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Russell Westbrook's Return Must Take Weight Off Kevin Durant

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Russell Westbrook's Return Must Take Weight Off Kevin Durant
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Even the best of players need help. And that includes Kevin Durant.

Durant has dominated on his own since fellow All-Star Russell Westbrook injured his right knee against the New York Knicks at the end of December, but he may not be able to keep up his superhuman act throughout the rest of the regular season. And that's because he's merely a human.

Without Westbrook, Durant has had to do everything on his own, at least offensively. 

Actually, that statement isn't fully fair to Serge Ibaka and Reggie Jackson, who have mightily improved just over the course of this season. But in terms of creating, in terms of taking on the burden of the offense and in terms of running the show, it all comes back to KD.

Whatever Durant does, the Thunder follow. But it doesn't have to be like that forever. 

According to Anthony Slater of the Oklahoman, Westbrook isn't expected back until after the All-Star break. 

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Once he does return, though, the Thunder face some major questions.

Will he stunt Durant's hot streak? Will he start taking shots away from KD? Would it be a bad thing if he does, in fact, steal some of those attempts?

Westbrook has been a lightning rod for some time. He's used to it. But the Thunder should be more than anxious as they await his return, because ultimately, this team needs its point guard to contend for a title.

 

Durant's High Usage

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Durant has used a career-high 32.2 percent of the Thunder's possessions on the season, and that number is as high as it is because of Westbrook's absence. KD's usage in his 24 games played since Westbrook got hurt on Christmas is 35.1 percentIt was a shade under 30 percent at the time of the injury.

That sans-Westbrook percentage would be high enough to lead the NBA in usage over the course of a full season pretty easily. The league's leader right now is DeMarcus Cousins, and he sits at just 32.8 percent

Remember, though, an offense needs variety. Not just play-type variety, but personnel variety, as well.

Drivers need shooters. Shooters need screeners. Screeners need passers. 

Basketball is a complementary game, and using 35 percent of your team's possessions is not exactly adding perfect balance to an offense. That sort of attack can carry a team through long stretches, or even through a regular season but eventually, a championship-caliber defense will stop it.

Lay that 24-game stretch over a full season and your eyes may bug out of your head at the sight of Durant's 34.7 points per game on 53-41-87 shooting. But when you consider those numbers over 82 games, you also have to realize that no championship team has ever had a qualifying player on its roster with a usage rate of 35 percent or higher.

The Indiana Pacers stopped 2012-13 Carmelo Anthony. The Dallas Mavericks swept 2010-11 Kobe Bryant right out of the STAPLES Center. The 1986-87 Boston Celtics swept the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs, despite Michael Jordan's historic 37.1 points per game season.

It's happened to plenty more players of the same ilk. End 35 percent of your team's possessions, and you're not preparing your squad well for the tougher, more disciplined defenses.

So maybe it wouldn't be the worst act in basketball history if Durant's shot totals decreased a tad. A great player still needs some kind of offensive complement to win. And for the Thunder, that complement is Westbrook.

 

The Pick-and-Roll Offense

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Once Westbrook returns, we'll likely see the Thunder offense revert to its more familiar form. We'll see Russ handle the rock plenty with Durant off the ball more often than he has been over his past 24 games. 

Maybe, though, it doesn't have to change all that much. Maybe there is something for Scott Brooks to learn from the way Durant has played over the past month-and-a-half. Not necessarily from how well he's played, just from the way he's played.

Durant in the pick-and-roll since '09-'10
Year Percentage of Plays Used
13-14 20.6%
12-13 13.7%
11-12 15.2%
10-11 7.7%
09-10 8.3%

MySynergySports

On the season, Durant has used 20.6 percent of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). That's the most he's run the pick-and-roll in his career—by far.

We've seen Brooks change his scheme by adding more Durant pick-and-roll before. As of 2010-11, Durant rarely ever ran the pick-and-roll. The following year, though, his usage as a pick-and-roll ball-handler almost doubled—but there may have been circumstantial reasons for that.

That "following year" was 2011-12, also known as the lockout-shortened, 66-game season. Teams didn't have a real training camp, and they didn't have the opportunity to practice much, considering the league was busy working 66 games into 123 days.

So coaches had to simplify, if only to maintain some semblance of consistency on the offensive and defensive ends, alike. Brooks may have been forced into running more pick-and-roll with Durant that season, considering the screen-and-roll is one of the simpler, more instinctual basketball plays. It's easier to run without practice than some more complex sets.

