Westbrook evolution key to OKC ambition

The Oklahoma City Thunder have been experimenting since Kevin Durant abruptly departed for Golden State to join the Warriors in search of a championship. The first move of the Thunder following the departure of the ‘Slim Reaper’ wasn’t deliberate but rather ambitious. The only star player left on the roster, Russell Westbrook, took on the mantle of savior and tried to do it all by himself.

To understand what could be the driving force behind the determination of ‘The Brodie’ to make a statement at Oklahoma, we need to back up to the events of the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. In 2013-14 Durant won his fourth NBA scoring title. The following season a series of injuries limited him to just 27 games. The mantle of leadership fell on Westbrook, and he almost single-handedly carried the Thunder into the playoffs. Averaging a league-leading 28.1 points per game, he landed his first NBA scoring title.

That was probably why he took on the savior role when KD left, and the fact that he wanted to do it better (Oklahoma City missed the playoffs by one spot for the first time in five years with Durant absent, despite Westbrook’s scoring title) and probably the reason he was more dominant.

His efforts the second time around in the 2016-17 season got the Thunder into the playoffs, but as the other teams who had worked that plan before had realized: basketball is a team game, one man can’t beat five. The Thunder, who had contested a close conference finals with the Golden State Warriors in Kevin Durant’s final season, were knocked out in the first round.

The answer to the Oklahoma riddle was simple: Westbrook needed more help. And general manager Sam Presti, who had traded for Victor Oladipo following the departure of Durant, again sprang into action. Again, to understand Presti, we need to backtrack to the events leading up to the departure of James Harden and Durant, and how the young GM reacted in the aftermath.

When Oklahoma City had the troika of Westbrook, Durant and Harden, many believed they were the core of a championship team. In the three years ‘The Beard’ played at Oklahoma, he started only seven games of the 220 he played, but averaged 12.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists, and was Sixth Man of the Year in his final season. His relationship with OKC ended when they couldn’t agree on a new deal. He was traded to the Houston Rockets. Harden still insists that he wasn’t given enough time to think about the deal before he was shipped out.

Then Durant left four years later, ending an era that could have landed Oklahoma a championship. Presti moved quickly to tie Westbrook to a new contract when Durant left, and his urgency to find help for Westbrook could be his way of ensuring that the Thunder makes another deep playoffs run before Westbrook’s contract expires. That may explain the quick move to land Paul George when the Thunder still suffered a first-round exit despite the Oladipo trade.

But despite the arrival of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony Oklahoma were still knocked out of the playoffs in the first round. Presti pulled off another coup when he signed Paul George to an extension, acquired Denis Schroder from Hawks and shipped out the ineffective Anthony.

That experiment seems to be working, but it wouldn’t have if Westbrook had not evolved.

Oklahoma City opened the season with a 0-4 run, but that’s not the story. It is that they played the first two games minus The Brodie, but lost the next two that he played in. In those two games, he took an average of 21.5 shots, including 5.5 treys, and tried to carry the team. In the next five games he played after those opening four losses, he attempted 18.8 shots per game including 1.8 from range, and the Thunder won them all. That was the first turning point; he probably realized that the team became better when he loosened the reins and didn’t need him to do so much.

The second turning point was the next six games; Westbrook sustained a left-ankle sprain and had to sit out again. The fear was that the Thunder, who had turned the corner, may relapse into their early-season form. It didn’t happen. OKC went 5-1 with Westbrook out, and it was clear they could win without him. He also seems to have realized this and has continued to play within the system.

Westbrook is taking less field goals (19.1 per game) since Durant’s final season at OKC (18.1; he averaged 24.0 field goals per game the season after KD left) and his current total of 22.8 points per game is the lowest since he averaged 21.8 points in 2013-14.

The players around him, and by extension the team, have benefited. Paul George averaged 17.0 field goals and 21.9 points in his first season at OKC; he is currently averaging 19.4 field goals and 23.2 points. Steven Adams averaged 5.9 field goals and 13.9 points per game last season; he is averaging 10.5 field goals and 14.9 points so far this season. His rebounds are also up from 9.0 to 10.2 per game. Then there’s Dennis Schroder. In the first four games he played with Westbrook, he averaged 12.3 field-goal attempts and 12.8 points per game; he averaged 15.3 field goals and 19.8 points in the last four.

The Thunder will get better and more dangerous as they figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and as The Brodie evolves more.

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