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Building Around Russell Westbrook Ain’t Easy

Offloading responsibilities onto Paul George evidently isn’t enough. Facing elimination in the first round for the third straight time, the Thunder will soon have to prove their famed player-development system is more fact than fiction.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Thunder need a new plan to build around Russell Westbrook. Their 111-98 loss to the Blazers in Game 4 of their first-round series on Sunday dropped their playoff record without Kevin Durant to 4-11. A loss in Game 5 on Tuesday would mean they will be eliminated in the first round for the third straight season. Westbrook has now been outplayed by James Harden, Donovan Mitchell, and Damian Lillard in consecutive postseasons. He’s a flawed player with clear holes in his game that probably aren’t going to improve after 11 seasons in the NBA. Oklahoma City owes him $171.14 million over the next four seasons. He isn’t going anywhere. They need to put players around him who fit better.

Westbrook needs a supporting cast that can space the floor for him on offense and cover for him on defense. He has never had that in the three seasons since Durant’s departure. The Thunder were dead last in the NBA in 3-point percentage in 2016-17, no. 24 in 2017-18, and no. 22 in 2018-19. While Westbrook’s poor 3-point shooting percentages have typically brought down his team’s averages, he has still not been playing with enough players who can punish the defense for packing the paint to stop him. He needs bigger driving lanes to the rim and more space to finish once he gets there. This will only become more important as he moves into his 30s and his athleticism starts to decline. His postseason performance is already trending in the wrong direction. He is averaging his second-lowest scoring average (21.3) and lowest field goal percentage (36.3) of his playoff career this season.

The Thunder tried to build a team that wasn’t as reliant on their star point guard. They were carried by their defense and all-around brilliance of Paul George in the regular season, but that formula hasn’t worked in the playoffs. George hasn’t been the same since injuring his shoulder in late February, while their defense hasn’t been able to contain Lillard and CJ McCollum in the pick-and-roll. It hasn’t mattered what strategy Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan has tried with Steven Adams, a burly 7-footer more comfortable in the paint. If he drops his center back on screens, Lillard and McCollum can dribble into open pull-up 3s. If he extends Adams up the court, the two can string him out and get around him.

What is happening to Adams against Portland is the same thing that is happening to Rudy Gobert against Houston. Defenses built around more traditional big men don’t have answers for the pull-up 3. The Blazers can put Adams in the pick-and-roll and get an open shot anytime they want. He’s in the 6th percentile of defenders on that play in the playoffs, giving up 1.19 points per possession. He has been a bigger defensive liability in this series than his former backup Enes Kanter, and he doesn’t have the offensive ability to make up for the points he gives up. Adams can’t space the floor, create his own shot, or facilitate for others. He has not been a difference-maker in three postseasons without Durant. He’s a platoon center getting paid ($25 million a season) like a star.

The best chance for the Thunder to get back in the series is to play smaller with Jerami Grant at the 5. That lineup had a net rating of plus-22.2 in eight minutes when they finally went to it in the fourth quarter of Game 4. While it helped that the Blazers took their foot off the gas, small ball also changed the dynamic of the matchup. Lillard and McCollum didn’t have as much room to maneuver coming around screens. They were met by two 6-foot-9 and 220-pound forwards (George and Grant) with the length and athleticism to stay in front of them at the 3-point line. And since George and Grant could also step out and knock down 3s, there was more room for Westbrook and Dennis Schröder to attack on offense.

The Thunder need Grant to become their version of Pascal Siakam. He has been their X factor all season. They rebounded from their disastrous 0-3 start by starting him at power forward in place of Patrick Patterson. He’s a five-position defender who can shoot 3s (39.2 percent on 3.7 attempts per game) and put the ball on the floor. They are a different team when he’s making outside shots: He shot 43.4 percent from 3 in their wins in the regular season, and 33.1 percent in their losses. That trend has carried over to the playoffs. Grant shot 6-of-7 from the field in their Game 3 win and 7-of-25 (28 percent) in their three losses. Oklahoma City goes from having just enough space on offense to function with him at the 4 to stretching the defense past its breaking point with him at the 5.

