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The Thunder Need a Westbrook, Whether or Not It’s Russ

An ankle sprain forced Oklahoma City to face a reality without Russell Westbrook over an extended period for the first time since Kevin Durant left town. Could the team turn to Dennis Schröder and Paul George to keep its lofty goals afloat in the absence of the former MVP?

Russell Westbrook standing with his hands on his hips Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Russell Westbrook can seem indestructible sometimes. Like a rim-seeking vibranium missile, inhaling any energy a defense throws his way and transforming it into an even more senses-shattering attack. Or like a pull-up-jumper-shooting Wolverine whose mutant healing abilities allow him to come back from any injury stronger, faster, and even more lethal than before.

But he’s not. His body is subject to the same stresses and strains as the rest of us, vulnerable to the dangers of one false move and one unfortunate descent:

With just more than four and a half minutes to go in the third quarter of Monday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans, Westbrook positioned himself under the basket as Anthony Davis tossed up a floater a step outside of the restricted circle. As the shot bounced off the backboard and fell in, the two superstars came down along with it; while Davis landed softly, Westbrook’s left foot landed on Davis’s and bent so far to the left that it nearly touched the blue hardwood on the Oklahoma City Thunder’s home court.

Westbrook immediately yowled in pain and rolled onto his stomach under the hoop. He climbed to his feet as quickly as he could but could scarcely put any weight on his left leg; the crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena emitted a collective gasp as it watched the 2016-17 NBA MVP hobble first to the bench and then back to the locker room. He wouldn’t return, and although the Thunder finished off a 122-116 win behind a strong finish from backup point guard Dennis Schröder, the postgame chatter quickly moved away from Oklahoma City extending its winning streak to five games and onto the status of the team’s limping cornerstone.

“Regardless of the stride [OKC is just starting to hit], it’s just shit that you lose a player regardless,” Thunder center Steven Adams told reporters after the game. “It has nothing to do with winning or losing. That’s your boy. It’s just shit. Just real shit. Feels bad. Sums it up. Feels real bad.”

The good news is that it could be shittier. Nothing’s broken. And while word from the Pelicans’ broadcast team was that initial testing had revealed a high ankle sprain, which isn’t the same as a common sprain and typically necessitates a longer recovery period, ESPN’s Royce Young reported Tuesday that further testing “confirmed an ankle sprain and nothing more.” Westbrook will miss Oklahoma City’s game against the Cavaliers on Wednesday; determining how he responds to treatment and when he’ll be ready to return will “be kind of a day to day thing.”

The silver lining for Oklahoma City is that its schedule is set up rather nicely. Eight of the Thunder’s 12 remaining games in November will come against teams currently under .500, including seven against teams that are unambiguously full-stop heinous: Dallas, New York, Atlanta, and two each against Phoenix and Cleveland. Missing Westbrook for matchups with the resurgent Rockets on Thursday, the West-leading Warriors and Nuggets, and the plucky Kings and Hornets would hurt, but all things considered, this seems like a fairly friendly stretch for the Thunder to have to spend any time without their leader and offensive focal point.

That’s a position the Thunder haven’t been in for some time. While Westbrook spent significant time on the shelf during the 2013-14 season after arthroscopic knee surgery and again the following season with a broken right hand, he’s been remarkably durable over the past three seasons, playing in at least 80 games in each. After missing the entire preseason and the first two games of the regular season recovering from another scope of that right knee, that 80-game streak will come to an end. And if he misses any more time, Oklahoma City will be forced to figure out what its offense will look like without Russ for the first time since Kevin Durant’s departure. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on “not great.”

With Westbrook at the controls, the Thunder scored more than 110 points per 100 possessions in each of the two seasons before this one, according to Cleaning the Glass, an elite rate of offensive efficiency. When Westbrook was off the court, the offense dive-bombed, producing 9.9 fewer points per 100 in his 2016-17 MVP season and 9.7 fewer last season, despite the arrival of an All-Star running buddy in Paul George.

In theory, this season’s Thunder should be better equipped to withstand non-Westbrook minutes, thanks to the presence of George, the absence of complicating agent Carmelo Anthony, and the addition of Schröder, a quicksilver driver capable of pushing the attack at a ramped-up pace. But, with the requisite small-sample-size caveats in place, the trend has held true this season: Oklahoma City has scored 114 points per 100 in Westbrook’s minutes and just 101.4 points per 100 with him off the floor, equivalent to the difference between the league’s sixth-best offense and its absolute worst.

The Thunder shot just 36 percent from the field and 24.3 percent from 3-point range in their two season-opening losses with Westbrook still on the mend. George led the team in scoring in both of those defeats, but he struggled to create and convert quality looks, going 16-for-50 from the floor (32 percent) with nine assists and eight turnovers; as was the case last season, George takes shots and uses possessions at much higher rates with Westbrook out of the lineup, but his shooting percentages and playmaking efficiency plummet in a larger role.

George might be something like the ideal second banana next to Westbrook—general manager Sam Presti certainly bet big on that belief—but he’s tended to struggle when pressed into duty as Oklahoma City’s top creative option. It’s a good thing, then, that Presti went out and got another one of those this summer. Oklahoma City did hold off the Pelicans on Monday, but it did so with Schröder going off for 16 points on 11 shots over the final 16 1/2 minutes of game time and rivaling Davis’s usage rate after Westbrook went down.

“Especially when Russ goes out, I have pressure on my shoulders to try to do the same [things] he does and try to help our team win,” Schröder told reporters after the game. “Just tried to be aggressive — what he does, the same thing.”

There’s something to that. Part of the thinking in importing Schröder from the Hawks in the deal that offloaded Melo’s salary was that the 25-year-old German could be the kind of like-for-like second-unit replacement (and sometimes backcourt partner) that Westbrook hasn’t had since Reggie Jackson grumbled his way out of town. Schröder was one of the league’s most prolific drivers and pick-and-roll operators during his two seasons as a starter with the Hawks, a high-usage ball handler most comfortable and effective when tasked with breaking down opponents off the dribble, unlocking set defenses, getting into the paint, and wreaking havoc. He’s not as explosive or physical as Westbrook, but the statistical comparison between them through the first six seasons of their careers is eye-openingly tight; so far this season, Schröder’s averaging a positively Westbrookian 29.4 points, 10.1 assists, and 7.5 rebounds per 100 possessions when he runs the show sans Russ.

Whether the Thunder can survive the loss of 2018-19 Russ by replacing him with an approximation of 2013-14 Russ, though, is a big question. For all the slings and arrows Westbrook takes for his inefficient and at-times-tunnel-visioned game, Schröder has a lower career true shooting percentage, free throw rate, and assist percentage than Westbrook. And while Schröder’s individual production has ballooned with Westbrook off the floor this season, the Thunder as a team have averaged just 99.7 points per 100 in those minutes, a rate of offensive efficiency that would rank dead last in the NBA over the course of the full season.

That rate could improve in the weeks ahead if the Thunder’s complementary shooters—George, guards Alex Abrines and Terrance Ferguson, perhaps-not-fully-flame-broiled-after-all stretch-4 Patrick Patterson—can keep up the better long-range accuracy they’ve flashed during Oklahoma City’s five-game winning streak, and if Schröder can dial back his individual aggression enough to feed them the ball on time, on target, and in rhythm. If he can make the game easier for more than just himself, the Thunder might be able to weather the storm of a prolonged lack of Westbrook. But if he can’t rein in his most shot-seeking instincts or keep producing like the crunch-time star he was Monday, Oklahoma City’s hot streak and rise up the Western standings could prove just as vulnerable to an unlucky bounce as Westbrook himself.