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The Russell Westbrook Road Map

The Thunder’s remaining star is in the driver’s seat now

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Russell Westbrook may not be the safest driver, but he seems pretty happy with his post–Kevin Durant life.

He should be: Westbrook is primed to be a high-usage MVP candidate now that he’s the undisputed alpha on the Thunder. Throughout his eight seasons with the team, Westbrook has essentially served as Oklahoma City’s franchise quarterback and workhorse running back at the same time. But his heavy workload conflicted with Durant’s equally large share, and as a result, the Thunder played iso-ball in an era when teams are winning titles by moving the rock like it’s a hot potato (OKC ranked 30th in passes made over the past three years, per SportVU).

Playing without Durant, the five-time All-Star point guard could go bonkers if he maintains this style of play. Over the past two seasons, he played 48 games without KD, averaging 30.5 points, 9.2 assists, and 7.6 rebounds in them. Only Oscar Robertson has matched that production over a full season.

But Westbrook is a flawed Terminator — his helter-skelter style can be as painful as it is jaw-dropping. Over KD-free stretches in the past two seasons, the Westbrook-led Thunder had a mediocre record of 25–23. Westbrook himself wasn’t all that efficient (45.8 eFG%) on a high volume (40 usage rate), and OKC missed the playoffs in 2015, when he led the club down the stretch.

Play the Russ-versus-KD blame game all you want — the fault should be distributed equally to everyone involved. That’s exactly why Westbrook needs his teammates to produce for him to play at an optimal level. In past seasons, OKC never had playmakers talented enough to push their stars off ball and create on-court harmony. However, Sam Presti’s personnel moves this summer suggest that he’s aware of that and trying to fix the issue. The newbies have their respective flaws, but they are system fits. That element alone could enable head coach Billy Donovan to initiate his system, freeing Westbrook to play various roles.

This is a fork in the road moment for Westbrook. He might prefer to go off like 2005–06 Kobe Bryant (38.4 usage), but that individual production rarely signals team success. Kobe’s Lakers snuck into the playoffs as the seventh seed and got bounced in the first round. Teams that orbit around one star with a massive workload rarely have postseason success. Only 17 players in league history had seasons in which they appeared in 50 or more games and finished with a usage of 35 or greater. Only one led his team to the Finals in the season in question (Allen Iverson’s 2001 76ers). Five lost in the opening round. Six missed the playoffs, including Westbrook’s 45-win Thunder in 2014–15.

On average, the 17 teams featuring those players finished with a win percentage of .528 (adjusting for the lockout-shortened 2011–12 season, the percentage equaled an average of 43.3 wins per season). In a loaded Western Conference, the Thunder may need to win more than that, or they could miss the playoffs entirely. The triple-double-machine version of Westbrook didn’t even lead them to a playoff berth two seasons ago, so why would it work now? These 17 players (a group that includes Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, and Carmelo Anthony) were all a joy to watch, but their teams flamed out because the style isn’t conducive to making a deep playoff run. Lil Uzi Vert is great for the car, but Westbrook should think twice before he does what he wants. Because Kevin Durant won’t be there to bail him out anymore.

What happens with the Thunder this year could have leaguewide implications. Yahoo reported they plan on making a run next summer at Blake Griffin, but to have a chance to land him, they’ll need to be able to present themselves as a team ready to contend. Force-feeding Westbrook might not be the best route to take, and missing the playoffs wouldn’t help their cause.

Fortunately for Oklahoma City, the state of Westbrook is not static. The flashes he has shown suggest he hasn’t tapped into his full potential, so alterations to his usage and role could unleash his true transcendent ability. The Thunder could play him off the ball more often. Defenses already sweat bullets anytime Westbrook possesses the rock, so just imagine what could happen if a diverse attack puts him in more dynamic playmaking positions.

Taking the ball away from Westbrook might seem like a gamble considering he leads the NBA with 42 triple-doubles since he was drafted. But it’s not about providing him fewer shots or touches, it’s about giving him better quality shots by putting him in more efficient situations. That way he can make even more highlight plays that people want to get tattooed on their backs, and less that see him dribbling the air out of the ball before making a sloppy play.

Donovan prefers to run an offense reliant on side-to-side ball movement and frequent off-ball actions. It looks like this:

But he wasn’t able to install it last year with both Durant and Westbrook accustomed to a stagnant, iso-heavy style. With just Russ, it might actually be easier for Donovan to deploy his system, provided Westbrook is willing to adapt.

When a defense is scrambling out of position, that’s when Westbrook can bury you underground. He often has to manufacture buckets himself, but if the Thunder can get him a live dribble and allow him to just attack the closeout with intentions of scoring or distributing, great things can happen. When the ball is live, it never stops moving; once Russ gets a touch, he immediately makes a move and doesn’t hesitate or pull out for an iso.

