How Far Can the Thunder Ride Russell Westbrook?
Issue   |   Tue, 03/10/2015 - 22:48

Russell Westbrook led his Oklahoma City Thunder to a 108-104 victory over Toronto on Sunday, putting up 30 points, 17 assists and 10 rebounds in the process. Amazingly, this type of performance has become just another day for Westbrook, who — in the absence of Kevin Durant — is averaging a triple-double since the all-star break: 34.3 points, 11.4 assists and 10.2 rebounds. His scoring is fueled by a historic usage rate of 38.5 percent, which is just a notch below Kobe Bryant’s record rate of 38.7 percent, achieved in 2005-2006. However, Westbrook is unique in the sheer amount of responsibility he tries to take upon himself; his extraordinary usage rate doesn’t even reflect his assists. He is shooting a historically high amount of the time, while still managing to average 8.3 assists per game, good for fifth in the league. In 2005-2006, Bryant averaged just 4.5 assists per game.

Derrick Rose’s 2010-2011 MVP season is, in some ways, a better comparison to Westbrook’s dominance this year. Rose averaged 7.4 assists that year, but in general both are point guards whose main duty is scoring, not passing. Both had to create the majority of their teams’ offense, because their teammates were less talented or more defensively focused. Both are incredible athletes who score more by driving than by shooting jump shots. Rose led a well-coached, cohesive team to the best record in a bad Eastern Conference. The Bulls were a young team on the rise, seemingly with their best years ahead of them. (Of course, we know now that this wasn’t true; Rose has suffered several serious injuries, and he and the Bulls haven’t reached the heights of 2011 in the last few years.) For all of the bad breaks he and the Bulls have had since then, in 2011 Rose was the NBA’s golden boy.

The narrative of Westbrook’s career is more complicated: He has been the target of nearly constant criticism for shooting too much. He has generally played in Durant’s shadow; commentators often make the valid point that no one should be shooting more often than Durant and criticize Westbrook for doing so. But these criticisms are part of what makes his performance this year so fascinating; instead of taking his critics’ advice and passing more, Westbrook has defied them and shot even more. In this way, he is more similar to Bryant than Rose; both are completely deaf to their critics’ complaints about ball-hogging.

As I mentioned before, Westbrook’s astronomical usage rate this year is threatening Bryant’s record. But in 2005-2006, Kobe was playing on a Lakers team that had no realistic championship aspirations. His scoring was entertaining, and he managed to drag the Lakers to a first round playoff appearance, but the stakes with Westbrook are higher. The Thunder are struggling desperately to hang on to the eighth seed in the brutally tough Western Conference, while reigning MVP Kevin Durant misses significant time. If he can keep the Thunder in the playoffs and, even better, snag the seventh seed and avoid Golden State in the first round, Oklahoma City has a real chance to make a playoff run due to Durant’s return. Still, a healthy Thunder team might be the most dangerous eighth seed ever. This is another part of what makes Westbrook’s performance interesting: He is carrying a team that has legitimate title ambitions and still looks like a complete mess at times.

As entertaining as it is to watch, Westbrook’s historic run has a downside. It’s hard for his supporting cast to make any improvement or develop a more cohesive, fluid offense when Westbrook is on the floor. The deficiencies of the rest of the Thunder’s roster are real. They force Westbrook to dominate the ball in every game if he wants a chance to win. Westbrook’s critics don’t need to look any further than Oklahoma City’s performance without their point guard to prove this point. When Westbrook went down in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, the Thunder fell quickly to the Grizzlies, 4-1. The problem is that Westbrook’s ball dominance creates a sort of vicious cycle: The more Westbrook shoots, the less his teammates are comfortable with creating their own shots, which means Westbrook has to shoot even more.

Westbrook’s numbers are remarkable because he is able to maintain good efficiency even while taking close to half of his team’s shots. However, the Thunder’s offense is good, not great, when Westbrook is on the floor; it doesn’t come close to the offenses of more complete teams, like the Warriors and Hawks. Serge Ibaka, easily Oklahoma City’s third best player, might be described as the best role player in the NBA. He leads the league in blocked shots and has developed into a proficient 3-point shooter, a valuable skill for a big man. Those traits make him a great player to have on the floor at the same time as stars — he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to make an impact — but ask him to create his own shot and the results will likely be ugly.

The Thunder acquired guard Dion Waiters at the trade deadline, in an effort to boost the team’s offense, which is anemic when Durant and Westbrook are on the bench. Waiters has played well enough since his arrival, but his style of play reveals something about the problems with the Thunder’s offense. Waiters is basically a less skilled version of Westbrook; he dominates the ball and takes contested shots, but he converts at a lower rate than Westbrook. It’s telling that, even without their stars on the court, the Thunder don’t have the ability to create good shots with set plays and passing. Instead, they just have to rely on more one-on-one play. This emphasis on one-on-one play probably isn’t something the Thunder can change before the playoffs. A less stagnant offense would probably require a significant change in personnel, and, to be honest, a coaching change. Scott Brooks has had seven years to build a more fluid offense. If it hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t happen in the next month.

The conventional wisdom in the NBA is that you need stars to win, a theory that gives the Thunder a chance in the playoffs, despite their regular season struggles. The idea is that, over a long series, defenses will have more time to prepare for the set plays and motion that characterize a more team-oriented offense, and therefore those offenses will struggle. On the other hand, one-on-one play is less susceptible to defensive gameplans; teams know exactly what Durant and Westbrook are going to do, they just can’t stop it. Scoring goes down across the board in the playoffs, and proponents of the “stars win” argument say that it goes down more for teams that don’t have any stars.

This theory has at least a grain of truth, and it is certainly true that the vast majority of recent NBA championships have been won by teams with one of the best five players in the league. However, the Spurs won easily last year by employing an offense that focused more on passing than on one-on-one play and without having an MVP candidate on the team. Furthermore, even if team-oriented offenses experience a little regression in the playoffs than one-on-one-oriented offenses do, teams like the Warriors are already so far ahead of the Thunder in terms of offensive efficiency that it is unlikely to matter.

For all those reasons, it’s more likely than not that Westbrook’s fearless brand of dominance comes to nothing and the Thunder exit the playoffs early. But there’s a small chance that Westbrook — and Durant — beat the odds and make a run that is based completely on their individual talent. If any two players can overcome their teammates’ and coaches’ severe shortcomings through individual brilliance, it’s Westbrook and Durant.