Russell Westbrook, Thunder limitations will be tested without Kevin Durant
- With Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka no longer on the roster, Russell Westbrook and his Thunder teammates will encounter an entirely different on-court experience.
If obstruction breeds creativity, then Russell Westbrook's upcoming season promises to be one of the most inventive individual performances the NBA has ever seen. Oklahoma City's reworked roster is marked by its limitations—namely, the loss of one of the NBA's most versatile forwards and committed floor spacers. Everything the Thunder do will change without Kevin Durant. Trading away Thunder staple Serge Ibaka, too, will ensure that Westbrook and friends encounter an entirely different on-court geometry from what they might be accustomed to.
Do not underestimate Durant's pull on opposing defenses. Westbrook has and will continue to put up monster numbers in Durant's absence by virtue of flexing a historic usage rate, but the style of coverage Oklahoma City will face changes dramatically once a quick, savvy, score-from-anywhere seven-footer no longer needs to be accounted for. In previous seasons, opponents would have to rework their defensive game plans to account for the downhill charge of Westbrook's driving game. They still will. But what gave those strategic decisions their painful tradeoffs was the idea that Durant loomed, waiting on the wings or curling up and around a screen at an inopportune time. There is a mental tax in knowing that Durant could be activated at a moment's notice, one that has since been relieved. What remains is one of the league's most furious attackers, albeit one whose sharp, incisive drives will be dulled just slightly by the changing state around him.
How Westbrook responds to the changes in coverage and spacing makes for one of this season's biggest questions. There is no question that Westbrook sacrificed in playing alongside another superstar; that much was evident in his unbridled game whenever Durant would be sidelined by injury. Westbrook can (and often seems to want to) do more—but how much responsibility can one player reasonably take? Already the Thunder guard was prone to jacking up ill-advised jumpers out of audacity or frustration. Playing without Durant could take those attempts to an extreme; Westbrook will only be more entitled to operate as he sees fit without another star to counterbalance, while the frustrations of playing on a team with few capable long-range shooters will tempt his quick trigger.
Oklahoma City has characteristically been one of the highest-turnover teams in the league independent of pace. That was with Durant around to balance creative responsibilities, carry certain lineups, run small-ball, and pull the defense out of the paint enough to create lanes for drives and cuts. That was with Ibaka around to tug at positioning of one opposing big by spotting up on the perimeter, lengthening the distance necessary for them to rotate over on a Westbrook drive. In the new Thunder paradigm, Westbrook will become well acquainted with the wall—a line of defenders, all edging in from the perimeter, determined to bar him from the basket. Westbrook can still find his way through, but the added difficulty of running through the wall on every possessions will take a physical toll and make in-the-air improvisation all the more untenable.
More possessions will be flatly given away as Westbrook attempts to force his way through. It's not just him, either; OKC's turnover rate across the board rose whenever Durant and Ibaka weren't on the floor, while virtually every Thunder guard saw a corresponding dip in their shooting efficiency. Westbrook and Victor Oladipo can slice between multiple defenders at an impressive level. That they'll have to so often, though, doesn't bode well for the overall health of the offense. The very best teams in the league succeed on their ability to generate the easy: uncontested threes, clean layups, and dump-off passes to the open man. Westbrook and the Thunder will instead make a harder living.
No matter who ends up playing the bulk of the minutes at the forward positions, the Thunder have seen the burdens of the game around them shift. Durant and Ibaka were spatially critical players who also, it should be noted, gave OKC its defensive flexibility. Much is obviously lost without them and what's left is challenged. The juxtaposition of Westbrook's threat and the clutter of non-spacers around him will force the Thunder to prove, over and over, that they can strap together enough outside shooting to win.
The occasional corner three will not be enough. Oladipo, Andre Roberson, Enes Kanter, Ersan Ilyasova, Joffrey Lauvergne, and possibly rookies Domantas Sabonis and Alex Abrines will need to shoot well enough and consistently enough to make opponents rethink their game plan. They'll need to present enough of a threat as to distract teams that instinctively fear what Westbrook can do with a head of steam. Considering the terrors the Thunder's superstar guard can otherwise inflict, they have their work cut out for them.