What's Left of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook's Ceilings?

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What's Left of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook's Ceilings?
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Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are two 25-year-old teammates recognized by many as the NBA’s longest running duo of devastation.

Yet, heading into their seventh season together as irreplaceable engines motoring the Oklahoma City Thunder towards its first championship, the question of whether these two can get any better than they already are is an important one.

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Westbrook and Durant are two of the world’s 10 best players, boasting eight All-Star games and eight All-NBA notches between them. No player has amassed more points in any of the past five seasons than Durant, while Westbrook is an irrepressible terror with unprecedented energy and athleticism.

Judging from the approach Oklahoma City’s general manager Sam Presti takes conservatively tweaking his roster every summer, it seems from the outside looking in that he operates under the assumption that Durant and Westbrook still have weaknesses they can turn into strengths.

Despite all they’ve accomplished both individually and together, the speculation is fair. Neither player is perfect (though Durant comes awfully close), and to say the best days are behind them—or that their collective production has reached its peak—is extremely difficult to believe.

Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

From what we’ve seen, both Westbrook and Durant are on their way to the Hall of Fame. They’re generational talents, and stars of similar ilk before them (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, etc.) have adapted their games and upgraded different areas as they grew older.

We should assume the same for these two, even if sometimes it feels like they can’t get any better. Let’s look at both superstars and dissect ways they can still improve in time for this year’s expected title run and beyond.

 

Russell Westbrook

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Saying Westbrook isn’t as good as Durant is like saying a Category 4 hurricane can't cause as much damage quite like a Category 5 can. Both are unstoppable and destructive. Both do as they please with the ball in their hands.

However, while Westbrook’s vigorous style has no parallel, the competitive rage and fury which so often lifts him above opponents also tends to snuff out the good sense and tempered decision-making necessary of any starting point guard. He can be better, and more useful to Oklahoma City’s winning cause, if he occasionally (and with good timing) handcuffs the very thing that makes him so effective.

This means taking smarter shots, not pulling up for a contested 22-footer before any of his teammates (including Durant, the league’s resident Tyrannosaurus Rex) touch the ball. It means gambling a bit less off the ball on defense (though few are able to recover after being caught out of position quite like Westbrook does) and playing basketball with more calculation than instinct.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Getting even more specific, the Thunder would be an even more devastating attack if Westbrook could create reliable one-man offense from the post. According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), 5.6 percent of his offensive plays were post-ups last season, and from that sample he turned it over 15.4 percent of the time (Westbrook’s total turnover percentage was 15.6 percent).

Most of those post-ups were set up off the dribble, with Westbrook backing his man down without any plan of action in mind other than to score. If his defender put up any sort of fight at all, Westbrook would either settle for a fall-away, contested jumper or panic in the face of a double team 10 feet from the basket and throw it away.

He’s a muscular pit bull, though, and if Thunder head coach Scott Brooks can incorporate new designs that take advantage of Westbrook’s strength down low—allowing him to establish position closer to the basket before receiving an entry pass—Oklahoma City will have a whole new and diabolical wrinkle on its hands.

In addition, Westbrook is a career 30.5 percent three-point shooter. This far into his career, it isn’t realistic to immediately expect above-league-average accuracy from beyond the arc. But what he can do is take fewer attempts and focus more and more on ravaging the opponent a bit closer to the basket. His efficiency will improve, and Oklahoma City's offense will operate smoothly.

 

Kevin Durant 

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Durant was the NBA’s best player last season, averaging 32.0 points, 7.4 rebounds and a career-best 5.5 assists per game. He made over half his total shots despite attempting nearly 21 a night. He made and attempted more free throws than any other player in the league.

Nobody played more minutes. Nobody posted a higher PER. Nobody had more win shares. And nobody used more of his team’s possessions. It was a season for the ages, and it’s downright greedy to demand more production from Durant in the future.

Where he can stand to improve next season is on the other end, where Durant’s unnatural length and quickness provide him with all the physical tools necessary to become a real defensive stopper.

He’s grown better throughout the past few years, but a realistic goal now should be the All-Defensive Team. Durant doesn’t fight around screens on every possession, and too often he’s caught out of position as a help defender. In small lineups, Durant is a power forward who’s susceptible to getting overpowered on the block by larger bruisers. That last point may be out of his control (genetics, am I right?), but as Durant gets older, he should aim to get stronger, too.

He is only human (allegedly), so increased responsibility on defense could hinder Durant’s ability with the ball. One man only has so much zip to give, and balancing the two is a game of tug of war that Brooks and Durant will need to play.

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

The Thunder don’t need drastic improvement out of their two best players in order to win a championship in 2015. Fortunate luck in the form of good health to all the team’s major contributors should very well be all that’s necessary.

But a few enhancements to Durant and Westbrook’s games certainly won’t hurt their chances. Presti is betting on subtle upticks across the board. He doesn’t want Westbrook to subdue his animation, just to have more control over it. If Durant manages to repeat his tremendous MVP campaign from a year ago, all the better.

For all we know, both players have already reached their full potential. But at only 25 years old, with nearly a decade left to conquer all that stands in their way, the best should be yet to come.

 

All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 

Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Fox Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina. 

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