The ongoing Durant-Westbrook issue: meshing or co-existing?

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

Russell Westbook (left) and Kevin Durant (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Russell Westbook (left) and Kevin Durant (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

MEMPHIS – As problems go, this is not earth-shaking. But for the Oklahoma City Thunder, it is a matter they have to address.

Are Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook maxing out their potential together? And are the Thunder maxing out their potential with the two of them?

Two questions, one issue that has swirled about the Thunder and their two all-NBA stars for several seasons. Sometimes it focuses on speculation of feuds or clashing personalities, sometimes on a hypothetical struggle for primacy.

Always, it springs from a desire to gauge the synergy generated by their world-class talents.

It remains a work in progress, both micro (the Thunder are locked in a 2-2 showdown with Memphis in their best-of-seven series, which continues in Oklahoma City on Tuesday night at 9 on NBA TV) and macro. Durant and Westbrook think they blend just fine, as far as what they’ve said publicly. Same goes for coach Scott Brooks, who even privately – or at least away from the glare of camera lights and microphones – sees no conflict.

Brooks thinks it’s a little reactionary, frankly, given Oklahoma City’s success. From their first season together (2008-09) through their fifth, the team’s winning percentage has climbed each year, starting low at .280 but soaring last season to .732. If you want to pick nits about a dip to .720 this season, know that it was due to winning 59 this season rather than 60, numbers any coach not named Popovich would welcome.

Scott Brooks (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

Scott Brooks (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE)

“We have to trust the things we’ve done all year,” Brooks said the other day in Memphis. “I love this team inside and out. I know how they’re wired. I know what they do and what they believe in, and they believe in each other. And when they have bad games, they want to come back and respond.”

Thunder fans await their response, then, while Grizzlies fans cringe at the thought after two underwhelming performances from Durant and Westbrook. In Game 3 last Thursday at FedEx Forum, OKC slipped behind in the series as its two stars missed shots, forced many, played independently of each other in stretches and largely neglected any other options.

In Game 4 Saturday, they were even worse, shooting a combined 11-of-45 and never warming up in yet another 53-minute thriller. Add the 6-for-22 they shot in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 3 and that 24.6 shooting percentage (17-of-69) is a testament to the work of Tony Allen and the rest of the Grizzlies’ defense.

The different in Game 4 was that Durant, Westbrook, Brooks and everyone else involved in the Thunder offense freed up 16 shots for reserve point guard Reggie Jackson. That’s only three fewer than he got, total, in the first three games. Jackson made 11 of them, eight more than he’d managed to that point, and saved the Thunder from a 3-1 hole in the series.

Well after midnight, center Kendrick Perkins made an interesting comment. “One thing I was pleased about tonight was, Russell and Kevin took a back seat and let Reggie take over. That says a lot about them also.”

And so it goes, the tug-of-war between doing it themselves or serving at times almost as decoys to keep lanes open and help defense away from someone like Jackson or Serge Ibaka.

“I mean, you want to win?” Westbrook said Friday. “Regardless of whoever’s open, whoever misses the shot? Nobody’s perfect. Not myself, not Kevin, not anybody. Obviously you want your teammates to be great and make shots. But when the game is close and on the line, you’ve got to make decisions.”

Decisions late in Friday’s game that Westbrook jacking up a 27-foot 3-pointer early in the clock and ignoring a wide-open Ibaka on the left baseline, followed immediately by Durant firing from 29 feet. Ibaka had only one shot after halftime in Game 3, though he did go 6-for-11 for 12 points in 42 minutes Saturday.

“We don’t go away from Serge,” Westbrook said. “I mean, our offense is not built around Serge. You have No. 35, Kevin Durant. Averaged 32 points.”

The OKC guard continued: “Don’t try to pull us apart. We all in this together. Serge is not on a separate team, Kevin’s not on a separate team, I’m not on a separate team. We on Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s not, ‘Serge got one shot, OK, we’ve got to find Serge shots.’ It don’t work like that. No, we all on the same team, we all in this together. Serge knows what he’s supposed to do for our team, Kevin knows what he’s supposed to do. It’s easy.”

But …

“It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. It’s easy. Everybody know their role. Everybody knows their role.”

Durant and Westbrook have missed 68 shots over the past two games. They are 6-for-34 on 3-pointers. Had they shot with their usual accuracy, in the same mix of field-goal attempts and free throws, the two of them would have scored 75 in Game 3 (per Elias Sports Bureau) and 54 in Game 4. With 39 more points to sprinkle on OKC’s side of the board, it’s safe assuming no overtimes would have been needed and the Thunder would be up 3-1.

The biggest difference Saturday was in the distribution of shots. Durant and Westbrook took 153 of their team’s 258 in the first three games. In Game 4, it was a 45-45 split, their Thunder teammates producing 62 of the 92 points.

