Russell Westbrook's injury thrusts one Oklahoma City Thunder player into the spotlight. No, not Kevin Durant, though he'll obviously play a big role in whether the Thunder survive Westbrook's absence. We're talking about Reggie Jackson, the team's second-year backup point guard that suddenly must compensate for the loss of one of the league's best players.
Jackson has slowly earned more minutes after winning the backup point guard job from Eric Maynor in November, but this is an entirely new test. With Westbrook sidelined, Jackson will have to play 35 minutes a game -- and maybe more, given Oklahoma City's lack of point guard depth -- and give the Thunder a decent approximation of Westbrook's skills for Oklahoma City to compensate.
Can he do it?
The good news for Thunder fans is that Jackson has steadily received more responsibility as the season has progressed. After averaging just 10.3 minutes per game in the first three months of the season, Jackson has played nearly 18 minutes a contest since February 1. He's taken more shots, handed out more assists and committed fewer turnovers during that stretch. He's had big performances in fourth quarters against the Knicks (April 7), Lakers (March 5) and elsewhere, so he's certainly capable of being a difference-maker.
In many ways, Jackson is Westbrook-lite. Both players are better scorers than passers, particularly in pick-and-roll situations. MySynergySports.com rates Jackson as the ninth-most efficient pick-and-roll finisher in the league, and while that stat comes nowhere close to painting a full picture of his pick-and-roll play, it does give you an idea how well he can attack the basket. Jackson must improve as a perimeter shooter and develop better passing instincts, but his ability to run pick and roll should allow Scott Brooks to maintain many of the offensive sets he uses with Westbrook healthy.
It's also worth noting that the Thunder have been very good this season even with Westbrook on the bench. Oklahoma City has 21 lineups that have played at least 30 minutes this season, according to NBA.com. Four of those are lineups that don't include Westbrook and still have a net rating of over +10. (The five-man unit with Jackson replacing Westbrook alongside the four other starters has played just 19 minutes together this season and is not statistically significant.) Overall, the Thunder have outscored opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions in the 523 minutes Durant played without Westbrook, according to stat site NBAWowy.com.
But Jackson is not Westbrook, and this is a different stage. The Thunder will especially miss Westbrook's improved court vision this year, something Jackson does not possess. Jackson's assist percentage of 20.4 puts him 43rd among point guards that played at least 50 games this season, per NBA.com. Westbrook, meanwhile, is fifth. That doesn't even take into account the many openings Westbrook can manipulate through hockey assists, scoring opportunities or other situations without receiving a stat for his efforts.
Another concern: Jackson cannot play all 48 minutes, and the Thunder are in big trouble when he sits. Sam Presti's decision to offload Eric Maynor to the Portland Trail Blazers at the trade deadline to help Oklahoma City's future luxury-tax bill hurts here. The Thunder have played just 274 minutes all season without both Westbrook and Jackson on the floor, according to NBAWowy.com, and 163 of those minutes came in November, before Jackson took the backup point guard job from Maynor. Derek Fisher, who doesn't really belong in a rotation in the first place at this point in his career, is the closest thing Oklahoma City has to a backup point guard. Ronnie Brewer, who has languished on the bench since being acquired from New York at the trade deadline, will likely have to give the Thunder some useful minutes off the bench.
Of course, Presti's decision to deal James Harden in October also looms large. Brooks may need to stagger Jackson and Durant's minutes so that one of the two is on the floor at all times. Otherwise, the Thunder will have to play lineups with Kevin Martin and no other shot creators, which have worked poorly all season.
Despite all this, the reality is we just don't know how Jackson and the Thunder will react. Westbrook has not missed a game in his entire career, so we have no frame of reference. That surprise factor should benefit the Thunder initially, but over time, they will feel Westbrook's absence. They should have enough to win two more games against the Rockets fairly easily, but a second-round matchup with the Clippers or Grizzlies is far from ideal.
The only way out is for Jackson to give the Thunder 80 percent of what Westbrook provided. Even with Jackson's slow emergence, that's a lot to ask.