by

Temiloluwa Durojaiye

A two-man punch worth its weight in points, assists and rebounds. A star duet that rivalled any pair of superstars in the league. Oklahoma City Thunder’s superstar duo were supposed to deliver the franchise’s first title. Fate had a different plan.

One did things with as much stealth as a locomotive engine, barreling everything on his way to monster jams and athletic finishes. The other went about his business with less brashness but even more precision and efficiency. Russell had finally added assists to his game and Kevin was finally over his foot injury; things were looking up.

An upset of the 67-win Spurs and a 3-1 lead against the record breaking Warriors and it seemed as though that long awaited championship might just have been coming home last year. Hard to see how things ended up the way they did from that point but life follows its own script.

Kevin Durant’s bolt to the Bay is now old news but his 25+ points and 8+ rebounds are definitely still being sorely missed. The second best offense in the league last year is now trudging along in the middle of the pack at 16th with an offensive rating of 107.9, down from 113.1 the season before while they’re scoring 3.9 less pts/game despite an uptick in pace & possessions. Without the range of offensive options Durant provides, OKC rely largely on Westbrook to make plays as quickly as possible before the opponents defense can set in half court. With no real three point threat in the starting 5, teams often collapse their defenses on Russell when he drives often resulting in one of three outcomes – a tough finish at the rim, a dime to a big man running the lane or a turnover.

The key for OKC is providing passing options whenever Westbrook drives and teams collapse him. The Thunder have won every match this season where Westbrook has averaged 10 or more assists and this kind of over-reliance on him to make plays and still score might hamper them in the playoffs against elite defenses.

They’re 6th in the Western Conference right now but nothing is yet assured. The last time Thunder were largely without Durant, they missed out on the playoffs by the slimmest of margins – a tie breaker against the Pelicans – despite Russell snagging a scoring title. This year he’s averaging a triple-double (30.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 10.6 assists) for the season (to put this in perspective, some players don’t even have a triple-double their whole career) and has 20 triple doubles this season already. He’s putting in an incredible effort night in, night out despite playing just 35 minutes and might be on his way to an MVP crown however the main goal of a championship remains elusive.

Losing your first and third options in scoring and rebounding isn’t something you bounce back from so quickly and the Thunder, especially Russell have done quite well to remain in contention. Now, they need their  group of  young starters and role players to provide support for Westbrook if they want to go deep into the playoffs come April.

Steven Adams was a rebounding revelation in last year’s playoffs but now,  he needs to improve his offensive skill set if his team is to have a chance against the top dogs. He’s upped his scoring and rebounding this season but that’s hardly surprising given Durant and Ibaka’s departure. His decision making however needs to improve even further and he must continually place himself in the right places for Westbrook to find him.

Andre Roberson is still struggling with his outside shooting and seems to have regressed this season. His inability to shoot from beyond the 3 point line was a major catalyst for the loss in the Western Conference final and with the lane clogged by defenses as Westbrook drives to the rim, he needs to work on his 3-pt shooting that his team desperately needs.

Newcomer Sabonis has shown signs of promise from outside the arc and OKC can look to build on his potential as a stretch 4 or 5 to give themselves more options on the attack. He’s impressed fans, players and journalists this season and will find himself at the All-Star game in New Orleans as part of the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge. We hope it’s not for the last time.

The biggest positive for the Thunder this season (not named Russell or Westbrook) has been the diminutive Nigerian-born shooting guard, Victor Oladipo. Acquired as part of the Ibaka to Orlando Magic trade, he’s provided 16.2 points while shooting 45% from deep as an immediate second scoring options. The shooting guard position at OKC has been a revolving door the past few seasons with  a handful of players trying to fill the void left by James Harden and Oladipo was was supposed to make the position his own while providing 15+ points per night as a third scoring option. In an alternate reality, this would be a solid and even wonderful contribution behind 20+ points from the two stars but life’s different in the north-west now. Oladipo might need to start scoring 20+ a night if he’s to ensure his team make the playoffs.

At 25-19, the Thunder have given a good account of themselves despite massive adjustments in no small part to the domineering play of Westbrook. He is this team’s unequivocal leader now and it remains to be seen where he’s taking them. He’s gotten the spotlight to himself, the stage is set, all that’s left for us fans is to enjoy the show.

 

Written by Temiloluwa Durojaiye.