The absence of Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant has worked to Russell Westbrook's benefit. Westbrook has been playing some of the best basketball of his career while the reigning MVP is sidelined with foot troubles.
Durant has missed the Thunder's last nine games after having a procedure to replace a screw in his surgically repaired right foot. Altogether, the four-time scoring champion/cell phone contract attorney has played in just 27 of the team's 63 games due to injury. According to Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman, Durant will be re-evaluated this week to gauge when he'll be able to return to the court.
Meanwhile, Westbrook is playing just fine without his Thunder buddy. The NBA's masked avenger leads the league in scoring with 27.4 points per game while also placing fourth in assists (8.3) and second in steals (2.1). He also notched his fifth triple-double in his last six games by putting up 30 points, 17 assists and 11 rebounds against the Toronto Raptors on March 8.
His finest work came in February, when he became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average at least 30 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in a single month (31.2 points, 10.3 assists, 9.1 boards), per Slater. The 26-year-old also notched four straight triple-doubles, the first player to accomplish the feat since 1989, and stole the show at the All-Star Game (41 points, five rebounds, three steals and one assist) en route to winning MVP.
As if being in the same sentence as His Airness and The Big O wasn't exciting enough, Westbrook's game got its fair share of compliments from former Denver Nuggets star Fat Lever. In an interview with USA Today's Sam Amick, Lever called Westbrook a mixture of two Hall of Fame guards.
"I say he reminds me of a Clyde Drexler and a Michael Jordan," Lever said. "We used to call Clyde 'Full Speed,' and when he'd get to full speed going down the court, that's Russell. And then as far as the scoring and being able to get up in the air and float like Michael at the basket, to bring it down with that type of strength, that's Michael. So to me, it's like Clyde and Michael in one."
Already a superstar, Westbrook has evolved into a bona fide MVP candidate this season. He has put the Thunder on his back and matured as a leader. More importantly, he is walking among the greats while Durant has struggled to stand on his own two feet.
Producing Without Durant
In recent weeks, three events have captivated social media: the Oscars, the third season of House of Cards and Westbrook's glorious triple-double streak. It's not often a player starring for a 35-28 team draws so much national attention, but every Thunder game became "Russ See TV" during the UCLA product's historic run.
Even as Oklahoma City struggled to close out games and stumbled to 2-3 in its last five contests, it was hard not to constantly refresh the box score as Westbrook was doing work. His combination of Bruce Banner-like intensity, jet-fueled speed and springboard hops led to numerous Vine-worthy highlights such as this coast-to-coast effort against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 4.
The way Westbrook has played sans Durant compared to when KD is in the lineup has been basketball's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As seen in the graphic below, the difference in Westbrook's stats when he's riding solo as opposed to playing with his star teammate is staggering.
Now, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the uptick in Westbrook's production. With Durant in street clothes, there have been more opportunities for Westbrook to be himself. The team is relying heavily on its star point guard, which explains why Westbrook leads the league with a usage rate of 38.5 percent, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Durant's injury has also opened the door for Westbrook to stand out of his own. After years of playing in Durant's shadow, Westbrook has shown the world he's capable of carrying a team, as Amick points out.
When it comes to Westbrook and the substantive impact of his play on the Thunder, their meat-grinder of a season would be infinitely worse without his hoops heroics. They've been in playoff mode for three months now, digging out of that 3-12 hole that was only there because of the early injuries to Durant and Westbrook (broken hand) only to get back into playoff position and pose such a terrifying threat to the rest of the Western Conference field. Westbrook is the man striking fear in opponents' hearts all the while and proving that he's as capable of playing the Batman role after all those years of being Durant's Robin.
OKC is 12-7 this season in games where Westbrook has played without Durant. If not for the team's recent late-game troubles, it could easily be 15-4. Even with The Durantula missing more than half the season, the Thunder still hold a one-game lead for the eighth seed thanks to Westbrook elevating his game to previously unseen levels.
The team clearly needs a healthy Durant to stand a chance in the playoffs, but Westbrook has proven he doesn't need his tag-team partner to reach his full potential.
Stepping Up As The Leader
Westbrook's maturation as a leader has been equally as impressive as his gaudy statistics. With Durant hurt and Kendrick Perkins joining the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 24, the Thunder needed someone to be a leader, and Westbrook has done just that.
While there have been moments where the old hero-ball Westbrook has reared its head, he has shown a willingness to put his ego to the side and atone for his mistakes.
"Honestly, I think I was actually shooting too much," Westbrook said after the team lost to the Phoenix Suns on Feb. 26, per The Associated Press. "I think I got to do a better job of trusting my teammates more. I am not saying I don't, but consistently trusting them regardless of what is going on, regardless of the time, score and possession. Just find a way to trust them and let them make some plays as well."
A week later, Westbrook put the blame for the team's loss to the Chicago Bulls on his own shoulders after he stepped out of bounds in what could have been a game-winning possession.
"Just trying to get a good shot. I should have passed to Serge," Westbrook said, per the AP. "That was a bad decision on my part. He was open and I should have hit him."
In both games combined, Westbrook contributed a total of 82 points, 22 rebounds, 18 assists and five steals. While his shot selection wasn't the best, it's hard to point the finger at someone who just put up those kind of numbers.
The mark of a great leader is the ability to stand tall in the face of adversity. Westbrook proved that by staying on the court at the tail end of a Feb. 27 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers despite taking a knee from Andre Roberson that left a dent in his face. Five nights and a facial surgery later, Westbrook unleashed a stat line of 49 points, 16 rebounds, 10 assists in the win over Philadelphia for the sixth of his league-leading seven triple-doubles this season.
It's important to keep in mind this is the same Westbrook who was uncooperative with reporters in a mid-January postgame interview. Since then, the point guard's game and demeanor seems to have matured, per Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman.
"But this is the new Russell Westbrook, an increasingly mature version who has blossomed into a full-blown MVP candidate, a wiser and more patient player who, even in the best month of his career, continues to get better by the game."
Kevin Durant's injury struggles have been a blessing in disguise for Russell Westbrook. It forced the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard to step his game up and, as a result, allowed him to build his own legacy.
This has been more than a transcendent season by one of the NBA's most explosive talents. He's completely taken over. In the span of a couple months, Westbrook went from media rebel to All-Star Game MVP to the Thunder's alpha dog to rubbing shoulders with legends in the record books.
Westbrook has clearly thrived in Durant's absence, but the Thunder will need both at their peak to fulfill its championship aspirations.