“I tell [Durant and Westbrook] all the time, if you only think you can impact a game scoring, we’re not going to be successful,” Brooks said. “Kevin had 13 rebounds and Russell had [nine]. they had seven and four assists. … We’re built on defense, we’re built on teamwork.”

Through four playoff games, Durant and Westbrook are averaging 49.5 shots compared to 38.0 in the regular season. Their teammates? They’re at 37.0 vs. Memphis compared to 44.7 over 82 games. Together, the two stars are putting up 16.3 3-pointers this round compared to 10.8 all season. Brooks largely has made peace with that, given the Grizzlies’ packed-paint defensive approach, though he prefers the kick-out variety that come later in shot clocks than we’ve seen.

“The ones we’re trying to eliminate are the ones that are off the dribble, with no passes,” Brooks said. “Those are the tough ones. Those are the ones that we don’t want.”

Said Durant, after OKC dug out of Game 3’s 17-point hole: “When you’re down that much, you can’t just keep throwing the ball around the perimeter. Sometimes you have to just improvise and make plays. So nah, we’re not playing a two-man show.”

No one denies this is mainly a two-man show. And it wouldn’t be the first.

Sometimes – as with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, for instance – there has been a clear separation of powers and duties. Some, like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, found a lid on their success named Bill Russell. Others – Earl Monroe joining Walt Frazier in the Knicks’ backcourt – required adjustments. Others still – George McGinnis plopped next to Julius Erving in 1976-77, Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson teamed up in Denver – failed completely.

Two great scorers on one team always run the risk of becoming like the Paul Pierce-Antoine Walker act, or Joe Johnson-Josh Smith. That’s when the players “take turns” rather than fully meshing while teammates stand around.

That is at the heart of most criticism leveled at Durant and Westbrook. And because Westbrook is the point guard, initiating or breaking more plays, most place a greater burden on him.

“KD has won, what, four scoring titles?” one Western Conference scout said. “But Russell is so explosive, he feels he can get by any defender in front of him. Because he can get by any defender. You’re asking him to go away from what he’s most comfortable doing. The thing he trusts most in his game.”

Brooks believes that the two have blended their talents in their time together, with Westbrook aiding Durant rather than Durant simply accommodating Westbrook. One stat the OKC coach mentioned – percent of Durant field goals assisted by Westbrook – is inconclusive: Skipping the 2013-14 regular season due to Westbrook’s absences, that percentage each season from 2009-10 through 2012-13 has been 26.9, 39.2, 26.5 and 29.3.

That doesn’t mean, however, the rest of the players don’t suffer from the stars’ ball dominance. As Tom Ziller of SBNation.com noted after Game 3, over the final 11 minutes, Durant and Westbrook took 19 of OKC’s 21 shots (making five) and all 11 free throws.

More generally, the Thunder in 2013-14 were 34-12 with Westbrook and Durant in the lineup vs, 24-11 with Durant only. But they were 19-9 (.679) when both scored 20 points or more vs. 40-14 (.741), a better percentage, when neither did. And they were 6-1 when Westbrook had 10 assists or more.

“It’s tough on those guys,” Memphis point guard Mike Conley said. “They’re such big stars that I think they get that unfair criticism just because they’re under the microscope more than anybody else in the league. It’s part of, I think, being a superstar in the league and it’s tough to deal with.”

The most obvious recent example of an NBA power couple is LeBron James and Dwyane Wade since they came together in Miami in 2010. Prior to teaming up, Wade averaged 25.4 points as the Heat’s primary scoring threat. Since James arrived, Wade has averaged 22.2. James’ scoring average has dipped far less, from 27.8 points a game to 26.9.

Wade has talked of consciously taking “a step back” in his approach, an adjustment that didn’t happen automatically or easily but in time helped produce their 2012 and 2103 championships.

“I don’t know if it was so much two alpha dogs,” said Memphis Mike Miller, a Miami teammate who saw the dynamic hammered out over James’ and Wade’s first three season. “I think it was two people who were accustomed to doing that. When you’ve done it for eight, nine years that way, it’s difficult to make that change right away. So it’s a feeling-out process and a learning curve that everyone has to go through.

“But when you do it and win, it makes it easier to continue to do it, right?”

It also might have helped that, while both Wade and James were drafted in 2003, Wade was nearly three years older than James. Wade was ready to yield. It would have been wrong for James, who was and might still be the best player in the league, to step back.

It’s different for Durant and Westbook, who were born 45 days apart in 1988. While Durant is more accomplished and the likely 2014 Most Valuable Player, some insiders speculate that Westbrook still feels as if he’s proving himself (though the Thunder don’t believe Westbrook harbors James Harden-like ambitions, aching to run his own offense).

