Playing with a dominant one-man show like Russell Westbrook can be difficult for some. Such is life when dealing with an often-stubborn alpha male.
But plenty of other players have managed to mesh and flourish with the NBA's most implosive and explosive star.
Current OKC guard Victor Oladipo shoots much more effectively when he's on the floor with Westbrook, according to stats collected from nbawowy.com. When paired with the Thunder All-Star, Oladipo hits over 50 percent of his shots and scores 1.22 points per possession. Those same numbers plummet to 35.8 percent and 0.87 points per possession with Westbrook on the bench.
Oklahoma City was without Oladipo for Tuesday night's 114-95 drubbing at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers. Westbrook "struggled" without his team's only real co-scorer, going 7-of-19 from the field for 20 points, six boards and six assists.
A similar disparity is visible with center Steven Adams. He shoots over 58 percent when paired with Westbrook and 50 percent without him. That helps explain why the Kiwi star has played only 43 minutes this season without Russ.
Not every Thunder player enjoys the same statistical bump.
Specialists Anthony Morrow and Enes Kanter actually post better numbers without Westbrook, but the numbers won't sway their opinions. They still credit Westbrook for their improvement and growth.
“The obvious is him being able to penetrate and draw attention and be able to kick out,” Morrow said. “He’s helped me to evolve my shot and get it off faster.”
A player of Westbrook’s caliber, with his ability to break down defenses, can open opportunities for his colleagues. This has made Morrow, for one, focus on the finer points of his game.
“More footwork, getting off screens, spacing the floor, being where I’m supposed to be 100 pecent of the time, because I know when the ball is coming," he said.
Morrow signed with the Thunder in 2014 as a free agent. Oklahoma City began training camp as a popular NBA title contender but ended camp with a rash of injuries that lingered the entire season. He and Westbrook didn’t take the court together until late November that season.
“I think my first year here, we really got really good chemistry even though we had a lot of injuries,” Morrow said. “Me and him was almost forced to play together because we had so many guys hurt.”
But he puts Westbrook in a different category.
“I never played with a dude that dynamic before,” Morrow said. “So I think my game changed once we got on the same page and I realized like ‘yo, it’s different.’ He kinda motivated me to become even a better pro myself just by playing with him.”
Morrow’s improvement since joining Westbrook and the Thunder isn’t necessarily reflected by a statistic. He refined the form and release of his jump shot last season, while he’s shown the ability to put the ball on the floor more and become less of a catch-and-shoot player this season. But Westbrook’s impact goes beyond just a resident sharp shooter.
Kanter joined Oklahoma City in February 2015 after a trade from the Utah Jazz. He was asked how long it took Westbrook to make him a better basketball player.
“First game,” Kanter said without hesitation. “Playing with a Hall of Fame player like that just made me so much more comfortable.”
Since joining the Thunder, Kanter has shot over 57 percent from the field. His assisted field-goal percentage—an indication of how many made shots are assisted by teammates—is over 60 percent this season per NBA.com/stats. That’s an increase from the roughly 54 percent rate when he was with the Jazz.
“He’s seeing what’s gonna happen, like, next possession,” he said. “Like, this is what’s gonna happen so just roll (toward the basket), roll quick and I’m gonna hit you and you’re gonna get a bucket. And it just happens.”
Thunder players are also quick to mention Westbrook’s leadership, another characteristic that can’t be measured by a statistic.
“He’s just a really good guy,” center Steven Adams summarized succinctly.
Likewise, Westbrook knows his life would be much more difficult without the likes of Adams taking care of the less glamorous work.
Thunder rookie Domantas Sabonis is still getting acclimated to the NBA's pace and style. The college-to-NBA adjustment can be difficult for even the best players, but he credits Westbrook for helping with the learning curve.
“He just gives me a lot of confidence,” Sabonis said. “He keeps pushing me forward.”
Just how cam a player “give” another player confidence?
“Non-stop motor,” Morrow said. “Always vocal. Talking.”
Kanter gave perhaps the most enthusiastic review of Westbrook as a teammate.
“Ten or 20 years from now I’m gonna look back and say, ‘man, I played with that dude,’" Kanter said. "I’m gonna tell my kids and tell my grandkids one day that I played with Russell Westbrook.”
THUNDER INSIDER’S NOTES
Pressuring the Defense
Boston Celtics Coach Brad Stevens was asked prior to Sunday night’s game about Westbrook’s rebounding prowess and how it impacts game-planning.
“From the standpoint of defensive rebounding, it just adds another layer of importance in getting back in transition," Stevens said. "Russ is grabbing the rebound and just flying out of there with it.”
Through 24 games, the Thunder have scored the league's third-most points in transition. It's a staple of the team's offense given the young athletes on the roster: Things tend to bog down in half court sets and the lack of shooters makes them easier to defend.
Stevens' comments illustrate why good things tend to happen for the Thunder when Westbrook grabs defensive rebounds.
There are currently three players averaging at least 25 points and 10 rebounds per game.
Naturally, Westbrook is the third.
Guard Victor Oladipo sprained his right wrist during a nasty-looking fall late in the first quarter of Sunday night’s game.
Oladipo was down for several minutes before he limped back to the locker room. He did not return, and his immediate status is unclear. According to Shams Charania of The Vertical, Oladipo didn’t suffer any additional injuries.
Oladipo is averaging 16.1 points per game and hitting over 38 percent of his three-point attempts. He's also able to assume some playmaking chores when Westbrook needs a possession or two to recoup.
Rookie guard Semaj Christon may be pressed into more action depending on Oladipo's health. Christon made only one of his six field goal attempts last night and had three turnovers in 27 minutes of action.
What Could Have Been
Celtics center Al Horford returned to Oklahoma City for the first (and only) time this season Sunday. He was asked about the offseason report that he was considering Oklahoma City as a free agent destination.
Thunder General Manager Sam Presti revealed during his July 4 press conference that Horford was indeed in play for the Thunder.
“Well, I think Al was really, really interested, but obviously the timing of Kevin's situation and his just didn't link up, and that's part of free agency," he said. "That's how it goes.”
Free agency moves quickly when the calendar turns to July 1. This scenario is why the Thunder front office—in addition to Westbrook and Nick Collison—wanted Durant to skip free agency meetings and make an early commitment to Oklahoma City.
However, Horford couldn't afford to sit idle while Durant made his decision. He ultimately agreed to sign with Boston shortly before Durant committed to Golden State.