The Oklahoma City Thunder have been on a tear this season. They sit atop the Western Conference with a 43-14 record and have Kevin Durant to thank. The 6’11” forward has been playing in “video game mode,” averaging 35 points (with a true shooting percentage of 65.3 per cent), 7.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, four turnovers and 1.3 steals in 39 minutes. The 25-year old’s usage percentage (offensive possessions he uses while on the court) is 35 per cent and his PIE (estimated player’s impact on games) is 23.3 per cent during this historic stretch.
Led by the frontrunner for league MVP in Durant, the Thunder have won 20 of their last 27 games. Their defence has been smothering: the Thunder have allowed their opponents to shoot 44.3 per cent (sixth), scoring only 96.7 points (sixth) per game, which is 6.9 less than the Thunder average. The point differential is tied for second-best in the league. The team chemistry has been palpable. Like the rest of his teammates, Serge Ibaka relied heavily on Westbrook to put him in position to score. Westbrook set up Ibaka on just over half his made field goals last season. With Westbrook out of the lineup, Ibaka has increased his scoring by 1.3 points per game on a true shooting percentage of 59.4 per cent (up from 56). He has averaged 8.5 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, and recorded four more double-doubles already than he had all of last season. Both his usage rate and PIE have seen boosts during this stretch. Durant has been credited for 45 per cent of Ibaka’s assisted buckets. Durant has also elevated the play of Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and the rest of his cast. The team has found ways to win without their second-best player. Russell Westbrook underwent knee surgery on Dec. 27, 2013. It marked the third procedure on his right knee since April.
There were concerns that Westbrook’s return to the lineup would ruin the chemistry the Thunder had going. It is unreasonable to expect any team to seamlessly reintegrate such a ball-dominant player. The 25-year old suited up for the first time since Christmas in the Thunder’s first game after the All-Star break. The Thunder were blown out by the Miami Heat, 103-81. Three nights later, the Thunder welcomed the Los Angeles Clippers to the Chesapeake Energy Arena. Oklahoma City fell by a score of 125-117, suddenly sending them on a two-game losing streak. They are still best in the West, but their drop from first to fourth in the NBA power rankings has become a source of overreaction. One NBA analyst argued Westbrook’s return will cost Durant the Maurice Podoloff Trophy (awarded to the league MVP). Debates rage across the internet on whether or not the Thunder are better with or without Westbrook.
That question is moot. It shouldn’t even be a thing. As expected, Westbrook showed some rustiness after spending almost two months off the court. He made just seven of 25 shots in his first two games back. It is almost too easy to blame the speedy point guard for both losses, even though he only saw 25 minutes of floor time per night. He can’t possibly be the sole reason for the losses. Oklahoma City’s recent opponents are no slouches: the Heat are the two-time defending champions, and the Clippers are just five games behind the Thunder in the West. Miami and LA have the two most potent offenses in the league, and the Thunder allowed them to shoot 53 per cent and outscore them by a combined 30 points. News flash: struggling to contain their opponents’ high-octane offenses was a team effort. The Thunder suffered defensive lapses against both teams, and were particularly outplayed by the Heat.
Another case that can be made against Westbrook is that Durant played at the level he did (some have called it “god mode”) because Westbrook was out of the picture. Westbrook hogs the ball. Every shot he takes is one less shot for Durant, who is the more efficient scorer. Durant is better off playing without Westbrook. There is truth to the premise, but the conclusion is false. In the two games since his return, Westbrook has attempted half as many shots as Durant, who still managed to score 35 points per game (while attempting 2.6 more shots). Durant’s shooting efficiency is down slightly, while his other stats remain intact.
Anyone who thinks the Thunder are better without Westbrook has probably never watched the team prior to this calendar year. Westbrook’s injury in the playoffs last season is the main reason the Thunder failed to advance to the Western Conference finals. The Memphis Grizzlies were able to zero in their defence on Durant and put him in a chokehold with Westbrook out. After all, Westbrook is one of best point guards in the league. Prior to his latest knee surgery this season, the three-time All-Star averaged 21.3 points, seven assists and six rebounds in 33 minutes per game. Over Westbrook’s 25 appearances, the Thunder held a league-best 21-4 record.
That’s not to say Westbrook’s game is flawless. He suffers from lapses in decision-making and shot selection during crunch time. Head coach Scott Brooks has given Westbrook the green light on facilitating the offense for himself and his teammates. Westbrook has been known to take long, ill-advised jump shots with a hand in his face. He did it late against the Clippers on Sunday, while Durant—who was sitting on 42 points and 10 assists—watched on the weak side. It makes perfect sense to hand the ball over to Durant to create in those situations. For that to happen, Durant needs to be more aggressive. He has to demand the ball and assert himself as the best player on the team like he did in Westbrook’s absence. The closer Westbrook gets to 100 per cent, the more he will help the Thunder. He can score and dish the ball, which takes offensive pressure off Durant. It is tough to argue with the regular and postseason success the two have shared over the past five years.
Westbrook is the scapegoat now, but he will be Oklahoma City’s X-factor in the playoffs. They will need him to be the star he was earlier this season in order to compete late in the postseason. It shouldn’t take long for Russ to shake off the rust. This is an elite guard we’re talking about. He will overcome Brooks’ minute regulation and regain his form on the court. The Thunder will get back on track soon, and all in the NBA universe will be right again.