We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.
Russell Westbrook isn’t the only point guard who forces too many bad shots, dribbles too much and dictates an offense that passes too little.
But Westbrook has received unrivaled criticism for those flaws for one reason: He played with Kevin Durant.
It’s one thing for a point guard to take an extra shot or hold the ball an extra second. But when it could’ve been a shot or touch for Durant, maybe the NBA’s best scorer, it draws much more scrutiny.
With Durant bolting for the Warriors, we’ll get a full season of Westbrook fully unleashed. There’s a good discussion to be had about how good the Thunder will be without Durant, but there’s a parallel question that will interest more fans outside Oklahoma: How fun will Westbrook be without Durant?
We’ve already gotten a taste. Westbrook has played 48 games without Durant the last two years, averaging 30.5 points, 9.2 assist, 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 steals in them. To get a better picture of the full Westbrook experience, he also averaged 4.8 turnovers and 10.4 free-throw attempts.
It was a tour de force.
That’s a relatively small sample, though, and those games were spread into chunks. I’m not sure even Westbrook can sustain the energy level needed to play that way over a full season.
Floor-spacing could also stand in the way.
Victor Oladipo has steadily improved, but he hasn’t yet reached league-average efficiency from beyond the arc. The Warriors ignored Andre Roberson on the perimeter in last season’s conference finals, exposing his off 3-point shot. Ersan Ilyasova is a proven stretch four, but it appears Oklahoma City might start rookie Donatas Sabonis, who barely shot 3s in two years at Gonzaga. Steven Adams is totally interior-focused.
But it might not matter.
Westbrook is so quick, such a strong driver and so explosive, he can make navigate through crowds and make plays on the move and at the rim. He’s that good.
Unapologetically playing his style, Westbrook has steadily developed into one of the NBA’s very best players. He might even be better than Durant. Whichever you’d pick – I’d lean Durant – there’s at least a debate to be had. That’s far different from the days when Westbrook was viewed as Durant’s sidekick.
The Thunder will be worse without Durant. But empowering a bitter Westbrook might make them more enjoyable to watch.