The Thunder Forecast: How the Return of Russell Westbrook Impacts Oklahoma City
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Almost a week into the NBA season, we have seen the return of some of the game’s best players, most notably Derrick Rose and Kevin Love. While we wait for the returns of Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo, another superstar emerged from the injury bug, that being Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder. What Westbrook brings to the table every night for this team cannot be undermined or understated, because as great of a player Kevin Durant is, the Thunder have absolutely no chance of competing in the Western Conference without the assistance of Westbrook. But, even with Westbrook now aboard after last night, do the Thunder still have a conceivable chance of competing for the NBA title with the current assembly of players who suit up every night? It depends on who you ask.
Westbrook comes in now to fill the starting point guard position which was being held down by Reggie Jackson, who still in his youth is not ready to man a team capable of having a chance to be a viable candidate for the Western Conference’s spot in the Finals. Westbrook looked to be back to where his game left off, displaying a wide variety of highlight moves while maintaining his ability to burst throughout the lane with no disregard as to how he gets there. His game is predicated on the basis of having the ball in his hands at all times, thus limiting the number of possessions his counterpart Durant has to secure the rock and create his own opportunities.
But, that has been the battle cry against Westbrook during his whole career: his inability to recognize when his offensive game is either helping or extremely hurting his teammates. Westbrook only plays the game in one gear, and that is a gear consisting of a nasty tenacity to attack the opposing defense at will, disregarding everything that is going on around him. Westbrook’s propensity to ignore a team strategy concept that involves creating open looks for all his teammates, especially Durant, has always surrounded the way he plays the game. Although he continues to lead his team in assists every year, when you are continually playing with the ball in your hand 98% of the time it would be hard not to find open teammates every once in a while. Whenever I watch the Thunder play, I always wonder why Scotty Brooks cannot find a better way for Westbrook and Durant to operate together. I am not suggesting they have no chemistry and play terrible together because that is just incongruent with how this team works, but there are glaring weaknesses among how they coincide with each other, with little movement coming from either guy when the other is being disruptive to how the team should play.
Where the Thunder goes wrong with the Westbrook/Durant dynamic is they are not around each other enough when the other has the basketball in hand. The Thunder’s team based philosophy strives on being mentally tougher and more prepared then their opponent, taking the fundamentals of basketball to the next level by being cognizant of how a defense has chosen to approach trying to stop two of the five best basketball players alive on the same court. Maintaining activity amongst everyone on the court, whether it is through back door cuts, back screens to another screen or ball penetration to open up the perimeter, is apropos to creating multiple scoring opportunities for everyone involved. But, this all starts with Durant and Westbrook, who I continue to believe, should work off each other more than they already do. The next time you watch the Thunder play, try to be aware of how many times they approach each other when the other has the ball. Durant has always shown ineptitude of not being selfish enough when it comes to him touching the basketball, seeing as how there are always two or three stretches each game where you almost forget Durant is even on the floor, something that should not be said about Durant or any other superstar who is on the floor. One way to improve on the Westbrook and Durant combination would be to start using them together in pick and roll opportunities. Instead of continuing to use Serge Ibaka as Westbrook’s main screener, why doesn’t the Thunder instead use Durant as Westbrook’s main facilitator when it comes to setting screens? With Durant used at the helm for screens, the possibilities of scoring become endless when you envision how dangerous the usage of Durant as the screener could be. How potent would scoring options be when as a defense you either have to decide to send two guys in front of Westbrook’s penetration, or when Durant is given the ball to shoot over Westbrook’s defender, who obviously would be considerably shorter than Durant, thus not giving his long shooting extension any worries. This is just one way to improve on the dynamic grouping of Durant and Westbrook, but this team’s seasons is highly more dependent on a number of other factors, most notably how this team’s will be able to score consistently outside of their incredible pair of superstars.
Whereas a team like the Miami Heat has discovered a winning formula to match the needs of their two superstars, the Thunder have been less than accommodating when it comes to fielding a team that is suitable or compatible with their team’s best two players. While this point has been hammered home ad nauseam for the past year, let’s say trading James Harden away for peanuts and no formidable talent that can help within the next two years is a bad place to start. By keeping Harden around, you alleviate the pain you feel when one superstar could potentially go down knowing you have two more ready to take their roles to the next level. I am not one to speculate but the Oklahoma City Thunder and its organization crying “small market” and “unsustainable salary cap implications” is not reason enough to trade away one of the best 15 players in the league, probably even higher. When you are lucky enough to have found three guys at three different positions who possess all the tools needed to lead an NBA franchise, you have to find a way to make it work, salary cap implications aside. I have never understood or ever heard a great reason as to why they traded him and probably never will.