John Raoux/Associated Press

The screen-and-roll with Durant improved throughout that season, and—with props to Brooks—the Thunder coach stuck with it into last year, letting Durant use about the same percentage of his possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler in 2012-13 as in the previous season.

Now, he's running it even more, and it's become immensely effective. Durant has developed brilliant chemistry with Ibaka, chemistry that should be good enough to sway the way the Thunder play when Westbrook returns. 

All of this, though, doesn't mean the Thunder should use Westbrook less. It just means that they may want to try using him slightly differently at times.

 

How Westbrook Could Adjust 

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

A coach never wants to change his system in the middle of the year, but he can and should add new wrinkles throughout a season. With Westbrook's return, those modest adjustments may be appropriate.

Remember, those Durant pick-and-roll statistics aren't aggregate numbers; they're percentages. Maybe Durant won't run as many pick-and-rolls with Westbrook back, but he can still use a fifth of his possessions doing it. 

Yes, that would mean Westbrook playing off the ball a little more than usual, but would that be such a bad thing? The UCLA alum has the skills, speed, IQ and cutting ability to play off the ball. Just because we haven't seen it happen that often doesn't mean it can't happen in the future.

John Minchillo/Associated Press

But maybe that UCLA bit can teach us something. After all, Westbrook did play off the ball plenty in college, when he bounced around the court while Darren Collison ran the Bruins offense. Actually, Westbrook's off-ball game was so reliable that people questioned if he was a point guard or shooting guard when Oklahoma City drafted him No. 4 overall in 2008. 

Last season (we'll disregard Westbrook's splits from this year, which are down, for small-sample-size and injury-related reasons), the Thunder point guard wasn't just good in off-ball situations. Actually, he was dominant. 

We never think of Russ as a three-point shooter, but that's because so many of his long-range chucks come while handling the ball, and that tends to drive his percentage down. When he's simply catch-and-shoot, he can be quite effective.

It's time to get nerdy.

Westbrook shot 45 percent from the field and 39 percent from three on spot-up jumpers last season, according to MySynergySports. He ranked as the NBA's 46th-most efficient player in those scenarios, judging by points per play.

Coming off screens, Westbrook was even better: 48 percent from the field and 52 percent from three on an admittedly small sample size of possessions (52). But in that small grouping, Syngergy ranked Westbrook as the most efficient off-screen shooter in the league.

Keep going down the line and all the off-ball numbers are elite. He shot 69 percent (on 48 field-goal attempts) on cuts. He's tremendous when he breaks backdoor only to have Durant find him at the hoop.

If Westbrook plays off the ball more, you have a point guard able to make quick decisions on swing passes. You have someone who can cut and won't always be looking to score (regardless of what his reputation says). You have someone who can run off a screen, take a pass from Durant and immediately know how to run a play or isolate from there if the defense reads the play right.

In some ways, it could allow for more improvisation. And it could even help a likely rusty Westbrook (rusty Westbrook, classic) get more comfortable as he finds his way back into the offense.

Now, the Thunder are already starting to ease a Westbrook-like feel into their offense—intentionally or not—by letting Jackson handle the ball a little more often of late. Brooks is adjusting for future situations. Playing Westbrook off the ball slightly more when he returns could have a similar impact.

 

Recency Bias

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Thunder have gone 18-7 since that Christmas Day win over the New York Knicks, the last time Westbrook saw the floor. And who ever could've guessed that Oklahoma City would maintain this sort of dominance without its star, top-five point guard? 

Some people, though, have talked about the Thunder like they have improved without Westbrook, as if they are somehow better without his 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds a night. Hint: they're not.

What short memories we all have. We fail to recall that Oklahoma City is 21-4 in games that Westbrook sees the floor. We fail to remember how much the team struggled in last year's postseason against the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies after the initial Westbrook injury.

It's recency bias. We all fall victim to it at some point in our lives. It affects everyone's thought process in one way or another.

That's the occasional problem with "the eye test". We form opinions on what we can remember, but if we don't remember something (because, let's face it, we're not all elephants), then our viewpoints start to lose validity. And that's when information becomes so darn jumbled. 

So because it's easier, we let recency bias parasitically eat into our thought process. And that's how we end up with statements like "The Thunder are better without Russell Westbrook."

Kevin Durant may put up better numbers without Westbrook. He may have gotten irrationally hot without Westbrook. But in a tough Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder need Westbrook to help them make the leap from "contender among others" to leading candidate to win the West. Once he returns, the team will be better off in the long-run.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute 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.

*All statistics current as of Feb. 11 and from Basketball-Reference, unless otherwise noted.

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