In the previous two seasons, the Oklahoma City Thunder have had two major obstacles to overcome: how to survive with Russell Westbrook off the floor and how to thrive with him doing too much on it.
Between revamping the roster and giving Westbrook some possessions off the ball, Oklahoma City hopes it can clear both hurdles at once.
The Thunder star made NBA history by becoming the first player ever to average a triple-double in back-to-back seasons. Though it was a remarkable individual accomplishment, the end result for the team was consecutive first-round exits. The one-man-wrecking-ball approach had discovered its limit. A new philosophy was needed to get out of the rut.
However, change is hard. Expecting Westbrook to immediately and permanently alter his game is like hoping to construct an office tower over a weekend. It's a process that takes careful planning and multiple stages.
The results of those changes was on display Friday night in the Thunder's 124-109 victory over the Atlanta Hawks. Westbrook finished with 23 points on 15 shots to go along with 10 assists and nine rebounds. A well-balanced attack allowed three OKC players to finish with at least 20 points, and three others notched double-digit scoring efforts as well.
Westbrook missed the first two games of the season. He then played in seven games before missing six because of an ankle sprain. Oklahoma City has found ways to survive his absence, thanks largely to co-star Paul George and offseason acquisition Dennis Schroder.
With Westbrook in uniform, the two have given him a break and added a new dimension to the Thunder offense. While that's a small sample, it does give a glimpse of what the team can be when Westbrook yields the reins occasionally.
He is averaging 85.6 touches per game so far, his lowest since the 2015-16 campaign. That number spiked to around 95 per game in the previous two seasons. Some of that can be credited to playing nearly five fewer minutes per game so far, but there's other evidence of sharing the workload.
In the 13 games Westbrook has played, he's accounted for only 39 percent of the team's assists. That number approached 50 percent in the previous two seasons. Surrendering the ball more often to George and Schroder makes the Thunder offense more dynamic.
"Dennis and Paul are guys that are capable of doing those kinds of things in terms of their skill level and their vision to be able to make plays from their positions," head coach Billy Donovan said.
George is averaging a career-high 4.3 assists per game, a bump from the 3.3 he averaged in his previous two seasons. Schroder is chipping in over five per game and had eight versus the Hawks. With Westbrook, they give the Thunder a trio of creators not seen since Kevin Durant and Reggie Jackson were with the team.
"The more playmakers you have—someone that can put pressure at the basket or put pressure from behind the three-point line—those guys can create drives and opportunities for the ball to move and find the open man," Donovan said.
"Everybody can attack, everybody can score, everybody can find open teammates," Schroder said after a victory over the Charlotte Hornets. "You don't know where it's coming from. I think that's pretty dangerous."
That, in turn, has led to more points with the team intact. A lot more, in fact. OKC's offense has scored 114.9 points per game with Westbrook in the lineup this season and only 104.6 in games without him. The team produced 107.9 points per game last season.
"Our offensive numbers have really skyrocketed in a lot of ways, and a lot of that is that he's gotten guys open shots, more free throws, more deep paint shots, more layups," Donovan said.
But Westbrook's transformation is a work in progress.
In two games this season, Westbrook has attempted 10 or more three-pointers. He made four of 10 in a road loss to Sacramento and only one of 12 in a home loss to Denver. A casual glance at the box score might lead one to believe that Westbrook shot his team out of those games, but that's not necessarily true.
OKC fell into deep, early deficits in both cases. The Thunder offense created good shots, but they weren't falling. As opponent leads swelled and the Oklahoma City players misfired, Westbrook's hyper-competitive gene activated. His shot selection and decision-making were more egregious versus Denver. That led to a postgame shooting session and head-clearing hours after the game.
"Some of the threes were good, and to be honest with you, some of them were not good," Donovan said in calling out his star player in the most careful of ways.
"Russ wants to win, as we all do," George said. "He's gonna take it hard, every loss. That's just how he's made up."
The next step is getting the Thunder star to stick with the offensive system even when it's not producing. It's a concept that worked earlier in the season when the Thunder climbed out of a 19-point deficit to win at Charlotte. Westbrook attempted only three three-pointers that night and relied on Schroder and Alex Abrines to mount the comeback.
But progress often looks more like a stock ticker than a straight upward line. To Westbrook's credit, he's stuck with the program more often than he's strayed from it. And with a 14-7 record, OKC has evidence to show how the team can thrive without needing Westbrook to do it all.
That doesn't mean his old triple-double ways need to go away for good. He recently tied Jason Kidd for third all time in career triple-doubles at home against Cleveland with 107. But in the early going, he seems less inclined to rack up those achievements.
"As long as we win," Westbrook said after that game. "I love winning, and I love playing this game."