook would miss, but it sounds like it could be as much as double that now) will see the Thunder playing the following teams: Utah, Minnesota, Dallas, Phoenix, Detroit, Washington, Los Angeles (the good one), Golden State, Milwaukee and Denver. Using last year’s regular season numbers, 6 of those teams played to a top 11 pace in the NBA. The Thunder also play at a top 11 pace. Two of those teams are likely tanking as well. That means Durant is likely going to have plenty of opportunities early on in the season to post some big scoring numbers.
Taking a deeper look at the numbers, here is my projection for Durant’s scoring output while Russell Westbrook is out:
35 points per game.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? (And no, it’s not as much fun as a healthy Russell Westbrook, that’s not what I’m going for here.)
This estimate assumes the following:
23.5 field goal attempts per game. Although this number would have led the league last year, it is a fair increase from Durant’s 16.5 last season, when he looked to set up his teammates more often than he had ever before. Russell Westbrook’s 18.7 will have to be distributed amongst the group, and when you figure that Kevin Martin is gone as well, taking 10.1 shots per game with him, it is likely that those shots will go to Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Serge Ibaka (I would love to see a lot go to Serge) and, of course, Kevin Durant. No one else in the Thunder lineup is particularly likely to step up offensively. 23.5 FGA sounds like a lot from Durant, who has limited his shot attempts for absurd efficiency in the more recent parts of his career, but I believe it to be plausible, especially considering the pace of the teams they will be playing early on. It won’t be as easy to set up his teammates as it was in the past, so his mindset and approach will have to change until Russ returns.
5.5 three point attempts per game. Just a slight increase over his career high, and a decent one from last year, but a lot of Thunder possessions end with Russell Westbrook forcing a shot attempt after the offense breaks down. That will be Durant now, and a lot of those late possession attempts tend to come from behind the arc.
11 free throw attempts per game. A marginal increase from last season considering how many more possessions will be ending with a Durant shot while Westbrook is sporting a tie on the bench. (An aside: I could not be more excited about Westbrook’s sideline attire. I was too distraught after last year’s injury to even notice during the playoffs, but I’m ready now.)
Combine the above numbers with projections of 48.5% field goal shooting (a drop off from last year’s 51.0% because of a projected loss in efficiency due to increased volume and forced shots), 40.0% three point shooting (a 1.6% drop-off for the same reasons) and 90% free throw shooting (essentially matching last season), and you get to 34.9 points per game. Completely reasonable, right?
What if Durant improved enough over the offseason so that he maintains last year’s efficiency with an increased load? 37 points per? 38? Only Kobe has averaged over 32.1 since Jordan retired. Russ will be back eventually, so it won’t be for an entire season, but it will still be fun to see for a short time.
Potentially a lot of fun.