Why Russell Westbrook's Absence Will Validate His Superstar Status

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Why Russell Westbrook's Absence Will Validate His Superstar Status
Sam Forencich/Getty Images
The Thunder need Westbrook to be at full strength this season.

Russell Westbrook pretty definitively proved his value in last year's playoffs, but if any doubts do still remain, they'll almost certainly be dispelled by the time Westbrook returns to the court.

 

Westbrook is scheduled to miss the first four to six weeks of the 2013-14 season, per NBA.com. That puts his return anywhere from late November to mid-December, and if you take a quick look at the schedule, you'll see that the Oklahoma City Thunder should be able to stay afloat. Something like 12 wins out of their first 20 games sounds reasonable, if a little optimistic.

 

Don't let a decent total in the win column fool you, though.

Unless the Thunder have completely overhauled their offense, there's a pretty decent chance that the elite defensive teams they face in those 20 or so games (the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards, etc.) absolutely smother them with Westbrook out.

Westbrook's absence shed light on something that was long known but previously never a problem: The Thunder have a stagnant offensive system that's almost entirely reliant upon the individual efforts of Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

Grantland's Zach Lowe did an excellent breakdown of the OKC offense recently, writing:

Westbrook’s injuries exposed Oklahoma City’s offense for what it has always been in this era: a stagnant collection of four or five set pieces with nothing behind them — no counters, no constant motion, few bits of exciting improvisation. Any halfway smart team could sniff out what was coming by the time the ball crossed midcourt. And if those set pieces failed, the Thunder would fall back on something even simpler — a one-on-one play for Durant or Westbrook, or perhaps a semi-improvised pick-and-roll, as the other players stood around.

To be fair, whether or not this offensive system is a serious problem for OKC is up for debate.

There's no doubt that it's extremely inefficient without Westbrook (we'll get to that), but the Thunder steamrolled the league in the regular season and were very efficient in the two postseason games Westbrook played in, per NBA.com.

Only the Miami Heat have really stymied the Thunder over the past few years, and even they haven't shut them down by any means.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Only the Miami Heat have really been able to slow the Thunder offense.

OKC scored at a top-five rate against Miami in the 2011-12 NBA Finals (a series in which James Harden played terribly) and at a lower—but still around league-average—rate in the two games they played last season.

The real problem is that Miami has averaged over 110 points per 100 possessions against OKC, per NBA.com.

Still, more misdirection and moving pieces would be nice, and with Westbrook out, they're necessary additions.

Funnily enough, the No. 1 thing Westbrook brings to the table is also what he's criticized most for—his aggression. Westbrook is always in attack mode, always ready to barrel into the lane or pull the trigger on a 15-footer.

In fairness to the critics, that is sometimes a problem.

Westbrook takes a few bad shots each game—a far-too-tough layup in traffic or a mid-range jumper when better options are available. Last season, Westbrook posted a 53.2 true shooting percentage, and of the league's top 12 scorers, only LaMarcus Aldridge was less efficient.

But it's important not to let that obscure the bigger picture.

More often than not, Westbrook's constant aggression is a blessing. He's one of maybe five or six players who puts a defense on its heels every time he touches the ball. Westbrook put up 578 shots at the rim last season, third in the league, per NBA.com. The only other guard to even sniff the top 10 was Harden. That's incredibly valuable.

Maybe the best example of this comes from arguably Westbrook's best game—his 43-point outburst in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals.

This particular play starts with Westbrook handling the ball on the wing and Durant close to the top of the key with Shane Battier on him.

Durant drops further back behind the three-point line. Battier follows, leaving Dwyane Wade isolated on Westbrook.

Westbrook—who's been killing every single defender he's faced with pull-up jumpers and lefty drives—begins to head left as Serge Ibaka sets a screen. That alone is enough to cause Battier to leave Durant and collapse into the paint.

Westbrook makes an easy pass to Durant. Battier tries to recover, but it's too late—Durant hits a three-pointer to give OKC the lead.

Another example comes from Game 1 of the same series. Westbrook did so much damage off the dribble in that game that in this case, three Heat defenders tried to wall him off as he drove to the basket, leaving Kendrick Perkins open for an easy dunk.

Maybe it goes without saying, but these are not routine plays.

Durant is not often left open at the three-point line, and it usually doesn't take three guys to prevent a guard from driving to the basket. These plays are Westbrook-specific. It's just him causing havoc in opposing defenses, as he does on a nightly basis.

Believe it not though, the Thunder may miss Westbrook's off-ball presence even more than his playmaking.

I'll preface all that by saying Westbrook's replacement, Reggie Jackson, is going to be an outstanding player maybe as soon as this year. Last season, he was a killer pick-and-roll guard who hit an absurd 74 percent of his shots around the rim, and he's looked dynamite in the preseason.

But—and it's a big but—he shot 23 percent from three, and right now, defenses don't have to respect him off the ball.

That's a huge problem for the Thunder, who already have two players defenses don't really respect in Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha. Perkins is a no-brainer. Though Sefolosha hit 42 percent of his threes last season, he's also a bit gun-shy.

Sefolosha generally only shoots when he's wide open, and while that's certainly good from an efficiency standpoint, it also means defenders can get away with cheating off him. He averaged a reasonable 4.2 three-point attempts per 36 minutes, but that equated to just 258 total attempts, third-fewest of any elite volume three-point shooter.

The fact that defenses can blatantly play off of two members of the Thunder offense is a problem with Westbrook and a disaster when he's out. The Memphis Grizzlies were rarely punished for throwing multiple guys at Durant, and all too often, one of the Thunder's offensive sets was blown up because one of Jackson, Sefolosha or Perkins' defenders wasn't where he was supposed to be.

Durant made a huge leap as a playmaker last season, and he'll be able to punish some of that defensive roaming with savvy passes.

But even so, OKC will really miss Westbrook, who could never be left unchecked even off the ball.

Westbrook's a great cutter. Despite his reputation, he's a pretty good spot-up shooter. Last season, he hit 39 percent of his spot-up threes and a whopping 52 percent when he was coming off screens (though he shot just 27 of them, per Synergy Sports Technology). Westbrook hijacks his overall percentages with some poor off-the-dribble threes, but he can actually shoot, and defenders can never ignore him.

This isn't the kind of stuff that below-average defenses can take full advantage of because Durant is good enough to shred those teams on his own. But as mentioned earlier, elite defenses are going to make life very difficult for the Westbrook-less Thunder barring a lot more misdirection and off-ball movement.

Fortunately for the Thunder, their defense shouldn't take much of a hit in Westbrook's absence. Jackson has all the tools to be a solid defender, and Westbrook's defense—particularly off the ball—has never been all that great. OKC will miss the occasional big play he sometimes makes in the passing lanes, but overall, it'll still be a stellar defensive team, particularly if Ibaka continues to improve.

Westbrook may have some flaws, but he's an offensive machine, and defenses have to be aware of where he is and what he's doing at all times. That has very real value, especially in the type of offensive system OKC runs. The Thunder should survive the season's opening stretch, but don't be shocked if they really struggle at times.

They are missing one of the best players in the world, after all.

 

All stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless stated otherwise.

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