In the days and weeks leading up to Russell Westbrook's return, one key question faced Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City Thunder: Would the former hinder the latter’s MVP-caliber play—and thus the team’s winning ways?
Two games and two losses later, the concern has suddenly shifted from whether Durant would be allowed to do enough with Westbrook back in the wings, to if he’s being asked to do too much.
Considered beyond the box score, KD’s latest exploits—orchestrated despite OKC’s 125-117 home loss to the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday afternoon—added yet another stroke of genius to what has been a masterpiece season in the making. From our friends at ESPN:
And yet, with his team’s hold on the West’s No. 1 seed at just 2.5 games, one can’t help but see it as a scorer’s sound and fury, signifying—if not nothing—then certainly not what matters most.
It would have been foolish to expect Durant and Westbrook to pick right up where they left off—a 22-4 record and one the league’s most lethal offenses at their disposal—without skipping a beat.
In the past, most oft-cited reservation with OKC's prospects—of whether these two tremendous basketball talents could effectively mesh—was always dismissed by way of simple logic: that two superstars are always better than one.
But with Westbrook just beginning what could be a weeks-long process of regrouping his groove and Durant still in the midst of an MVP campaign, it’s tempting to think this may no longer be a partnership of equals—even if the numbers suggest otherwise.
According to NBA.com, of the players who have tallied at least 500 minutes this season, Durant leads the league in usage rate at 32.6.
Three spots behind him, after the New York Knicks' Carmelo Anthony: Westbrook’s 32.2.
Under the exacting light of the NBA media, that makes for quite the Catch 22: If Durant continue to carry the bulk of the scoring load and the Thunder suffer, people will wonder why Westbrook was so coldly cast to the shadows.
For his part, it’s a possibility that Durant himself was acutely aware back in January. "I'm not doing enough to help them," Durant said of his teammates, per The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry. "I'm shooting too much. I'm shooting too many 3s. I'm not helping them out at all. So it's not on them."
However, if Westbrook too readily reaches for the reins, he’ll be lambasted like he's often been, fairly or unfairly, for putting his own agenda ahead of the one that’s worked.
And while this all might sound like little more than the mere academic musings of a drama-driven media, they aren't without their anecdotal evidence.
Indeed, the Thunder are 17-7 in games where Durant has scored at least 40 points—solid, but by no means spectacular. And while OKC is 19-5 when KD attempts 20 shots ore more, they’re 0-3 in the last three, an early indication, perhaps, that teams are figuring out ways to withstand the Durant onslaught.
For proof of how this sort of dynamic might play out in the postseason, one need look no further than last year’s Western Conference semifinal showdown with the Memphis Grizzlies, when the Thunder—without Westbrook—went 1-4 with Durant hoisting 20 or more shots.
With their mercurial point guard on the bench, Durant quite literally had to shoulder the bulk of the scoring burden, a strategy that—against a team as defensively disciplined as the Grizzlies—was bound to be a tougher row to hoe.
And while the directive was much the same in the wake of Westbrook’s most recent injury, the level of competition, and thus the stakes at hand, were not nearly as high.
The risk isn't difficult to see: Having been lulled into a false sense of security by Durant’s own transcendent play, the Thunder might well find themselves turning to him early and way too often, yielding a one-dimensional offense on which a postseason-primed opponent would predictably feast.
For the Thunder to make good on their championship promise, Kevin Durant not only has to be his team’s best player, he has to be the best player on the floor—period.
At the same time, relying too heavily on KD—particularly at the expense of Westbrook—could risk another early exit and another summer of wading through the "What ifs."
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