The Oklahoma City Thunder will enter the regular season without one of their two cornerstone players for the first time since the franchise relocated from Seattle in 2008.
Russell Westbrook is expected to miss the first four to six weeks of the season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery Oct. 1 to repair a loose stitch from his original surgery in April. The Thunder announced no set timetable for Westbrook’s return, but most anticipate his name in the starting lineup around Christmas.
Oklahoma City plays 27 games before a Madison Square Garden showdown with the New York Knicks on Christmas Day. If Westbrook does miss 27 games (33 percent of the regular season), where will the Thunder be when he returns?
It’s no secret a lot is expected of Jackson and Lamb this season, but in order for the Thunder to keep up in the West during Westbrook’s absence, the youngsters will have to step up in a huge way.
If all goes according to plan for Sam Presti and Scott Brooks, Jackson will slide into the starting point guard position and perform like he did in the last year’s Playoffs. Also, Lamb will step up admirably as the sixth man while Jackson fills in for Westbrook.
It’s hard to see this scenario pan out like Presti and Brooks hope. It was apparent during the playoffs that without Westbrook, in one way or another, the team takes a massive hit. Even with Jackson playing great in the starting rotation and a viable sixth man in Kevin Martin, the Thunder weren’t able to make it past the Memphis Grizzlies.
So how will the Thunder make it through a schedule that features home-and-aways with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Golden State Warriors, and the San Antonio Spurs, two Eastern Conference road games with the Indiana Pacers and Chicago Bulls and a home matchup with the Grizzlies? And finish with the second best record in the West?
Let’s say the Thunder win six of those 11 games, which would be a good scenario sans Westbrook. They would have to go at least 12-4 in the remaining 16 games to even think about the second best record in the Western Conference come Christmas Day.
18-9 is a tough task for the Thunder without their superstar point guard. If you break the season down into thirds, three 18-9 stretches leads to a 54-27 record with one game left to play. 55 wins would be the best case scenario without Westbrook for 33 percent of the season, but it seems less than likely.
SCENARIO 2: Jackson plays great, Lamb plays decent and Kevin Durant really steps it up as the Thunder hold strong at 16-11 before Westbrook’s return.
This is the most likely scenario for the Thunder during Westbrook's absence. Obviously Durant will have to take his game to another level, but the Thunder really need Jackson to step up.
Jackson enters his third year with playoff and starter experience. He averaged 13.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game in last year's playoffs, including nine starts in Westbrook's absence. Not to mention he's turned in great performances during the Summer League and this year's preseason, slowly showing he's capable of handling a large role for the team.
Even if Jackson performs at a high level in the starting lineup, Lamb still has to be decent off the bench. Jackson's role changes everything. Instead of Jackson taking pressure off Lamb, it's now Lamb with the pressure of carrying the bench.
Lamb opened enough eyes for the Thunder to let Kevin Martin take off to Minnesota, but Oklahoma City likely didn't see their key asset from the James Harden-trade taking on this large of a role this early in his tenure. Obviously Brooks and Presti wanted to see Lamb eased into his new role, but now he will be forced into it. Most second-year players need time to learn, making it hard to see Lamb having a breakout season.
16-11 is doable though, even if Lamb's steps are small. If the Thunder win 6 of their 11 games against likely playoff teams, all they have to do is go 10-6 in the other 16. Not too tall of a mountain to climb for a team featuring the second best player in the world.
SCENARIO 3: Jackson and Lamb play decent, Durant plays great and Serge Ibaka figures out post-offense as the Thunder go 15-12 without Westbrook.
Ibaka hasn't a clue of what's going on in the post offensively. It has been plain to see over the past two seasons as he has worked primarily on his shot-blocking and jump-shot.
The Thunder have to hope the most for this scenario. They can do with Jackson and Lamb playing average while Westbrook is out as long as Ibaka develops a post-game. In fact, if Ibaka can average 10 points in the post, 15-12 might be on the low end.
In case you haven't noticed, all of these scenarios don't work unless Durant plays at an MVP-caliber level. That's a given. But if you combine Durant at a high-level and Ibaka playing like an all-star, we could be talking good positioning upon Westbrook's return.
Obviously the Thunder want Jackson and Lamb to play above average, but with Durant and Ibaka carrying the load from inside and out, this could be a dangerous scenario for the rest of the league even without a strong bench.
The Thunder are very capable of 15-12 with Ibaka controlling the paint offensively. Oklahoma City could expose the Clippers and Timberwolves' lack of anybody that can control a post-oriented Ibaka. It could also make the trips to Indiana and Chicago much more winnable.
However, anything above 17-18 wins doesn't seem manageable without a some kind of production from the second unit. Even with a dominant Ibaka and Durant, the Thunder can't handle high-caliber benches with Lamb playing just average. And high-caliber teams have high-caliber bench play.
SCENARIO 4: Jackson plays well, Durant plays at an MVP-level, Lamb shows he needs a year and Ibaka continues to play perimeter-based offense while the Thunder finish barely above .500 in Westbrook's absence.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
It should. It's basically what happened after Westbrook went down in last year's Playoffs.
The entire offense ran through Durant after Westbrook's injury. Jackson played great, but at times he was in the game just to dribble the ball past half-court and give it to Durant. Ibaka still had no clue in the post and Kevin Martin played like Lamb needing a year.
This could happen.
We have no evidence of Lamb's ability to control a bench and we have no evidence Ibaka used the summer to develop some kind of post-offense. If the Thunder have no offensive post-prensence and no bench production, how can they expect to make it through their brutal march without their star point guard?
Oklahoma City could easily lose eight of the 11 games against possible playoff teams without any sign of post-offense and bench production. Meaning they would have to finish 12-4 in the other 16. Have to. They could lose a winnable game or two and be staring right at .500.
Surely the Thunder won't look like they did right after Westbrook went down against Houston. They've now had time to work on a plan B rather than just being thrown into the situation with four losses meaning elimination. .500 doesn't seem like the likeliest of scenarios, but as the season approaches, nobody really knows.