Russell Westbrook is one of the top-ten players in today’s NBA.
So why are his Oklahoma City Thunder still arguably the best squad in the league without him? The popular thought tends to center on Westbrook’s un-point-guard-like shooting tendencies. It goes something like this: Westbrook shoots too much, he takes quick, poor shots, and doesn’t get the ball to Kevin Durant and get out of the way enough.
This is largely ridiculous, of course. Westbrook assists on 35.7% of baskets scored while he’s on the floor, which is comparable to “pass-first” point guards like Ricky Rubio, and is a largely efficient scorer himself. He’s a pretty neutral defender, but the Thunder have traditionally performed much better with him on the court than off of it. This was tested in earnest in the 2014 postseason, when Westbrook was injured in the first round matchup against the Houston Rockets.
The Thunder completed the series victory over the Rockets but proceeded to lose their second round pairing against the Memphis Grizzlies in just five games. At the time, it seemed hard to argue that Westbrook’s style of play was all too reckless or damaging to the Thunder. After all, they shriveled up in the playoffs without him.
Well, fast-forward to this season. Westbrook missed the pre-season and the first couple of games in the regular season while recovering from his knee surgery. After playing in 25 games, it was announced that Westbrook would be undergoing another surgery, this time to clean-up the knee.
Since then? Durant and Co. have accelerated to an NBA-best 42-12 record. When it was announced that Westbrook would be back on the shelf back in December, a 40-win season by the All-Star Break seemed rather far-fetched. So what’s happened?
The answer is actually quite simple: Kevin Durant. Yes, he’s always been good. And he was on the playoff team that bombed so spectacularly without Westbrook. But he’s been just that good this year, and has stepped up his game considerably, even from the level on which he has always played.
The numbers are video game-esque. His True Shooting Percentage, which takes into account all field goals as well as free throws, is a ridiculous 64.3. Durant’s Effective Field Goal Percentage is 56.8, which is incredible for a player that attempts the majority of his shots from the perimeter. And in Westbrook’s absence, he’s dishing out assists at what is easily a career-high rate (26.5%, compared to a career mark of just 16.4%).
It seems too simple. But that’s it. Serge Ibaka has played a bit better this year, but players like Thabo Sefolosha have struggled, and there isn’t any tangible reason why the team has responded better in 2013-14 than they did in last year’s playoffs. Durant has learned to be better as a distributor, but he’s simply making more shots across the board.
Far and away, he’s been the best player in the NBA this season. He’s out-performed LeBron James to this point, and he’s done it largely without a star teammate alongside him. Durant has found a near-perfect balance of scoring when he needs to but distributing the ball more consistently. His greatness this season cannot be understated, and it’s hard to find another reason why the Thunder are weathering the Westbrook-less storm so well.
Reggie Jackson has played adequately in the superstar’s stead, but Durant has handled many of the ball-handling duties while Jackson has largely played off the ball. The more surprising role players are Jeremy Lamb and rookie big man Steven Adams, who have both played much better than anticipated while not playing alongside a true point guard for much of the year.
So let’s give the credit to Durant. He’s outplayed James, and is the odds-on favorite for the MVP award this year. He’s done it all with a host of role players and no star sidekicks, and not to mention while navigating the impossible Western Conference. Watching Durant down the stretch in the second half of the season and into the playoffs will be a treat, and he’s only getting better.