Will Russell Westbrook Finally Embrace Sidekick Role Next to Kevin Durant?

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 31, 2014

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Russell Westbrook has the ability to make the Oklahoma City Thunder take a serious step backward.


Isn't Westbrook supposed to be one of the premier point guards in the NBA? Isn't he an All-Star lock when healthy? Hasn't he gotten better every single season he's been in the Association?

The answer to each of those questions is a definitive "yes," but he can still hurt the Thunder if he returns from his arthroscopic surgery and refuses to embrace a sidekick role next to Kevin Durant. Westbrook has been criticized heavily throughout his career for his refusal to take a backseat and willingness to fire away with reckless abandon, after all.

Now that has to change.

During Westbrook's most recent absence, Durant has ascended to the unquestioned forefront of the MVP discussion, and he's playing at a level few players in NBA history have ever reached. No, that's not an exaggeration, as Durant is posting historic scoring figures and improving every other aspect of his game. 

If there were ever a time for Westbrook to move from that No. 1B role to the No. 2 slot in the Thunder offense, it would be as soon as he returns. 

Whether or not he actually does is still up in the air, and it won't be determined until he officially regains his spot in the lineup after the All-Star break. But there are plenty of signs he'll be willing to take that backseat. 


The Thunder Are Winning Games

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 31: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrates against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center on January 31, 2014 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images


At the heart of basketball, that's the ultimate goal. And a player as passionate and emotional as Westbrook should have no trouble understanding that, as he's come so close to tasting the thrill of a championship before ultimately falling short. 

For the first time in his professional career, Westbrook has had the ability to watch winning basketball that he hasn't been a part of. 

Can you blame him for taking control of the offense in the past? After all, it was still leading to plenty of wins for OKC. He had no reason to change, because he was simply following the old adage that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Remember, Westbrook had never missed a regular-season game until this 2013-14 campaign. He'd been such an iron man during the early portion of his career that you might have thought his full name was Russell A.C. Green Westbrook. 

He actually doesn't have a middle name, but that's beside the point. 

The Thunder have always been dominant in recent years. But now Westbrook sees that they're even more dominant with this new version of Durant, a version that is monopolizing the ball in a way that's beneficial for OKC's hopes of coming out on top. 

Take a look at how the Thunder's record has gone during three relevant portions of the season. We're looking at before the point guard returned from his offseason knee surgery (pre-return), when he was on the court (during return) and after he endured arthroscopic surgery (injury): 


The winning percentage since Durant became the lone scoring superstar in Oklahoma City is a bit lower, but it's still an elite mark. The dip is natural, since a stud was lost from the lineup. The Thunder couldn't realistically be expected to keep pace, after all. 

If Westbrook is able to fit seamlessly back into the lineup, there's a chance it rises even higher than it was during the middle portion of the graph. But it has to be seamless. 

That said, let's not just look at wins and losses. Instead, take a gander at the average scoring margin in victorious outings during each of the three stretches: 


And now let's add one more bar into the chart: 


That last one shows the margin of victory during the Thunder's current win streak, though it doesn't include anything from the Jan. 31 shellacking of the Brooklyn Nets

There are a few factors to take into account here. Not only did the stretch with Westbrook playing include a few blowout victories that serve as major outliers, but the current stretch of undefeated play has come against a laundry list of contenders. The Thunder have knocked out the Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat in those nine victories, and they're still winning games by double digits. 

If anything is going to make an impression on Westbrook, it's that. 


Durant's Efficiency is Sky-High

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 29: Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on against the Miami Heat at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on Jan. 29, 2014. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Why mess with perfection? 

No NBA player is going to achieve pure, unadulterated perfection on the offensive end of the court. The game simply denies perfection, as it's beyond human capabilities to shoot without missing for game after game, especially with the best defensive players in the world trying to guard you. 

But Durant is pretty damn close. He's as close as a basketball player can get to attaining offensive perfection right now, and he's not slowing down. 

