Russell Westbrook and What’s Next

Thunder Free Agents: Taj Gibson, Nick Collison, Andre Roberson

2016-17 Thunder Weaknesses:  30th3-Point Percentage, Small Forward Offense. 27th: Frontcourt Offense.  26th: Free Throw Percentage, Power Forward Offense.  25th: Assists.  20th: Paint Scoring, Shooting Guard Offense.

2016-17 Thunder Strengths1st: Offensive Rebounding, Total Rebounding, Point Guard Offense. 3rd: Fast Break Points. 4th: Free Throw Attempts. 6th: Backcourt Scoring. 8th: Defensive Rebounding.  9th: Pace, Center Offense. 10th: Blocks, Out of Paint Scoring, Defensive Rating.

Largest  (3) Thunder Contracts 2017-18: Russell Westbrook $28,530,608. Steven Adams $22,471,910. Victor Oladipo: $21,000,000

Player Options: July 2018: Russell Westbrook, Enes Kanter

Kevin Durant did matter. Removing him from the Thunder was an extraordinary blow to what the team could reasonably accomplish and yet Russell Westbrook took his game to another level and will probably be the MVP.  But a MVP cannot do it by himself; he needs help. In big games there has to be not just grit and hunger but talent and skill. The Thunder were brutalized in the paint by the Rockets. Steven Adams just wasn’t athletic enough. Durant was sorely missed but so was Serge Ibaka. As far as that trade goes, the Thunder struck out. Victor Oladipo could not live up to the expectations. This was his first playoff experience and if he is to have any kind of career in Oklahoma he has to have a better year shooting the ball but also making the right basketball play.

The Thunder had a chance to win the series if the Thunder subs had given any kind of help. They couldn’t score, protect the rim, finish through contact and looked utterly dependent on Westbrook, as if the definition of team was a loose one at best.

So what happens to the Thunder now?

2016-17 was when Russell Westbrook’s explosion, shot making and athleticism, not to mention rebounding and toughness, was the difference maker. He showed the world that he can be a one-man team but now the hard part faces him and the Presti-philes. Less is more. No NBA player with a usage rate of 41.7% is going to go farther than the first round. That kind of game will get you in the playoffs. It just won’t keep you there.

This is the new OKC normal with the exit of Durant. The expectations are not the same, regardless of how Westbrook was particularly brilliant. There was a reason his numbers dipped in all fourth quarters of each playoff game. He was tired. He needs help. Westbrook has embraced the reality of his situation and the quick change that was thrust upon him without Durant and without Ibaka. The Thunder have to worry. They don’t want a situation with Paul George who has suffered playoff defeat after playoff defeat and is telling everyone by virtue of his body language he doesn’t want to be there anymore.

The Thunder championship or bust narrative has a long way to go. A team needs four elements. They need perimeter scoring. They need ball movement and cutting. They need a rim protector. And they need a bench. Understood is the need for a scorer and rebounder. The Thunder aren’t there yet. They still have missing pieces.

The problem is they don’t have the money to go out and get a Robin to Westbrook’s Batman. They tied their money up in Oladipo and Adams in an impulsive gesture. So no cap space. The Durant-less pieces hardly displayed any kind of chemistry; it was more Russ’ greatness pulling everyone along. He did more than his fair share of the work.

Billy Donovan was disappointing, particularly in the playoffs. He rarely made adjustments to the biggest weakness of the Thunder, their anemic second unit. It was the definition of insanity. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.   But then, he was the same coach up 3-1 in the conference finals and lost. His last eight playoff games, Donovan is 1-7.

Let’s keep it real though. No one around the league is feeling sorry for the Thunder. They had a great player for nine years. They lost him. Just like Milwaukee lost Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Just like Orlando lost Shaquille O’Neal. It’s part of it, the dark side of a great team that falls short. But it’s a reality that happens. Move on. if you can find a way to do that there will be immediate heartbreak and then elation as you recover and then disappointment upon elimination. Even as the NBA isn’t adaptation friendly, the veterans on the Thunder had a more than impossible job to cover up for the huge Kevin Durant loss.

Games will come down to this: can players make shots? Can they stop shot makers? Do they have the poise to make the right play at the right time?

Last offseason was spent trying to pick up the broken pieces of the Durant defection and then turning the page. Westbrook wants to be in OKC and he has the stubborness to want to make it work. But how long will he be able to handle such ineffective pieces around him. Oladipo almost made you wish for Reggie Jackson.

The Thunder need more offense and definitely more on the floor leadership, a better balance, and a second All-Star. Otherwise, this season will just be the start of a merry-go-round the Oklahoma faithful may not like but will have to accept.

 

 

photo via llananba