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Why the Thunder leaning on Russell Westbrook all season could be very, very bad

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook produced a league-high 18 triple-doubles in 2015-16 en route to becoming just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 23 points and 10 assists per game. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

You may have heard that one of the league’s biggest stars, Kevin Durant, departed the Thunder in favor of the Golden State Warriors, leaving Russell Westbrook behind to pick up the pieces. But all is not lost in Oklahoma City.

Westbrook is perhaps the NBA’s most electrifying player, posting a league-high 18 triple-doubles in 2015-16 en route to becoming just the fifth player in NBA history to average at least 23 points and 10 assists per game. His 23.7 points per game created by assist ranked third in the league behind Rajon Rondo and John Wall and helped increase his team’s overall offensive efficiency from 0.92 to 1.29 points per possession last season via his ability to pass the ball.

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This also won’t be the first time Westbrook had to carry the team without Durant.

During the 2014-15 season, Durant’s foot injuries caused Westbrook and the Thunder to play 39 full games without him. Over that stretch, Westbrook averaged 31.4 points, 9.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds per game. During the first 10 games of Durant’s absence, Westbrook averaged a triple double (32.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 11.2 assists per game). Since 2013-14, Westbrook has seen an increase in points per minute without the benefit of Durant in the lineup despite an increased workload in terms of usage.

These were merely stretches of a season — there is a limit to how much more Westbrook can get the ball over 82 regular-season games.

According to NBA player tracking data, Westbrook used the second-most offensive possessions last season (22.1 percent) and was one of nine players who saw a usage rate in excess of 20 percent. Houston’s James Harden led the league with a 25.6 percent usage rate, which translated to an additional 300 possessions more than Westbrook.

But there is no guarantee Westbrook will either make better decisions with those extra touches or be more productive than in the past.

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For example, he takes too many jump shots off the dribble — his 8.2 pullup shots per game were No. 10 in the NBA last season — and wasn’t very good at converting them (42.3 effective field goal percentage, No. 23 out of 41 players taking at least five pullups per game). Westbrook was even worse beyond the three-point line, making just 29.6 percent of shots beyond the arc despite taking over four per game.

Westbrook was also typically the ballhandler during the pick and roll, accounting for more than a third of his 2015-16 possessions, and the team saw a higher efficiency when he passed the ball (1.08 points per possession) than it did when he created the offense himself (0.85 points per possession). But that was also due to having Durant to pass to — the Thunder scored 1.14 points per possession on the pick and roll when Westbrook passed to Durant; they scored 1.01 points per possession when the ball was delivered to anyone else.

Instead, look for Westbrook to go at it alone in isolation, where he scored just 0.74 points per possession on 35.4 percent shooting, by far his least efficient scoring play and bad enough to rank him No. 43 out of 53 players with at least 100 iso possessions last season.

Sadly, it may make sense to have Westbrook become a ball hog. According to the preseason real plus-minus projections from ESPN, the Thunder’s starting roster features no other player besides Westbrook (No. 6, plus-7.21 RPM) in the Top 80 with Victor Oladipo the next best starter at No. 88 (plus-1.42 RPM). Steven Adam ranks No. 99 (plus-1.01 RPM), Andre Roberson ranks No. 104 (plus-0.93 RPM) and Ersan Ilyasova ranks No. 346 (minus-3.02 RPM).

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Adams might have the most upside of the group. The 23-year-old New Zealand native was an efficient scorer cutting to the basket (1.3 points per possession in 2015-16) and could develop some chemistry with Westbrook during the pick and roll (1.22 points per possession). Adams is also defensively sound, grabbing three contested rebounds per game in addition to holding opponents to a 42 percent field-goal percentage against last season.

The win projection for the Thunder using RPM is 45 to 46 wins, similar to ESPN’s Summer Forecast (44 wins) and on par with Oklahoma City’s 46-win pace over a full season when they had Westbrook but no Durant in the lineup. FiveThirtyEight’s most recent NBA forecast has the Thunder finishing with 50 wins. That last projection seems optimistic unless the Thunder can take advantage of a soft early schedule.

Of the Thunder’s first 20 games, half are against conference teams that had records below .500 last season. Only Golden State and Minnesota (11 each) have more. Twelve of Oklahoma City’s first 20 games are at home, the most among Western Conference teams.

“I think these first 10, 20 games, whatever it is, we’re gonna keep from game-to-game finding out more about ourselves, and can we improve and get better from that,” Coach Billy Donovan told Erik Horne of The Oklahoman.