Russell Westbrook's Absence Again Proving Worrisome for Oklahoma City Thunder

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Russell Westbrook's Absence Again Proving Worrisome for Oklahoma City Thunder
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Sometimes a shot-taker is as important as a shot-maker. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook can attest to that.

We so often hear that Westbrook is a "ball hog," a "selfish player" or a "streetball player." We hear that he takes shots away from Kevin Durant. We hear that he cares about getting his and that's it. 

That argument should've lost most or all of its traction when the Thunder struggled as much as they did last postseason after Westbrook went down with a tear of his lateral meniscus and had to miss the rest of the playoffs. Now, with Westbrook out with yet another knee issue, we're seeing problems in Oklahoma City once again.

Westbrook, who hasn't played since Christmas Day, is in the midst of one of the worst seasons of his career, an injury-plagued one that has seen knee injury after knee injury after knee injury. But the Thunder, who have gone 6-5 in his absence, are now stuck in a bit of a quandary without the 1b to Kevin Durant's 1a. The offense is starting to stall, and the problems may not get much better until Westbrook returns to the lineup.

In his 25 games, Westbrook is having one of his poorer seasons in some time. His PER is the lowest it's been since his second NBA season. So is his true shooting percentage. 

Westbrook just hasn't been quite as effective, but that all makes perfect sense once you consider the injuries. Even his minutes per game are lower than they've been since his rookie year.

Three knee surgeries. Seven months.

That's a lot of surgery without much time. Enough to keep you out of a rhythm.

Now though, without Westbrook, the Thunder find themselves reeling just a little bit. Lose your point guard, your second-best player, your shot-creator, your playmaker, your All-Star, and lose a lot more than some guarded shot attempts that critics end up dwelling on too much the following morning.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Since Westbrook reinjured his knee back on Christmas, the Thunder haven't looked the same. They haven't looked horrible. They haven't even looked that bad. They just haven't looked quite the same.

Over this 6-5 stretch, they have a 34-point win over the Houston Rockets. But have also lost to the Utah Jazz in that time period. They've lost to the Denver Nuggets and the Brooklyn Nets. They blew a 16-point lead to a feisty Portland Trail Blazers team that will make sure not to give in if you do exactly that. 

It's that sans-Westbrook offense. It stalls. It can't necessarily stay consistent.

In the 11 games since Westbrook went down, Oklahoma City has scored 104.0 points per 100 possessions. Looking at each NBA team's last 11 games, that would rank the Thunder 14th in the league in offensive efficiency, down from the No. 5 ranking that they held when Westbrook got hurt.

It's about spacing. As often as Westbrook may take shots that leave you shaking your head, he creates room on the floor—even with his misses—and that allows players like Kevin Durant to have so much more room with which to work.

Basketball is geometry. With no Westbrook, the Thunder's geometry is all out of sorts.

In the nine games without Westbrook, Durant is shooting just 31.5 percent from three-point range. The drive-and-kick isn't there as much with Reggie Jackson. Shots on the perimeter aren't nearly as open. 

In terms of scoring, Westbrook hasn't been all that efficient on drives to the hoop this season. Actually, he has only shot 30.5 percent from the field on such plays. But at some point, the Rudy Gay defense comes into play.

You know the Rudy Gay defense. It's the one we've been hearing from people who have backed Gay for a year-and-a-half even though most evidence would show that Gay doesn't deserve much backing. 

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

"Rudy Gay may shoot really bad percentages, but defenses still defend him as if he can make those shots. He opens up the floor. He's valuable because of that."

Now, that argument isn't entirely true with Gay, considering the types of shots he takes—those unimpressively long, contested two-point chucks don't open up an offense. But take a few steps back behind the three-point line, and you have a way to open up the floor. Run a pick-and-roll with Serge Ibaka, and that creates space. Become so aggressive, strong and quick on drives to the hoop that defenses have to collapse in on you, and the three-point line opens up for everyone.

That's what has happened with Westbrook. Defenses are still respecting those drives even though the numbers are down. 

Basically, when you defend the Thunder, you have to defend Westbrook off the dribble. That could mean stopping Westbrook from getting to the rim effectively, which he does so well. It could mean containing a drive and kickout for a three. And it could mean stopping the pick-and-roll, which Westbrook loves to run with Serge Ibaka and which is one of the most consistently effective plays in the Thunder offense.

