The recent winning streak the Oklahoma City Thunder are on, combined with an incredible scoring run by Kevin Durant makes it a reasonable thing to bring up: Are they better off without Russell Westbrook playing?
Westbrook missed the first two games of the season, still waiting for the go ahead to return from his knee ligament tear, coming back from it a lot quicker than many expected. The Thunder went 22-4 with him before he was shut down so he can have arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, which will keep him out until the All-Star break (February 16) at least.
Initially, it wasn’t easy getting over the injury. The Thunder went 5-5 through the first 10 games without Westbrook, as Kevin Durant struggled with the added pressure, not getting the consistent support he needed from Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and Jeremy Lamb.
But something has changed since January 14. The Thunder have won 7 games in a row, including at Houston after giving up 73 points in the first half, over the Warriors, Blazers and in San Antonio. In charge of most of that has been Durant, averaging 39 points in six of the last seven wins. He actually sat out in the win over the Celtics. No Westbrook? No Durant? That’s a recipe for catastrophe, but the Thunder had no problem winning in Boston 101-83.
Has there been something special from anyone in particular? You can say Serge Ibaka has been on fire; he is averaging 18.9 points while shooting 62.1% from the field. Reggie Jackson has been averaging 16.3 points in the current win streak with only one single digit game (the last one against the Sixers). Durant is getting more points from the players he needs around him to improve their game, while he has vaulted into another level of greatness this season, or at least over the last couple of weeks.
Defense might be the biggest word in this. No Russell Westbrook shouldn’t mean a better defense automatically, and the Thunder are allowing plenty of teams get to 100 points. However, the difference between Westbrook and anyone else filling in for him in that position? Westbrook can be a great defender, but he easily loses concentration, focus and even motivation defensively when things don’t go his way. That is something that Jackson and others can’t afford to happen; they’re not max-deals kind of players.
The Thunder are 7th in the NBA in allowed points per game with 97.7; they are third in defensive efficiency, allowing only 98.2 points per 100 possessions; and they’re second in opponents field goal percentage, allowing teams to shoot only 42.4% from the field. Combine that with Durant going off for at least 30 points in nine consecutive games and suddenly missing Westbrook and the wide range of abilities he brings to the table doesn’t sound so worrying anymore.
When Westbrook came back from his injury when this season began the Thunder still didn’t have enough time to learn how to play without him. Their 50% record through the first 10 games of his second shut down changed them, leading to their success over the last two weeks. They’re going to keep on playing without him for almost a month more, which means that when he comes back, it might not be such a smooth transition back into things, and that forcing it will only hurt the team that right now is playing like the best in the NBA.