OKC Thunder Must Evolve, Not Just Survive, While Waiting on Russell Westbrook

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 3, 2014

Nov 27, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) and point guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka (9) congratulate Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson (15) in a break in action against the San Antonio Spurs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Oklahoma City Thunder don't have a championship picture without Russell Westbrook.

But that doesn't mean this team should simply hold his spot until he's ready to return from the third surgical procedure on his right knee since April.

Now is not the time for survival mode. Treading water doesn't help this team get any closer to the championship podium.

Advancements need to be made. Players need to develop. 

OKC needs to learn how to dominate without him, so its path to the podium becomes even sturdier when he's back in the fold.


More Than a One-Man Show on Offense

Before saying anything else, it's important to note that this group has elite-level talent without Westbrook.

That being said, there's such a tremendous difference between complementing a pair of superstars and now playing around just one. This offense hasn't looked remotely the same since losing its floor general.

OKC still holds the No. 5 spot in offensive efficiency (106.5 points per 100 possessions). But it's topped 95 points just once in its last four games, and seems to be getting worse.

Jan 2, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA;  Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) handles the ball while being defended by Brooklyn Nets point guard Shaun Livingston (14) during the first quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mar
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder's 95-93 home loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday was staggering. But the way they gave it away was incredibly concerning.

The game started exactly how you'd expect. OKC hit the ground running and 24 minutes later carried a 59-44 lead into intermission. The Thunder were doing what everyone does—shredding Brooklyn's defense (106.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, 28th).

But everything started to unravel for OKC after the break.

The Thunder still had a 16-point lead late in the third quarter but managed just 18 points in the period. That advantage completely disappeared in a 16-point fourth quarter, 12 minutes that saw the Nets turn an 11-point deficit into a stunning two-point win.

Brooklyn had one goal in mind—limiting Kevin Durant's production and forcing someone else to step up. KD was hounded on his touches, harassed on all his moves and tracked by all five defenders:

Durant still finished with 24 points, but the damage had been done. All but four of his points came in the game's first 30 minutes, and this offense had no answer when its primary weapon was subdued.

"They did a good job of putting two guys on KD, and we have to be more disciplined to get to our spots," coach Scott Brooks said, via Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman.

No one else stepped up to share the offensive burden. Reggie Jackson was the only other player with double-digit field-goal attempts and he shot just four of 13. Serge Ibaka (10 points, five of nine) and Jeremy Lamb (nine points, three of seven) seemed to cap their own production with a lack of aggression.

Perry Jones was the team's second-leading scorer (11 points). The sophomore is also seeing less than 11 minutes a night. Any offense he adds should be considered found money.

If a game plan is going to be over-reliant on one player, Durant would be the one you'd want calling the shots. But ideally this offense doesn't live and die with KD's production. With the weapons it has, it shouldn't need to.


Using Athletic Gifts

Westbrook is one of the league's most exciting high-flying finishers. But his injury won't put OKC's poster-printing market out of business.

This team needs to make better use of its physical gifts. Even in a league littered with world-class athletes, OKC's roster stands out for its speed, quickness and athleticism.

The Thunder aren't going to ditch the isolation game. Nor should they. OKC has the seventh-best isolation attack in the league (0.86 points per possession via Synergy Sports, subscription required), a set that suits Durant's creativity well (0.96, 22nd overall).

But in order for Durant to be effective, the players around him need to make themselves scoring threats. What can't happen—but is happening—is everyone sitting and watching to see what KD can come up with for himself.

Here, KD found a great matchup when the slower Josh McRoberts picked him up on the left wing.

Via Synergy Sports.

But OKC gave the advantage right back with awful floor spacing. Both Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka are sitting at the elbows, leaving both their defenders sitting in the lane. Reggie Jackson (a 31.0 percent three-point shooter) is non-threat standing several feet behind the arc. Thabo Sefolosha at least found the short corner, but he's only a 31.7 percent shooter from three-point range this season.

Four defenders have at least one foot inside the paint and KD hasn't even started his drive yet. When he does make his move, he's predictably met by a horde of Charlotte Bobcats. He tried to adjust to the crowd but wound up having his layup attempt blocked out of bounds.

Via Synergy Sports.

OKC's track-star speed doesn't have to be saved for the open court. Even when the pace slows, the Thunder can punish older, slower teams by staying in constant movement.

Durant (42.1 three-point percentage) and Jeremy Lamb (40.0) are knock-down shooters if they can find an inch. With Jackson's explosiveness and Sefolosha's smarts, both are scoring threats on cuts to the basket. Serge Ibaka (.520/.364/.767) is an aggressive nature away from exponential growth in his offensive outputs; with Westbrook on the shelf, this is the time for Ibaka to leave his stamp on this offense.

KD (career-high 4.8 assists) has already shown he's more than happy to move the ball if that's the right basketball decision. But he's not going to take the ball out of his own hands to hit shooters that can't shoot or cutters that aren't cutting.

Westbrook's injury increases the need for the supporting cast to develop. But if this is handled the right way, the benefits of this work will extend far beyond his return.


Gaining Separation

Any roster that has Durant and Westbrook on it will be in the championship conversation. This is the best one-two punch in the business when both players are healthy.

But OKC's championship bubble is all too easily burst if those are the only two pieces to this puzzle.

Besides the obvious injury threat that can spoil this team's title plans—as it did last season—a two-man attack, even one as talented as this, can struggle against the elite defenses that come around in playoff time.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JUNE 12:  Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder sits on the scorer's table in the fourth quarter while taking on the Miami Heat in Game One of the 2012 NBA Finals at Chesapeake Energy Arena on June 12,
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

That doesn't mean that the Thunder are doomed, though. Far from it.

It just means that work needs to be done to give OKC the best shot it can possibly have at a banner-raising ending.

Jackson needs to be just as much of a distributing threat as he is a scoring one off the dribble. Ibaka needs to create more of his offensive chances, whether off strong cuts to the basket or cleaning up the offensive glass. Lamb has to be ready and willing to take over a game. He has the skills needed to do it.

There's something special about OKC. Something no other contender really has.

With this roster's youth, it's impossible to place a ceiling on this group. This is an elite team with so much room to grow.

But that potential reward also comes with potential risk. The Thunder could have the highest ceiling and the lowest basement of the league's true contenders.

This is the time to make that youth an asset, not a liability.

This is when OKC needs to stop worrying about holding down the fort for Westbrook, and start figuring out how to give him a better home to return to.


*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.



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