Since Westbrook left the lineup after the Christmas Day beatdown of the New York Knicks, K.D. has averaged a ridiculous 36.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game, and he's done so while shooting 53.6 percent from the field, 41.5 percent from beyond the arc and 87.8 percent at the charity stripe. 

On top of that, he's been playing the best defense of his career. 

It's not just the scoring that has gotten better, even though his string of a dozen-consecutive 30-point outings has drawn all the headlines. He's become an all-around stud and the unquestioned favorite for MVP. 

The key has been a lack of players who are going to take the ball away from him. All of a sudden, Durant can assume control of the rock whenever he so pleases, and it's working. 

He's not forcing shots because he knows he doesn't have to. 

"I’m being more comfortable trying to do different things,” he told Cliff Brunt of the Associated Press (via The Washington Times). “Whether it’s scoring, whether it’s rebounding, being a facilitator — I’m just going out there and really just having fun, to be honest.”

One just needs to take a quick look at Durant's advanced statistics to see that he is telling the truth.

According to Basketball-Reference, his usage rate has risen to 35.3 percent since Westbrook left the lineup. Now remember that usage rate doesn't include assists, so his 29.9 assist percentage is also relevant. For those of you without much statistical background, that means that of the shots Durant's teammates hit while he's on the court, 29.9 percent of them are assisted by the OKC superstar. 

To put that in perspective, a 29.9 assist percentage would leave Durant just outside the top 20 throughout the Association, and he's done that while putting up insane scoring figures. 

Take a look at how his usage rate and assist percentage have trended during the portions of the season brought up earlier: 


Maybe that's just correlation. Maybe it's causation, which I tend to believe. 

Durant has been thriving with the ball in his hands, and he's been able to work from that situation with increasing frequency ever since Westbrook left the lineup. 


There's Even More Fear of Public Fallout

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - JANUARY 19:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on during an NBA game on January 19, 2014 at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Even if the numbers aren't enough to sway Westbrook into playing a more conservative style of offensive basketball, the fear of negative repercussions should. 

He doesn't want to be the player who makes Durant's historic run of excellence end. He doesn't want to be the man who causes the Thunder to slip out of the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference standings. 

If he got a lot of grief in the past for his high-scoring tendencies, it's terrifying to think of how much flak the point guard would receive now. It might be too much, especially for such a passionate player. 

As soon as he has a poor shooting night or takes an ill-advised pull-up jumper during a close game, the floodgates will open. And they won't close for a long time. 

For whatever reason, Westbrook has always been a lightning rod. 

His intense style, reckless abandon and oft-shooting habits rub some people the wrong way, and he's become one of the most heavily-criticized players in the NBA. Again, that was before Durant showed what he could do as the clear-cut No. 1 option in the offense. 

That was before perception changed, and he was no longer viewed as an integral part of the offensive machine in OKC. Even my opinion has shifted, as I've always been a Westbrook apologist, to the point that I wrote he was the most important player for the Thunder shortly after he underwent arthroscopic surgery:

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. 

Welp. I was wrong. I admit it. 

That article was published on Jan. 16 at a time when OKC was only 6-5 since Westbrook's injury, even with Durant exploding as a scorer. Little did I know that Durant would score 54 points the very next night (how's that for timing) and elevate his game to a ridiculous level. 

Maybe he's about to slump—I doubt it—but Durant is now quite clearly the best and most important player on the Thunder roster.

And if Westbrook should have learned anything from his time on the bench, it's that. So too has the rest of the world, and no one will be happy if he hasn't figured it out. 

If anything leads to the dynamic floor general accepting a sidekick rather than a co-star role, it'll be that. The Thunder can be a great team even if Westbrook doesn't change his style of play whatsoever. They were before, and they will be again. 

But if he becomes a Robin to Durant's Batman—sidenote: Durant's middle name is Wayne, so this ridiculously overused metaphor works perfectly—then the Thunder can be the best team in the NBA. Just like they've been while he's been out. 


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