“Their offense right now is so predicated on those guys scoring that they have to, especially in playoff situations,” Miller said. “So it’s hard for a person like KD or a person like Russell. If they’re not aggressive and they don’t score 30 points, and they lose the game … LeBron got that all the time. That’s what makes it difficult. For guys like that, it’s the position you’re put in: Go get us 35, 40 points.”


VIDEO: Durant and Westbrook face the media after their Game 3 loss to Memphis

45 Comments

  1. Blog-So-Hard says:

    OKC needs a consistent 3rd scorer

  2. Daine says:

    Either move Westbrook to the SG position and make Reggie Jackson the starting PG or trade him to a team that needs an All star PG that can score, or a very good 2 guard, which Westbrook could be!!

  3. No Regrets says:

    Change coach, trade Westbrook, get a center and a shooter. OKC will be so much better

  4. huge KD and OCK fan says:

    This is definitely a matter of coaching, taking full control of manning your team just like a chess boss. RW is undeniably great but seems to be running his own offense instead of orchestrating it for the team. A better coaching approach if not entirely a new coach. RJ and SERGE are doing a great job but not given the best permanent positions and playing opportunities. It worked so well for them (RJ, Ibaka and KD) when RW was out but the blend was completely messed up when his back. A trade with Chandler would be great for RS and for OKC, and let RJ plays the PG. Either RW goes for the second unit or OKC trading for a better center.

  5. ROB says:

    LOOK AT Lebron James supporting cast, hello…makes sense why they are the two time champions right??

  6. lebronIsKing says:

    okc will make finals but lose because of westbrook

  7. None Of The Above says:

    It appears that Russell Westbrook believes he is the best player and star of this team, but, he needs to understand that this is (or at least should be) Kevin Durant’s team – he is the best player on that team. Westbrook is too inconsistent a shooter he is wasting too many possessions with his missed pull up jumpers. Serge Ibaka should be allowed more shots as he is an excellent midrange shooter and has one of the highest percentages from that range in the entire league.

  8. R says:

    Make Reggie Jackson the PG, Russel the SG and KD the SF. You just need someone to command who’s play is coming next!
    OKC can beat the Grizz with no problem!

  9. Luke says:

    Never Trade Westbrook!!!! Everyone stop freaking out… Thunder are just fine. This is too great teams with awesome Defense. Every shot seems to be contested. Both Stars from both teams are not shooting well bcause of defense. Westbrook is not a wild animal Patty, he has confidence in himself and is a STAR! Everyone has opinions on trade this person, get that person and you will win… Give me a break.. blah blah, stop crying and THUNDER UP!!

  10. josey says:

    Thunder needs a DEFENSIVE minded coach! They have gone as far as they can go with the roach they HAVE RIGHTNOW! Goerge karl should get a chance! Larry brown too! They need a new COACH WHO KNOWS DEFENSE AND CAN GET SOME KIND OF TEAM GAME NOT KD to WESTBROOK and thats it!

  11. josey says:

    Michael Jordan and Scottie pippen made it work because they grew as team players and they are great defenders! Durant and Westbrook are non existent defensively and are not team players! Russel westbrook is alittlecrybabyBitch when he aint getting his(theN all) way! That and them being gunners is why THEY WILL NEVER WIN ANYTHING! AND THEY NEED A DEFENSIVE COACH! THEY HAVE GONE AS FAR AS THEY ARE GOING! I KNOW WHAT IM TALKING ABOUT! Dont forget they had JAMES HARDEN! O KC NEEDS A NEW DIRECTION, ATTITUDE, , COACH! THEY AINT NEVER GONNA WIN ANYTHING WITH ME HE WAY THE TEAM IS RIGHTNOW! BET ON IT!

  12. Clyde says:

    They will both win championships. just with a different team! Best roster with shot at championship was two years ago and no Rings or Championship Banners for OKC to date. Go Grizzzzzz

  13. tom says:

    Rondo/Wesbrook trade wouldnt work, that would be almost similar to LBJ in 09 when he just had moe, they need a shot maker and play maker, rondo isnt a shooter/ cant spacethe floor as well, Westbrook for someone like Conely or Dragic would be a farbetter fit next to kd

  14. Jorge says:

    I hope they have time to give Kevin Durant his MVP trophy before the the Grizzlies eliminate them.

  15. lbjday says:

    I do not blame rw or kd for controling the ball soo much mainly because their supporting cast is one of the weaker ones. Besides serge who else can score on a nightly base?

  16. santiago says:

    Westbrook for Kyrie Irving!!

  17. Ariskituto says:

    Westbrook must know that he is NOT the centerpiece of OKC. Its that simple.

