Rhetorical Questions for the Oklahoma City Thunder


The Timing of Westbrook’s Return

Why did Sam Presti and Scott Brooks decide that Russell Westbrook should come back immediately after the All-Star break when their first two opponents were the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers? Or did they have no choice?

My guess is that Westbrook insisted he return because of the fact that he’s such a strong-willed competitor whose determination combined with his ego. He wouldn’t allow himself to sit against mighty Miami even though the Thunder continued to play so well without him. It’s likely that Miami would have exacted revenge on OKC for the thumping Durant and company gave them in Miami two weeks earlier, but it didn’t help that rusty Russ was on the court. I’m sure he didn’t intend to sabotage the chemistry that developed between Durant and the rest of his teammates, namely Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb. Instead, I think he felt left out, and insisted he come back, despite all the expected rust at the exact wrong time. If he’d waited two more games, he would have come back tonight, against the Cleveland. Does it matter? In the long run, maybe not. But you can’t tell me that a win against the improving Clippers wouldn’t have furthered Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb’s confidence.

Usage Rate (number of possessions a player uses per 40 minutes)

Q. Why doesn’t anyone mention that Durant’s brilliant stretch from late December through mid February may have been unsustainable and a serious injury-risk over time, given the way he would have to play in the physically demanding playoffs without Westbrook?

Take a look at the list below and you may detect a pattern: In the last few years, only LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have dominated their team’s possessions so thoroughly for a prolonged period and remained healthy. Is it possible that the utterly dominant version of Durant– the Durant who was consistently penetrating and slashing into the paint more often, in addition to knocking down 28-footers, that this version of Durant would have been risking injury had he continued to play so aggressively?

Given that Durant’s usage rate (31.2 on the season) is higher than it’s ever been, it was remarkable that he was able to dominate so completely during the stretch without Westbrook. On the other hand, here’s the list of players that finished with a usage rate of 29.0 or over in the last three years:

2010-11: Bryant (33.0), Rose (31.3), Westbrook (30.8), James (29.7), Anthony (29.1), Wade (29.1)

2011-12: Bryant (33.0), Westbrook (30.4), Rose (30.4), D. Williams (29.8), James (29.8), Anthony (29.2), Wade (28.9)

2012-13: Anthony (32.2), Westbrook (31.2), Bryant (30.0), Irving (29.2)

This year: Westbrook (32.4), Durant (31.2), Cousins (30.4), Anthony (30.3)

Finding their Early Season Groove In Time for April

The Thunder sprinted to a 21-4 start with the same lineup that they currently have. In Westbrook’s absence, guards Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb were given serious minutes and both showed glimpses of their potential. Jackson’s defense may be one of the overlooked keys here. Though Westbrook is a notorious competitor, he gambles more than Jackson, and Jackson’s long arms and instincts allow him to defend more cleanly than Westbrook. He’s more of a stabilizer. Westbrook brings all kinds of energy and excitement, but his manic influence doesn’t always make Durant better (as evidenced by the advanced metrics and on/off court numbers).

The March schedule doesn’t offer OKC many real tests, which means they should pile up the wins, but won’t necessarily be given much insight into how well they have re-adjusted to the inclusion of Westbrook.

Here are biggest OKC games to note the rest of the way:

  • March 11 vs. Houston
  • April 3 vs. San Antonio
  • April 4 @ Houston
  • April 9 @ LAC
  • April 13 @ Indiana

***

So, are the Thunder better without Russell Westbrook?

The same question that popped up last February when the Boston Celtics started playing well without Rajon Rondo. Remember how that went for the Celtics in the playoffs? The aging Celtics offense wasn’t great with Rondo to begin with. Without him, they were abysmal. The playoffs highlighted just how hard it was to score with the then-35 year-old Paul Pierce as the team’s primary playmaker, and Avery Bradley’s ball-handling and passing instability on full display.

The Thunder offense, on the other hand, flows more smoothly with the ball in Durant’s hands than Westbrook’s. Durant’s stratospheric stretch prompted MVP debates and deserved all kinds of praise. Still, we all knew it was temporary. We don’t know what would have happened if Westbrook stayed on the sideline. And that possibility leads to the topic du jour: Are the Thunder better without Westbrook?

The folks who bring up last year’s Westbrook-less playoff defeat to Memphis aren’t bringing up the fact that Memphis defense was downright suffocating and that Kevin Martin gave them next to nothing in Games 2, 3 and 4. Reggie Jackson may not have been ready to deal with Memphis (few point guards are) last year, but that doesn’t mean an improved Jackson and Lamb won’t be capable of dealing with the Clippers, Rockets, Spurs, etc. this year.

Sounds like a simple question, but there isn’t a simple answer. They showed how great they could be for about six weeks (after that initial adjustment period), but that probably wasn’t sustainable if they hoped to keep Kevin Durant healthy for the duration of this year and the next.

The adjustment that Scott Brooks is hoping for is inside of Westbrook’s mind. Can he do what Dwayne Wade did after that first season with LeBron and Bosh? This should be Durant’s team, and Russell has to know when and how to pick his spots. He might be more useful in a playoff series if he’s dominating the second quarter instead of the fourth. Westbrook can spark the Thunder bench, just as Jamal Crawford needs to show he can be a consistent spark for the Clipper bench once Redick retuns.

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