Over the past few years, Ibaka has developed one of the most reliable mid-range games in the NBA. He's at Chris Bosh levels with that ability, even though people don't always seem to notice. 

Ibaka is making 44.8 percent of his mid-range jumpers this season. And it's not a fluke. He made more than half his mid-range jumpers last year.

Ibaka doesn't create for himself in the half-court offense, though. He doesn't dribble around and then pull up from 17 feet like a crafty, Chris Paul-like point guard. He sets screens at the top of the key and either slips his screen to do a quick one-step roll or he pops. That's it. That's his offense.

It's simple. Yet it's so effective.

Ibaka is so good at slipping screens, knowing exactly when he can create space for himself by sliding toward the hoop, that he and Westbrook play perfectly off each other, like in this early-season play against the Phoenix Suns:

It's not just about jumpers, though. Ibaka is one of the best roll men in the league when he finishes around the rim, and he'll often roll all the way there. Here, he and Westbrook take advantage of poor communication by the Nuggets:

Let's make one caveat clear: J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye are not exactly the best duo in the world at defending the pick-and-roll. Foye chases a driving Westbrook around a screen and as he plays behind the Thunder guard, Hickson makes a point to stay in front of him.

That's what Westbrook's speed does. It's what his driving ability does.

Foye can't recover after going behind Westbrook on the screen. Hickson can't let Westbrook get in front of him or else he'll be allowing a layup or a foul or, in a realistic worse-case scenario, both. So as Westbrook goes to the hoop, he ends up getting double-teamed, and that leaves a rolling Ibaka wide open for a layup.

It's a perfectly executed pick-and-roll. Granted, it's hardly a perfectly defended pick-and-roll, but isn't that sort of the point?

Not every team has a Marc Gasol or Joakim Noah. Not every team can blow up a pick-and-roll purely based on scheme or know-how. Some teams are like the Nuggets. Some teams don't have the best pick-and-roll strategy or execution.

Just look at the Thunder's 95-93 loss to the Brooklyn Nets from Jan. 2. 

The Nets ICE the pick-and-roll. That means their defense forces ball-handlers toward the side of the court in pick-and-roll situations—at least, that's what it tries to do. But the Nets haven't been particularly notable against the pick-and-roll this season, and it hasn't been much better with Brook Lopez out, even though the team has found some success of late.

That loss to the Nets is one the Thunder may not have had if Westbrook had been there. That's the sort of matchup a point guard like Westbrook can take advantage of every play. 

Reggie Jackson and Derek Fisher tell a different story, though, especially when Fisher is as indecisive as he was in this pick-and-roll in that very game against Brooklyn:

Now that's veteran leadership.

The pick-and-roll chemistry just isn't there for Ibaka and anyone else. Fisher doesn't initially use the screen and instead waits for Ibaka to rescreen, but the rescreen comes a little late.

Here's the problem with a pick-and-roll with Derek Fisher or Reggie Jackson: Defenses don't respect it. Remember, this all comes back to simple basketball geometry. And the geometry isn't there with Westbrook off the floor.

Shaun Livingston was as happy as he possibly could have been going under that Ibaka pick. He knew Fisher couldn't pull up and hit a quick jumper to make him pay. Instead, he played back, cut off any passing lane that a rolling Ibaka could hurt his team with and turned the possession into a one-on-one matchup between the Thunder big man and Kevin Garnett

Turnover, Oklahoma City.

That's what happens, though, when an offense forces Serge Ibaka to be a playmaker, to create off the dribble and to create on his own. Maybe it doesn't happen often, but those plays add up throughout a game, and when that game comes down to a Joe Johnson buzzer-beater for the win, the Thunder end up wishing they had those few plays back.

Therein lie the Thunder's problems without Westbrook. The geometry is all off; it's all wrong. And no matter what Reggie Jackson or Derek Fisher do, they can't fully remedy that. There's a reason that, even with his subpar-by-his-standards numbers, Westbrook has helped the Thunder to a 21-4 record when he is in the lineup.

Oklahoma City can continue to tread water without their All-Star for a few weeks. Kevin Durant is that good. The team, overall, is that good. But at some point, probably in the near future and definitely against smarter defensive teams, the geometry will prove right, and the Thunder will need Russell Westbrook so that they can be successful.

 

Stats valid as of Jan. 17.

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

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