By focusing on the past and ignoring the present and future, we begin to overlook all of the glaring weaknesses staring back at us when we analyze this Thunder squad. The very first thing we tend to focus on is personnel and the kind of players you have chosen to field your team. Outside of Durant and Westbrook, it is hard for me to consider or find two players who I would consider starting for a team I deem ready to compete for a world championship. The other three starters, Thabo Sefolosha, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka all provide greater weaknesses when compared to their strengths. Sefolosha has proven the ability to knock down a corner 3 consistently and finds ways to occasionally disrupt the opposing team’s best scorer, but where some might label those as great strengths I see those as characteristics all starting two guards in the NBA should have. I need my starting two-guard to be able to knock down an open trey. I need my two-guard to be able to provide the defensive energy and tenacity needed to stop the opposing team’s best player on a nightly basis. We have come to expect these needs, not reward a player’s stature by possessing traits that are necessary to being a competent starter in this league. Sefolosha struggles to create his own shot and has never looked natural while dribbling the basketball or attacking the rim. He doesn’t provide that spark needed from his position, and a lack of scoring mobility deters the overall meaning of his game and doesn’t fill the void left behind by James Harden. Kendrick Perkins is statistically one of the worst centers in the league and the Thunder has proven to being more formidable when he is off the court as opposed to being on it. With age creeping behind in his rearview mirror, I don’t think it will be much longer for the Thunder to decide to part ways with Perkins. He has a borderline offensive game, complete with no distinguishable low post moves or even a consistent baby hook shot. His wallowing keeps him out of prime position for offensive rebounds, as he almost does more good by complaining consistently than his game provides. His routinely laughable skill of jacking himself up to guard the opposing team’s guard on switches on pick-and-rolls are a gem. Seriously, the next time you watch a Thunder game look for this moment to happen. Perkins finds his way out to the perimeter, last night going up against the likes of Eric Bledsoe, and begins clapping ferociously as if to scare the guy who is about to dribble right beyond him. When the guard does decide to make a move, Perkins is either left in the dust picking up his shadow or finding a new pair of skates to try on because the ending is never good in this scenario. Aside from all that, what we find in Serge Ibaka’s game now is almost the same thing we would have found three years ago, except now he believes he has what it takes to stand in the corners anticipating dribble drives leading to his attempt to consistently knock down corner three pointers or your occasional mid-range jumper. When Ibaka first came into the league, his dynamics were much more noticeable on the offensive side of the floor than they are today. His sudden recognition of routinely flaring to the baseline waiting for a pass to come his way instead of setting corner screens or working to find space in the middle of the paint has been a catalyst to the Thunder’s glaring offensive woes. Ibaka’s first priority on the floor should have never evolved into him becoming a jump shooter because that is not what his game is predicated around. By moving his mentality from shot taker to shot facilitator or creator for others, Ibaka would help open up the floor for others while being able to crash the boards at will, using his physical gifts to help control or maintain extra possessions for the Thunder, an area at which they have succumbed to being one of the league’s worst teams in.
Outside of the starting five, it doesn’t get much better for this Thunder team as well. A combination of Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones, all under the age of 24, is expected to log big minutes for this team. Although they all possess the raw talent needed to compete for NBA roster spots, expecting those types of minutes for unproven commodities is a mistake and something that will haunt the Thunder down the road toward the playoffs. Maybe these guys can learn to grow as basketball players by being out there and competing with the best players in the world, but from Durant or Westbrook’s point of view, wanting to win now should not come as sacrifice to teaching these young men the intricacies of playing professional basketball. Those two superstars need players who are ready to compete now, willing to sacrifices all they have in playing 20 minutes a game, sometimes less than that. Playing off the bench as a young player can be more mentally fatiguing then physically fatiguing, and learning to adjust your game accordingly is something that shouldn’t be valued on a team such as this. The superstar duo is prepared to win now, not sit around waiting to see if maybe one or two of these players blossom into something more formidable than average NBA talent. Couple these lowly expectations with the rest of the Thunder bench, a way over-the-hill Derek Fisher, one tool phenom Nick Collison and rookie center Steven Adams, and the Thunder may have assembled one of the worst combination of talent around two superstars in quite some time.
The question for this team is where they will stand come playoff time. If Durant and Westbrook are prepared to shoulder the load night in and night out, a feat we should expect from them, then this team should have no trouble climbing toward 50 wins and a shot at the playoffs. Those projected wins come solely at the discretion of both players remaining healthy throughout the season and playing at superstar levels while doing so. If either one of those guys would unfortunately go down with an injury, then the Thunder will need to find a way to manufacture some kind of replacement to help offset such a devastating occurrence. If not, it could become a long season for a team which has carried high expectations since piecing together Durant and Westbrook. I wonder if James Harden is still on the market.