Westbrook turns 28 in November. As he ages, he won’t be able to rely on his athleticism quite as much, so off-ball usage could provide not only an uptick in efficiency, but a blueprint for a sustainable level of elite production into his late 30s. If the Thunder use Westbrook off the ball, and take advantage of his agility as a cutter and a leaper, we could see a lot of this:

Westbrook’s production as a shooter is a worry, but it’s also the biggest source of potential. Of the nearly 300 players who tried more than 1,000 3s through their first eight seasons, Westbrook is posting the sixth-worst shooting percentage of all time. But the basic numbers don’t tell the whole story. Westbrook shot a passable 34.9 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s over the past two seasons (including playoffs), according to SportVU. That is an improvement over his hit rate from his first few years in the NBA. He’s revised his mechanics over the years by quickening his release and using “the hop,” which has paid dividends.

It’s not out of the question for Hall of Fame–level point guards to develop as shooters into their late 20s and early 30s. Magic Johnson was a non-shooter until late in his career. Jason Kidd’s best shooting seasons came after he turned 30. Tony Parker has turned himself into a threat. Even Rajon Rondo (maybe not a Hall of Famer, sure) has shot about 36 percent from 3 since he was traded from Boston.

Westbrook has also made headway as a passer, another skill he’ll need to lean on as he ages. Last season, 17.8 percent of Westbrook’s passes became an assist, per SportVU, which led the league. Toss in secondary assists, free throws, and potential assists, and that stat springs to 53.9 percent, which still topped the NBA. Those numbers were inflated because a large number of his passes went to Durant, but nobody knocks Ben Roethlisberger for tossing the ball to Antonio Brown. Credit shouldn’t be deducted from Westbrook.

Westbrook’s progress is undeniable while scouting him now compared with the earlier portions of his career. Russ lacked natural passing feel and vision when he entered the league, but he’s worked year after year to slow the game down while still moving at the speed of light.

His primary role in past years was to be a scorer, not a facilitator. The fact he passes so well while scoring so much is an oddity. Since 1973, only nine players appearing in 41 games or more in a season have finished that year with more than 30 points per 100 possessions with an assist percentage greater than 40. Westbrook has done it four times. Only two players — Tony Parker and Dwyane Wade — have done it half as many times; and the six who did it once are LeBron James, Magic Johnson, Stephon Marbury, Chris Paul, Mark Price, and Deron Williams.

Westbrook will be dealing the ball to some new faces this season. Losing Serge Ibaka hurts the Thunder, especially on defense, but Ibaka was often a beat slow making offensive reads, record-scratching the rhythm of plays. If the goal is to have a crisp offense, those hiccups can’t happen with core players. Ball movement won’t be an issue for rookie Domantas Sabonis, who could someday become one of the better passing bigs in the league. Ersan Ilyasova is also a reliable passer and a solid floor-spacing forward.

In the Ibaka trade, the Thunder upgraded the unpredictable Dion Waiters with Victor Oladipo, who, like Westbrook, may only need subtle modifications to reach his full potential. Oladipo isn’t quite the off-the-catch shooter that Waiters is, but he’s better in virtually every other area — especially defense. However, as The Ringer’s Danny Chau points out, Oladipo shot nearly 40 percent from 3-point range over the last four months of the season.

The Thunder also made the under-the-radar addition of shooting guard Alex Abrines, who torched nets on 40.4 percent of his 3s in his last three years playing for Barcelona. Abrines barely played for the Spanish national team in the Olympics, but considering his salary ($5.7 million, fourth highest on the roster), it’s reasonable to assume he’ll get plenty of action.

Second-year point guard Cameron Payne, the no. 14 pick in the 2015 NBA draft, could be the key to making this plan work. He’s a high-IQ player who was an excellent pick-and-roll playmaker in college, a skill that carried over to the pros in his limited chances. Payne can also shoot, so he could play off the ball when Westbrook is playing point.

Payne underwent foot surgery this offseason, but he’s expected to be ready for training camp. That’s important for his and Westbrook’s still-developing on-court chemistry. Without a starting-caliber small forward (Kyle Singler — seriously!?), Donovan would be wise to mix in a three-guard lineup featuring Westbrook, Oladipo, and Payne. All three can swap roles offensively, and Oladipo is a strong defender who can slide up a position. That group could be paired with OKC’s Stache Bros, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, or in small-ball lineups with Andre Roberson at the 4 and a big at the 5.

Westbrook’s supernatural abilities are necessary to any success the Thunder will have, but how he is utilized by the team and complemented by his teammates is equally important. The route to a deep postseason run is filled with many hazards. Westbrook can choose to go on a solo road trip and be the driver and mechanic. Or, he can bring some friends along and let them take the wheel every so often.