Russell Westbrook's Role for OKC Thunder Title Bid Is Clear

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Russell Westbrook's Role for OKC Thunder Title Bid Is Clear
Sue Ogrocki

Russell Westbrook is in the midst of the worst season of his NBA career, but it's not his fault. 

Westbrook's knee issues have forced him to miss 14 games so far this season, but he continues to put up the same numbers every night. In terms of effectiveness, we've seen the same old Russ, and minute totals aside, his role hasn't been all that different than in the past.

He's still that wild card. The guy whose traits are almost all great, but whose negatives are so loud that they're hard to ignore.

That's why an anti-Westbrook contingent exists, right? It's not that it says he doesn't do anything well. It's that the faction can't advert its eyes from the occasional bad decision. 

The anti-Westbrookian party wouldn't say Russ' mistakes are subtle. It thinks they're disastrous. Quaking, glass-shattering, unforgivable miscues which leave the Thunder helpless. But that's not true.

Westbrook's unpredictability can also provide such positives for this team, because without it, the Thunder are partly easy to read. But lately, Russ hasn't been able to unleash those crazy plays we all either love or hate quite as much.

Three knee surgeries in less than a calendar year shouldn't be taken lightly. So from that standpoint, the Thunder have been justifiably intelligent in handling Westbrook's playing time, especially after his most recent scare, when the point guard clanked knees with Kyle Lowry.

Leg-on-leg crime. It's the story of Westbrook's year.

He's playing just 26.5 minutes a night since returning from the right knee injury that sidelined him for almost two months back in December. He's hit the 30-minute marker just once over his past six games.

Westbrook still has that burst. He appears to be perfectly healthy, and limiting his minutes total plays out as more of a precautionary strategy than anything else. But Scott Brooks has noted that this policy may carry into the postseason, and that would add a completely new wrinkle to the Westbrook dynamic. 

This isn't a team like the Atlanta Hawks, who would just be happy to make the playoffs. This is the Oklahoma City Thunder. There are higher goals here.

Sitting Westbrook for the playoffs would be a step beyond caution. It would be telling of something; it's just hard to figure out exactly what.

The Thunder are just so much better with Russ. And the numbers back it up.

Oklahoma City outscores opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook is on the court. When it doesn't have him, the Thunder are 6.9 points per 100 possessions (NBA.com media stats; subscription required) better than their opponents.

Less Westbrook means more offensive monotony, and that's never good for an offense that becomes that much closer to one-dimensional when its second-best player is off the floor.

Sue Ogrocki

Westbrook is a crutch for Kevin Durant. He creates for him, but his real value comes in allowing KD to take plays off, to help him stay just a little more comfortable throughout a game. Clearly, Russ is always going to be playing crunch time, but if he's playing 10 fewer minutes a night, that's plenty more time when Durant needs to fly solo.

Isolation ball isn't always playoff basketball, and Westbrook's presence gives the Thunder more versatility.

What are Oklahoma City's most-used type of plays? According to MySynergySports (subscription required), it's the spot-up jumper and the pick-and-roll. And those are the types of plays in which Westbrook thrives. 

When he drives to the basket, defenses head toward him. And it's not just his man or one single help defender. Everyone takes a step toward the middle.

That's how you guard Westbrook. Otherwise, that athletic freak of a human being is going to pinball off every defender he faces on the way to a layup or dunk. 

Durant can run the pick-and-roll, and he's learned to do it remarkably well, but it's hard to replace the chemistry Russ and Serge Ibaka have developed over the years. Plus, letting Westbrook dribble around screens works so much better when he has a shooter like Durant on the wings.

You can't leave Durant alone under any circumstances. It just opens up the court and lets Russ do his thing in the middle of the floor.

Westbrook's role is the same as it's always been. His impact, though, is what has adjusted. And if the Thunder want a championship, they have to hope that his minutes restrictions don't lead to their downfall.

 

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 March 31 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted. 

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