NBA

The Westbrook Defense: Part II

By: Blake Probert

Part I is here, discussing why I don’t believe Russell Westbrook drove Kevin Durant out of Oklahoma City. There’d be more of a table setter here but, I’ve thought and talked about it enough this week that it’s making me physically ill….Go read that and meet everyone back here.

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Cool. So Oklahoma City just lost the second best basketball player in the world to a team that handed them a devastating playoff defeat and are teetering on the brink of being irrelevant save for some sweet Russ dunks on SportsCenter. How do they best utilize his transcendent talents and a roster rather thin on other offensive talent?

The Triple Double Season:

You turn Russell Westbrook loose, let his usage rate skyrocket and hope for the best. It’s insane to think that averaging a triple double was something that was even considered feasible, but in retrospect, it almost felt like that’s what some people anticipated heading into the 2016-’17 season. It didn’t seem completely out of reach because the world had seen a preview of Westbrook without Durant, or much else, not that long before.

Durant had missed the final 28 games of the 2014-’15 season due to a lingering foot injury. Westbrook played in 27 of those games and averaged 31.3 PPG, 10.1 APG and 8.6 RPG, notching 9 triple doubles as the Thunder went 15-12 down the stretch. The Thunder ultimately missed the playoffs due to a tie breaker, but that likely had more to do with Durant and Westbrook simultaneously missing time in the middle of the season than some failure of Russell’s.

Knowing what he was capable of when not being flanked by another elite scorer, I think the Thunder employed the best strategy at their disposal. Great team basketball it was not, but go look at the rest of the team. You back? Pretty rough, yes? There are nice pieces present, sure. Steven Adams was well on his way to being one of the league’s best centers, Enes Kanter was a strong low post presence and….that’s about it.

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Victor Oladipo went on to have a great year after being traded from OKC in the Paul George deal, but he had a largely redundant skill set next to Westbrook…and revived his career in Indiana by making huge changes to his body and spending the off season dedicated to improving his game. He was a vastly different player a year removed from being in OKC. The rest of that roster is composed of young guys who were far from their full potential, fringe rotation players, and guys who aren’t in the league anymore.

What could it hurt to let Russ absolutely ball out with that group around him? Is it really some crime against basketball that he didn’t spend the year trying to get guys like Anthony Morrow and Joffery Lauvergne more involved? No. Are you even sure Joffery Lauvergne isn’t a Game Of Thrones reference I snuck in to make sure you’re paying attention? Other players were still involved, he obviously still averaged double digit assists after all.

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Was there some “dubious” rebounding involved? Maybe. People try to paint a picture of Westbrook ripping rebounds out of Steven Adams’ hands in order to secure his precious statline. In reality, Adams and the other Thunder big men could be frequently seen boxing guys out and allowing Russ to collect rebounds. You could cry about them helping to pad the stats, but there is a method to this supposed madness. Afterall, Adams and Co. aren’t going to bring the ball up themselves in that scenario. It’s more than likely to find it’s way to Westbrook, regardless. As the league’s second scariest player in transition, behind only LeBron, what’s wrong with letting him serve as a constant threat to the other team’s transition defense…picking up easy baskets and trips to the free throw line to find easy points for a team lacking in offensive potency?

The whole season felt like a franchise standing by their man. Committing to portraying him in the best possible light following an offseason of questions about him. The triple double narrative, along with some empathy from fans displeased by Durant’s decision to leave, help keep the Thunder on the national stage when they were most likely to fall off. Russ earned MVP honors for his efforts after the Thunder went 47-35, good for sixth in the Western Conference; their season ended in short order with a loss to the Houston Rockets in the first round.

If you really don’t think Westbrook’s efforts were some of the most valuable to his team that year, go look at that roster again. How many players could have dragged them a sixth seed in the West?

While the triple double season was cathartic, then a repeat of such an effort seemed unlikely. Some serious retooling of the roster was in order before the next year began.

