Will Russell Westbrook's Role Change When He Returns to OKC Thunder?

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Will Russell Westbrook's Role Change When He Returns to OKC Thunder?
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
How will Westbrook fit in with the Thunder when he returns?

The only problem with Kevin Durant catching “NBA Jam” levels of fire over the past few months is that it's almost sure to reawaken the “Can Russell Westbrook and Durant co-exist?” talk that should have been buried after last year's playoffs.

So let's just try and nip this one in the bud, shall we? The short answer is that Westbrook, who could return as soon as February 20 against the Miami Heat according to The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater, is a great fit alongside Durant and doesn't need to overhaul his game. His role with the Oklahoma City Thunder is not going to change a bit.

 

 

Obviously that can't be said with absolute certainty, but it seems like a solid guess not only because Westbrook historically has never let outside criticism dictate the way he plays, but because Durant said as much himself.

Durant recently told Slater that OKC's plan concerning Westbrook was to:

Let him be him. He's a dog, and you have to let him off the leash. You can't put a leash on that guy. We don't want him to come in there and play too passive because of how we're playing. We just want him to come in and be him, and we're looking forward to having him back.

So there you have it. And honestly, even if you expand the question to “Should Russell Westbrook's role change when he returns to the Thunder?” the answer is still no.

No one is saying that the balance Durant and Westbrook have struck over the past few years is perfect. The Thunder would almost certainly be a better offensive team if Westbrook ceded a few possessions per game to Durant, simply because he's the best offensive player in the NBA. Westbrook's usage percentage (33.1 this year) has always been a bit higher than would be ideal, and the opposite is generally true for Durant.

But that's a relatively small issue, and suggesting that Westbrook should completely change his game or his role because of it would be silly. In the last 10 games, Westbrook played before being injured, he averaged 22 points, nine assists and eight rebounds on 56 percent true shooting, per NBA.com. This is a guy who needs to change how he plays?

OKC has been terrific lately, but it was even better with Westbrook in the lineup. The Thunder have gone 22-8 without their star point guard, a very good mark. However, they were 21-4 with him—a winning percentage that over the course of a season would equate to nearly 69 victories.

The Westbrook-less Thunder lag behind statistically as well. In the 26-game span Westbrook was available, the Thunder amassed a net rating of plus-10, tied for tops in the league, per NBA.com. Since then, OKC has racked up a net rating of plus-7.7, still the best mark in the league, but obviously inferior to what it did with Westbrook on the court.

Westbrook is a hyperaggressive, attacking guard, and asking him to reign that in would be a huge mistake. Sure, he'll occasionally pull up for a head-scratching jumper or launch a prayer at the rim, but that's a small price to pay for the tremendous pressure he puts on defenses as a result of always looking to attack.

In the time he played this year, Westbrook had more attempts at the rim than any guard but one (Tony Wroten, strangely enough), and last season, only Dwight Howard and Greg Monroe had more shots around the basket, per NBA.com.

Westbrook's never been an elite finisher at the rim, but even so, his sheer aggression makes him one of the few players in the league who can draw the attention of entire defenses. Take, for example, this slash-and-kick against the New York Knicks.

Courtesy of Instagiffer

Quite literally everyone but Durant's man collapses on Westbrook as soon as he touches the paint. In another example, the threat of his pull-up jumper lures Kobe Bryant into the middle of the floor, opening up an easy three for Thabo Sefolosha (note: this is also just terrible defense from Bryant).

Courtesy of Instagiffer

Westbrook is one of just a handful of players who attracts that kind of defensive attention, and it opens up the floor for the rest of his teammates—including Durant.

Contrary to popular opinion, Durant's job is a whole lot easier when Westbrook is on the court.

Without Westbrook this season, Durant's been assisted on under 34 percent of his baskets, per NBA.com. That's an extremely low number for a wing, especially for one who shoots as often as Durant does. With Westbrook in the lineup, that number jumps all the way up to 59 percent—a massive swing (and a clear debunking of the “Westbrook doesn't pass to KD” myth).

None of that is to say OKC won't make a single change in how it plays, just that they won't be big changes involving Westbrook. Scott Brooks learned a lot about his team in Westbrook's absence, and no doubt he'll make a few adjustments in accordance with that.

For example, a big part of Durant's recent efficiency has been due to trading his mid-range jumpers for a greater volume of threes. Durant's shown a penchant for making Stephen Curry-esque, off-the-dribble shots from deep, and he's taken well over six above-the-break threes per game over the past few months compared to an even four with Westbrook around, per NBA.com.

Courtesy of Instagiffer

The Thunder could move Westbrook off the ball a tad more or have Durant initiate more offense from the top of the key to take advantage of that. Who knows? The one thing that seems certain is that they won't and shouldn't change Westbrook's role on the team or how he plays.

The Thunder were very good without Westbrook, but they're title favorites with him. No need to fix what isn't broken.

 

All statistics accurate as of 2/19/2014 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless specifically stated otherwise.

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