The way Grant matches up with a post-oriented center like Kanter in Game 5 will be an interesting window into his future development. He didn’t play a single minute at the position in the regular season. He has to be able to hold his own inside against bigger and stronger 5s on defense in order to take advantage of his speed and shooting ability on offense. Kanter has shot 3-of-4 from the field in this series with Grant as his primary defender, and he also drew a foul on the offensive glass in Game 4 and picked up an assist when Oklahoma City sent help toward him. Grant has to fight to push Kanter out of the paint and use his quickness to slap the ball away from him once he gets it. He will need to carefully balance getting stronger with maintaining his speed over the next few seasons.

The other benefit of playing Grant at the 5 is that it allows the Thunder to get another shooter on the floor. They usually close games with a smaller backcourt of Westbrook and Schröder, but neither is a consistent 3-point shooter. Going smaller allows them to play Schröder, their sixth man, and Terrance Ferguson, their starting shooting guard, at the same time. Ferguson, a 20-year-old whom they took with the no. 21 overall pick in the 2017 draft, is the closest thing to a 3-and-D player in their supporting cast. At 6-foot-7 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, he has the physical tools to defend multiple positions on the perimeter and knock down open 3s (36.6 percent on 3.9 attempts per game this season).

Ferguson has looked in over his head in the playoffs. Oklahoma City has its worst net rating when he is on the floor (minus-18.3 in 97 minutes) of anyone on the roster. He is averaging 5.5 points per game on 33.3 percent shooting, and he has looked nervous anytime he has dribbled. They tried to put him on McCollum in the first two games of the series to lessen some of the burden on George, but he couldn’t handle that much defensive responsibility. It’s an awful lot to ask of a second-year player who played sparingly his rookie season, but the Thunder have no one else on their bench whom they can turn to. They are fairly thin for a team with the second-highest payroll ($146.5 million) in the league.

There aren’t many other options for the fifth spot in their small-ball lineup. They are already leaning too heavily on Raymond Felton, who is averaging 2.3 points per game on 27.3 percent shooting in the playoffs. Andre Roberson has been out for the last 15 months with a torn patella tendon, while Patterson has been all but unplayable. Markieff Morris has been ineffective since they acquired him on the buyout market, and playing Nerlens Noel and Grant together doesn’t solve any of their floor spacing issues. Nor have any of the other young perimeter players behind Ferguson (Deonte Burton, Hamidou Diallo, and Abdel Nader) shown much. Oklahoma City started its run under general manager Sam Presti over a decade ago by selecting Kevin Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden in consecutive drafts, but they have not done as good a job in recent years, even when you take into account the fact that they are selecting lower in the draft.

Ferguson is the kind of prospect (a raw player with elite physical tools) Presti has long targeted. He bypassed the NCAA and spent his one season after high school before entering the draft riding the bench in Australia. Presti, who started his front office career in San Antonio, has operated under the assumption that his organization would be able to develop players into shooters in much the same way as the Spurs did with Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. It’s easier said than done. Ferguson is a project whom he didn’t have to take on. Presti took him eight spots ahead of Derrick White, one of the breakout stars in this year’s playoffs. White is exactly the kind of 3-and-D role player the Thunder have never found.

Westbrook should be at the center of his own version of the Lineup of Death, with long and athletic shooters flanking him at every position. Oklahoma City can’t bring in those types of players: They are a capped-out team with limited trade assets. They need Ferguson and Grant to make the same leap that White has made in the playoffs. It may not happen this season: Ferguson turns 21 in May. Grant just turned 25 in March. They could still get better. The Thunder just don’t have many other options if they don’t. Westbrook may never be good enough to lead a team to a championship, but Oklahoma City could still be doing more to put him in a position to succeed. They need to build a new kind of team around him. The Thunder originally became an elite team by developing young players. They have to get back to that if they are ever going to be one again in the Westbrook era.