The Paul George & Carmelo Anthony Trades:

As previously alluded to, Paul George joined the Thunder in exchange for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis on July 6, 2017. OKC had successfully acquired a second star to pair with Westbrook for what many agreed at the time was a song.

On September 25th, Carmelo Anthony joined the squad in exchange for Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott. Along with the addition of a potential key role player in Patrick Patterson during free agency, and the further development of Steven Adams, the Thunder looked to have assembled a much more competitive roster.

Unfortunately, things didn’t gel as anticipated.  Patterson missed most of the off-season and preseason due to injury and his game suffered for it. Injuries also derailed Andre Roberson’s season in January, something that had a much bigger impact on the team than some might have expected given his limited offensive skill set . Roberson is an elite level wing defender; with he and George on the floor together, the Thunder ranked in the top five of defensive efficiency. Without him the rest of the season, the Thunder ranked 15th and struggled to play consistently.

Without their high ranking defense to generate easy transition baskets off of steals and defensive rebounds, the Thunder’s offense would often stall. Anthony’s preference for isolating on offense further stalled an offense better suited to spacing the floor and utilizing pick and rolls. We could litigate Anthony’s penchant for stalling out offenses here, but I think his reputation is well known. Suffice to say, the ideal stretch four people had hoped to see him turn into “Olympic Melo,” never materialized.

Russ would average a triple double again…and the Thunder were headed to another first round playoff exit, this time at the hands of the Utah Jazz.

So, this was all his fault for being a stat chaser right? Of course not. The team was unable to play its preferred style of basketball, one perfectly suited to his skills, due in large part to injuries and a refusal by Anthony to accept a lesser role in the offense. Thunder GM Sam Presti had swung for the fence with big offseason acquisitions in an attempt to make the team a title contender, but further adjustments were needed.

The 2018 Offseason:

This summer featured what I considered to be the biggest rebuttal of the idea that Russ isn’t someone people like to play with: Paul George’s decision to stay in Oklahoma City. George and Westbrook have developed a strong relationship on and off the court. The result was PG13’s decision to stay and nearly 12 months of speculation that he’d depart for his hometown Los Angeles Lakers once he became a free agent. By all accounts, it wasn’t a decision he struggled with, reportedly deciding to stay weeks before free agency began and never even scheduling a meeting with other teams. Westbrook has long been popular among his teammates, but this was another elite level talent deciding that pairing himself with them was in their best interest.

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OKC was also able to shed the remaining year of Anthony’s contract and acquire PG Dennis Schroder from the Atlanta Hawks in the process. Schroder is a starting caliber player who immediately becomes one of the league’s premier backups. He and Westbrook figure to share the court a fair amount, and he is likely to help take some of the play making pressure off of Russ.

With other key role players having been retained and Roberson and Patterson returning to full strength, OKC figures to have one of the deepest rosters in the league. One with the playmakers and defensive prowess to provide Durant’s Warriors with a challenge.

For all my fawning though, it is a crucial year for Westbrook’s reputation. Given their potential, another first round loss in the playoffs would be considered a major disappointment. With Schroder in tow, his usage rate should drop and it would be nice to see his energy channeled into more off ball movement. Less gambling on defense would be a step forward as well. He’ll always be a risk taker by nature, it’s what makes him exciting. But with their defense likely returning to the top of the rankings, he should be able to make plays while playing within their system.

Regardless, I’ll continue to defend him against all comers. Westbrook’s passion and explosiveness make him my favorite player to watch whether or not he ever wins an NBA title. To me, he’s the NBA equivalent of the NFL’s gunslinger quarterbacks. There will be highs and lows, but it will always be entertaining to watch. He’s the player who stayed, who keeps professional basketball relevant in OKC, proving the sport is viable in smaller midwestern markets (looking at you Kansas City). The idea of what he represents is just as important as the outcome on the court.

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