How Russell Westbrook Can Transform The Thunder

Right now, courtesy of Kevin Durant, we’re witnessing one of the modern game’s most incredible scoring stretches, and that’s quite the achievement for a player who has won three NBA scoring titles. But more importantly he’s doing it at a time his team needs him the most… not only that, the Oklahoma City Thunder seem to look better than ever coming off impressive back-to-back wins against the Trail Blazers and Spurs to climb to the top of the Western Conference standings, all happening without their All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook.

Part of the Thunder’s recent success has a large part to do with Durant’s incredible scoring stretch; his stats have skyrocketed since Westbrook’s injury. Without Westbrook, Durant is averaging 36.5 points per game while shooting 52.4 percent from the field. In the last 20 days, he has put up the top four scoring games this season with 54, 48, 48, 46 points. Although this has been extraordinary, it begs the question: How long can Durant and the Thunder keep this up?

We know the rest of the team also stepped up to fill in the void. Reggie Jackson, at one point in the fourth quarter against the Spurs, scored 11 straight and ended the night with 27 points to help ease the load off Durant. The Thunder might be able to slide by without Westbrook for the time being, but come playoff time, without a healthy Westbrook, will history repeat itself?

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Last year the Thunder lost Westbrook in the playoffs to a knee injury, and although they got passed the first round, the Grizzlies beat them in the second round fairly easily in five games. Durant carried the load but would tire out near the end of games, unable to close them out. The year before with Westbrook, they reached the Finals.

Before Westbrook’s recent injury, the Thunder were 23-5 while he averaged 21.3 points, 7.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds per game. Over the next ten games without Westbrook they went 5-5, raising several concerns about how good they actually were and the importance of Westbrook. Then they flipped the script as they won the next five games, four against the top six Western Conference teams (Rockets, Warriors, Portland and the Spurs).

Now we are left wondering if Westbrook’s injury was the best thing that possibly could have happened to the Thunder. There’s no doubt this team needs a healthy Westbrook back to compete for a title. However, with his absence, the starters, the bench and Kevin Durant have all elevated their game.

If Westbrook can come back and insert himself into what this Thunder team is doing right now, they have a shot of being the best in the league with the way everyone on the team is playing at the moment. But when Westbrook does come back, will he limit his teammates? Does this Thunder team need Westbrook to be the Westbrook that we are familiar to seeing?

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Remember when Dwyane Wade wasn’t trying to be LeBron‘s sidekick, but more of a star alongside another star — who possessed a lot more talent than him, by the way — they lost in the Finals and James spent many fourth quarters looking lost and mentally exhausted. Not saying that Wade wasn’t good, but LeBron was better and you had to choose one. This Thunder team is similar; Westbrook doesn’t consider himself a sidekick to Durant. He sees himself as the star of this team alongside him. If Westbrook were to leave, as James Harden did, he’d certainly be putting up superstar numbers. He’s that gifted. Yet unless Westbrook willingly takes a backseat to Durant, the Thunder unfortunately won’t be able to be the best.

The Heat won when Wade finally accepted a step back. Pippen did the same with Jordan, Kobe the same with Shaq (even if it was unwillingly). Westbrook needs to do the same.

The main concern, though, is whether Westbrook would ever willingly take a backseat to anyone. His astonishing athleticism, energy, and unpredictable and sometimes reckless style of play makes him so great but can also be his biggest flaw. He is the one player that could turn the Thunder into a legitimate championship team or the player that holds them back from reaching their full potential.

The problem is this issue is a sensitive one. We’ve seen teams implode, and we’ve seen teammates comply and sacrifice for the betterment of their team, resulting in championships. You get the feeling, though, that Westbrook feels limited already, and wants to show the league his full potential. Can the Thunder win like that? Unfortunately, the team can’t have both.

For now, Westbrook is still sidelined through All-Star Weekend, giving OKC plenty of time to figure out just who they really are during this stretch, as well as allowing Westbrook more time to watch from the bench. Upon his return, he can either jumpstart the lineup or disrupt the team’s flow, and with the season already past the midway point, the team’s title hopes could hinge on just that.

Regardless, the Thunder need Westbrook back at 100 percent before they can even consider anything. In the meantime, enjoy Kevin Durant while he’s putting on one of the greatest scoring performances in NBA history.

How does Westbrook need to play when he returns? The same? Different?

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