Contrary to what you may have heard, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are working toward the same goal: an NBA championship.
Their progress is a bit more complicated than we’d like - the developing binary star-system in Oklahoma City is full of so much raw potential that we often look past the nuanced dance still in the choreography stages and yearn for the finished galactic product. To find fault with either is easy and, if done properly, productive; the awareness of their imperfections provides the opportunity to polish and perfect. To point blame, however, is foolish and ignores the roots of balance on which the Thunder’s play is already based.
Durant, to this point, depends a great deal on his point guard – a unique trait for one of this generation’s elite scorers. How dependent is he?
A large 62.4% swath of Kevin Durant’s 10’-11’ points were assisted, compared to 32.3% for LeBron James, 45.7% for Carmelo Anthony, and 36.7% for Dwyane Wade. The other top scorers can call their own number, while Durant’s numbers are predicated on getting his called by others.
The difference in assist percentage might have something to do with how other stars excel at getting to the hoop, while Durant prefers to attack it from afar. He tallied only 3.6 shots at the rim per contest, which ranks 73rd in the league.
These limitations should not be blamed on Westbrook, nor should Durant’s inability to get consistent touches down the stretch, according to Strauss. And he’s right. Rather, what we should gather from these numbers is how much Westbrook – at his best – complements Durant. The two truly are a beautiful pairing when the Thunder offense is going well, and the offense is best when it gets the ball to Durant as early as possible. His eFG% on shots attempted 11-15 seconds into the shot clock is 51.7% and steadily decreases from there (16-20 seconds, 47.8%; 21+ seconds, 34.4%). When Oklahoma City is able to execute their primary option and get the ball to KD, he’ll usually get the ball in space with a good look at the basket. He rarely misses under those circumstances.
Unfortunately, that execution falls apart in the crucial late stages of a game. It’s a problem that’s existed for most of the year but is only now garnering so much attention because of the large stage of the playoffs. As Zach Lowe says, “The Thunder’s late-game offense suffers bouts of stand-still predictability, and Westbrook is often the one to bail them out.” When a defense keys in on the stagnant screens and easily anticipated passing lanes, Oklahoma City either breaks the play off entirely or spends too long fighting to get into their offense. The result contextualizes Durant’s performance above – when he gets the ball later in the possession, more closely guarded by an opponent knowing what he wants to do, he shoots a much poorer percentage.
Indeed, Westbrook is the better option when things fall apart, as both his eFG% with less than 10 seconds on the shot clock (44.5%) and with 3 seconds or less remaining (41.5%) are higher than his early attempts (40.1%) – and significantly better than Durant’s late-possession numbers. He is the scoring point guard who can take the load off of Durant, find an open teammate when a play is run well, or create his own shot when the shot clock is winding down. In theory, it should be seamless.
In practice, this team is still very, very young and in the process of working out the kinks. That’s understandable. Westbrook is still prone to making mistakes. His high usage rate, while not necessarily coming at the expense of Durant, belies a player who feels he still has something to prove or cannot trust his teammates in pressure-packed situations. He must learn to defer, to get the rest of his guys into the flow of the game – and he must be given a more creative offense to lead and to operate, or he may not have the opportunity to grow into the point guard that he can be.
Most importantly, he has to stop being his own worst enemy. He can’t have games like April 5th against the Nuggets, when, as Zach Harper said, Ty Lawson “destroyed him at the end of the second quarter and he took it personally.” Westbrook looked to get his after that point, freezing Durant and the rest of the Thunder out. He had an affront to avenge. The floor leader of your team can’t do that. Westbrook is currently the go-to guy in the closing seconds of a possession – as it should be. Kevin Durant’s own flaws make that so. He does himself and his team a huge disservice, however, by becoming the hero in the opening movements of a halfcourt set. A player with his ability to put his head down and get to the hoop smothers his own talents when he hijacks possessions the way Westbrook can.
Each of these great players, at their very best, makes the other one even better. They serve their dynamic and their team well. It’s not always the best of times, but if you give Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook a little bit of leeway, they’re going to put on an even more spectacular show.