Kevin Durant has spoken truth, even if he didn’t know it — Russell Westbrook returns tonight against the Heat. Here are the five biggest questions leading up to it:
Is it at all possible the Thunder could be maybe better without Westbrook?
Is Westbrook’s return going to hurt KD’s MVP chances?
But OK, we can talk about this one.
Without Westbrook, Durant has averaged 35.0 points on 52.7/39.9/87.8 shooting splits with 6.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds with a PER somewhere near a thousand (not really, more like 36.5, but still).
The Thunder went 20-7 in this stretch without Westbrook and not just won games, but beat really good teams.
All of that stuff added up to the foundation of an MVP narrative for Durant as he’s taken a pretty commanding lead over LeBron James in the court of public this season.
But with Westbrook returning for the Thunder’s final 27 games, there’s weird thinking that this will damage KD’s MVP chances. I don’t get that at all.
Yes, Durant’s numbers may dip some. He’s not likely to average 35-7-6 a game. Two reasons: 1) Because Westbrook is going to naturally use more possessions as Durant’s usage rate probably returns somewhere close to 30 percent, down from 35 percent right now and 2) because the Thunder are probably going to play fewer close games.
Consider: Durant didn’t win the scoring title last season, averaging 28.1 a game. But he also sat close to 20 fourth quarters because the Thunder slaughtered so many teams.
And let’s not act like KD’s numbers are about to nosedive into the teens or something. He won three straight scoring titles with Westbrook as his running buddy. He averaged 28.1 on 50/40/90 last season with him. Averaged 4.6 assists with him last season. Points and assists with dip a bit, but probably from 35 and six to something like 29-4.5. And you know what? Averaging 29 would still be the best mark in the NBA by about two and a half points.
If anything, Westbrook’s return only has the potential to strengthen Durant’s grip on MVP. The Thunder should be better and win more, meaning that 65 wins is within the realm of possibility. LeBron’s best hope to close the gap on KD is to outplay him tonight, and the Heat to storm to the finish line while the Thunder stumble a bit. With Westbrook back, that’s unlikely. Durant made his MVP case in January. Now with an assist from Westbrook, he can coast to the finish line.
Should Westbrook wait to return for a less-big game than the Heat?
On the surface, it brings a sense of unease that Westbrook would return in such a high profile, high intensity game. With his game conditioning probably not where it should be and the fact he plays with such a relentless spirit possibly putting him in compromising spots, there’s worry. Shouldn’t the Thunder maybe wait until something a bit easier, like the Cavs at home next week?
That makes sense, if this were any other player. But this is Russell Effing Westbrook. To him, there’s no difference between the Heat and Cavs, the Spurs and Bucks. His effort isn’t changing. So it doesn’t exactly matter.
And look at it this way: If for the same reason the Thunder wouldn’t play him just because it’s the Heat, they shouldn’t hold him out either. If this is any other game like they say, then act like it. Plus, there’s absolutely no way the Thunder would put Westbrook on the floor unless he was entirely 100 percent ready to go and cleared. If he’s playing, he’s playing.
How does Westbrook’s return impact the rotation?
This could be where things are interesting. Westbrook’s going to get his 32-35 minutes. And those have to come from somewhere. The person most directly affected will obviously be Reggie Jackson, who has averaged 32.0 minutes a game without Westbrook, and 24.6 with. Jackson saw a lot of minutes together with Westbrook, but naturally, those eight-minute bursts to start the first and third quarters will be gone.
Jeremy Lamb could see a little reduction, as well as Derek Fisher who averaged 13.8 with Westbrook and 18.6 without. Then there’s Perry Jones III, who was spotty in the rotation with Westbrook playing, but has become a bit more of a staple. Something’s got to give.
This isn’t a question I wanted to ask, but it will be interesting to watch two things with Russ back:
1) How does Serge Ibaka play? He developed a strong two-man action with KD as they built a very solid chemistry in it. Do they split those up between Westbrook and Durant, or does it go back to Westbrook being the primary guy running them?
2) Where do Durant’s buckets come from? I’ve mentioned this before, but with Westbrook, Durant scored about 60 percent of his buckets assisted. Without, about 63 percent were unassisted. Durant changed the way he played to a large degree, in terms of how he got his shots. Which way does he go now?
The team says they will “manage the transition by building his minutes over time” and will “evaluate his availability in back-to-back situations.” What’s that mean?
Presti’s full statement: “We are all very excited to have Russell back. He has worked extremely hard throughout his rehabilitation, and his addition will allow us to build on the progress we have made in his absence. As Russell integrates back into the team we are going to manage the transition by building his minutes over time and will evaluate his availability in back-to-back situations. These steps are an effort to control the areas of his return to play where feasible, given the reduced practice and conditioning time during the regular season. Our goal is to create the best foundation for Russell and the team as we head into the postseason.”
So… what the Thunder are saying is that Westbrook have a minute restriction, and that he might not play in back-to-backs for a little while. Concerning? Yes. But probably necessary to make sure he’s in the best possible condition by the time of the playoffs.
Why are people saying anything other than “Oh yeah! RUSSELL WESTBROOK IS BACK!”
Because RUSSELL WESTBROOK IS BACK. We don’t need questions, we don’t need concerns, we don’t need worries. One of the four most electrifying, exciting players in the league is back in action and the Thunder are 50 percent better for it.
Did OKC play well without him? Yes, they very much did. But that’s a good thing! Think how twisted that kind of mindset is. You’re fretting about Westbrook’s return because the Thunder played so well without him. What if they had gone 13-14 without him? Would that be making you feel better right now?
Russell Westbrook is back. Kevin Durant, the Thunder, Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka and everyone on the team are better off with him. And so are we.