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Is Russell Westbrook's Absence Changing How We View Kevin Durant?

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Is Russell Westbrook's Absence Changing How We View Kevin Durant?
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Player evaluation is a tricky task. Especially when dealing with a guy like Kevin Durant, and double especially when talking about how he looks without Russell Westbrook

Since the dynamic point guard was lost to his prolonged recovery from arthroscopic surgery right after he helped beat down the New York Knicks on Christmas Day, Durant has been an interesting player to follow.

Well, more interesting than normal, I suppose. 

The small forward has been a completely dominant individual, but his gaudy box-score figures haven't been able to propel the Oklahoma City Thunder on to victory with any semblance of frequency. It's a strange development, and it's changing the way we view him. 

At least, it should change how we view him. During the 10 games that have occurred since Christmas came and went, Durant has forced us to accept two major developments. 

 

Development No. 1: He's Really, Really, Really Good

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

While Durant was playing alongside Westbrook, we knew that he was really, really good. That wouldn't be a development, but hold your horses before jumping to the comment section to tell me we've only learned one thing from Westbrook's absence. 

This stretch has taught the NBA world that you need to tack on an extra "really." The league's leading scorer has improved so much since last season's playoff run, and that's become abundantly clear while Westbrook recovers from the knee scope. 

You can compare what Durant has done since Dec. 25 to what he did before the point guard's injury, and you'd undoubtedly be impressed. But what's even more impressive is the difference between his per-game numbers during the current stretch and last year's playoffs sans Westbrook: 

Infogr.am.

And now, his shooting percentages: 

Infogr.am.

So, what do all of those bars mean? 

Durant is scoring more points per game this time around, recording far fewer turnovers and losing every other category by pretty small margins. That's incredibly impressive, largely because he's only played 37.7 minutes per contest since Westbrook left the lineup this season, as opposed to 45.1 during last year's relevant stretch. 

On a per-minute basis, 2014 Durant is doing better than he did in 2013 in points and winning each of the other categories. Additionally, he's been a much more efficient shooter, with the exception of his work beyond the arc. 

It's also important that the league's future scoring champ has improved both his true shooting percentage and his effective field-goal percentage. 

Whether you look at the numbers or go watch tape, it's quite clear that Durant has gotten significantly better over the last few months. It's what has allowed him to jump to the forefront of the MVP discussion, and he now ranks No. 1 on NBA.com's MVP ladder

Anything you can do, LeBron James, Durant wants the world to know he can do just as well or better. The Thunder star didn't take kindly to losing the top spot here to start the New Year and responded with two 48-point games in four days.

All jokes aside, Durant's response to losing Russell Westbrook for six weeks is what really sticks out. He's made it clear to anyone paying attention that he will not allow the Thunder to buckle with their other catalyst sidelined for an extended period of time. KD put up 48 in a loss to the Jazz and didn't have a single turnover and had just three to go with his 48 in torching the Minnesota Timberwolves. These next few weeks should be extremely entertaining.

This is development No. 1 for Durant. 

We already knew he was the second-best player in basketball, trailing only LeBron James, but we didn't have any idea he could close the gap this fast. Even though Durant is now the MVP favorite, he still hasn't surpassed the King. 

He's just drawing close. 

That's the positive in OKC. The negative is that it hasn't really mattered. 

 

Development No. 2: He's Not the Most Important Player on the Roster

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

If I'd told you before the season started that Westbrook would be out and Durant would post numbers like the ones you can read about up above, you probably would've assumed that Oklahoma City was still winning games at an elite pace. 

That isn't the case. 

The Thunder are only 5-5, and that's caused them to slip from the top spot in the extremely competitive Western Conference all the way down to No. 3. And they're in danger of falling behind the Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors as well, all of whom are starting to close the gap.

It's entirely feasible that OKC could find itself sitting at No. 6 by the time Westbrook is ready to lace up those sneakers again. 

Durant is an absolutely fantastic individual, but he doesn't help make his teammates thrive as much as his point guard can. No matter what kind of numbers he puts up, this roster isn't going to be a competitive one in its current form. 

He can play like an MVP favorite, which he has, but it won't matter. 

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

All of that points toward a shift in mentality, one that favors Westbrook as the team's most important player. There's a massive distinction between "best" and "important," and it's vital that everyone understands it before proceeding any further. Otherwise, you'll be left with a look on your face like the one Westbrook is wearing up above. 

The best player is the one who would excel most in a vacuum. He's the one who typically finishes highest in player rankings and posts the more impressive traditional stats. 

However, the most important player is the one who makes everyone better. He's the guy a team can't afford to lose, because everything falls apart without him in the lineup, even if there are more talented (i.e. better) players on the roster. 

These aren't necessarily mutually exclusive descriptors. LeBron, for example, is the best and most important player on the Miami Heat. But they don't always have to be the same, and they clearly aren't for the Thunder. 

When Westbrook has played this season, the Thunder are 21-4. Without him, they're only 7-6. 

If you prorate those two records to a full 82-game season, you're looking at respective marks of 69-13 and 44-38. For those of you without a calculator, the Westbrook-boasting Thunder would beat the Westbrook-missing Thunder by 25 games, assuming the effects of a small sample don't actually matter. 

If you break it down even further, it's pretty clear that Westbrook matters quite a lot. 

Just take a player like Serge Ibaka, who the Thunder count on for offensive production even if he can't typically create his own looks. According to NBA.com's statistical databases, the Congolese power forward shoots 7.5 percent better from the field and scores an additional 2.5 points per 36 minutes when Westbrook is on the court. 

Bart Young/Getty Images

Does the same disparity exist with Kevin Durant entering and exiting the game? 

Not exactly. When the high-scoring small forward is on the court, Ibaka shoots 6.3 percent worse and scores five fewer points per 36 minutes. 

Obviously, this is only one player, but it's still a shift in production that occurs when you look at other parts of the roster as well.

Durant tacitly admitted as much to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman: "I just can't keep thinking about myself. It's messing up the rhythm. So, I got to figure out how I can help them (my teammates) out. It's not about them helping me. It's about me helping them.”

According to Mayberry, Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lamb, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins are all shooting below 42 percent during the last nine Thunder games. Not so coincidentally, that's the same length Westbrook has been out, as the article was published before the loss to the Memphis Grizzlies.

You know, the same loss in which Jackson (42.9 field-goal percentage), Lamb (33.3), Sefolosha (0.0), Fisher (20.0) and Perkins (50.0 percent on only two attempts) all struggled. 

Who's the most important player on the Thunder?

Submit Vote vote to see results

 

Durant is a fantastic individual, but he hasn't yet reached the point in his career where he can consistently elevate the performances of his teammates. If anything, his takeover ability can prevent them from getting into a rhythm. 

That's not a huge knock, to be fair. It takes time for a forward to learn such skills, and it's an attribute that never develops for many fantastic, all-world players. 

But until it does, Durant isn't as important to the Thunder's winning efforts as a certain injured point guard. 

And for OKC, that may prove to be the bigger development. 

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