  18. eastbrook russ says:

    KD is not winning a ring without Westbrook, not until he improves as a 2way player. Rondo for Westbrook? That’s not one move away from success, Rondo needs a number of shooters and pick n roll guys around him- this is not what you do to win. Overreacting down here in the comments. Will be funny how all of you will crawl back in your holes like mice when OKC gets the ring this year. The Grizzlies play a brand of basketball that confuses OKC due to how they are built. So what? They’ll get past them eventually so you all can see KD drop 40 in every single game of the semis. You can’t outgun this team, especially with the Clips drama (only team capable of taking them down in the West). You’ve got two insanely gutted players on that team, Go back to 2012 and see how they won 4 straight games against a powerful Spurs team. We can just hope that this horrible East can put some sort of a reasonable obstacle to the Heat so they dont come into the finals having swept everything. OKC rests a lot of its hopes on the Wizards giving a physical battle to the Heat.

  19. Gillsy says:

    I agree a Rondo for Westbrook trade would be a win win for both teams. Westbrook needs his own team and Rondo can provide a veteran presence with a cool head. The other big problem is Perkins they need someone else to plug the hole. But on the other hand Durant cant score every bucket.

  20. squala96 says:

    Trade Westbrook for Curry!

  21. Hmmm says:

    I love Westbrook, but trade him for Rondo and OKC are better. So are the C’s, for that matter.

  22. SZC says:

    trade russ into a useful center

    • Pepe says:

      I think they were trying to get Tyson Chandler for Westbrook before trade deadline. Idk if it is only rumors but that deal makes perfect sense.

  23. Pakyaw says:

    It’s not the players’ fault. Its primarily because of the Grizzlies’ size and defense. Secondly, its the coaching. You could easily call a play where KD is the decoy, then WB scores, or vice versa. If by chance WB does not follow, sit him. Its an easy problem, they do not need to break this team up. WB and KD just needs to play sweet basketball together. Imagine if they play like dwade and lbj. With multiple stars, They just need to establish roles. – heat fan

  24. Elliott says:

    trade westbrook are you guys slow?????? they need westbrook like miami needs dwade

  25. joshua says:

    okc should get rajon rondo and they win it all next year

  26. Pepe says:

    Last year when Westbrook came down (because of Pat Beverly), OKC got stumped by MEM. But during this season when Westbrook was down again, Durant went on a tear and Reggie Jackson stepped up for Westbrook. When they lose this series maybe it’s time to let go of Westbrook.

  27. CHINOY says:

    WESTBROOK BALLHUG

  28. jake s. says:

    Take a look at the winning percentages and playoff success when Durant and Westbrook play together over the last 4 years. Go ahead. I’ll wait. Jealous fans pick apart this team because they want Westbrook so bad. This is just a match up issue. The Grizzlies are the reason for OKC’s problems. Give the Grizz credit instead of taking it away from OKC.

  29. T09 says:

    Thunder is losing games because of Westbrook. Brooks would do the players a favor by sitting Westbrook. Everyone plays so
    hard trying to recover from the turnovers and poor judgments made by WB. — . You know how WB is going to play when the scores get close. AND when the team is ahead, no need to goof off.

  30. Johnboy says:

    Westbrook needs to get his own team. He’s a scorer just like Durant, extremely talented and explosive, but he’s no Durant. Unfortunately for OKC, Westbrook is not willing to take a backseat the way Wade did when they brought on LBJ to the Heat. That’s why it works so well in Miami because everyone knows their place. You cannot have 2 Durant’s on 1 team, 2 Lebron’s on 1 team. It just won’t work, unless Westbrook takes a backseat.

  31. TheKush says:

    They’re doing fine! They have until next year to win a championship if the don’t win one by next season then I’m pretty sure they’ll break this team up

  32. Mezo says:

    They are young. They will work it out.

  33. okc2014 says:

    I like the idea of Westbrook coming off the bench and starting Jackson…Brooks would never do that though. OKC still needs an amazing center too. Still OKC2014.

  34. cp10 says:

    Oh man game 3 was just epic, Westbrook missed the second free throw on a three point foul (he’s elite but not superman) but if he’d made that one and got the ensuing tip in or dunk and won the game that would’ve been a sight to behold.

  35. KDfan says:

    KD and Russ are still maturing. They will find ways and means to play better together and with synergy. It doesn’t happen quickly. They joined the league within a year of each other were very young at that time and both are very ferociously ambitious (KD in a quiet way and Russ robustly). I would request the media and the press to highlight in a positive and constructive way, how the two can gel together rather that pose a question/potential problem and vomit out a bunch of statistics. The media should play a role in making the players and the league better, than to sometimes belittle issues, players, coaches……

  36. Mike says:

    This two guys are explosive. So it’s hard to expect calm hard work from them. Some people say that Erik Spoelstra is not a good coach, that players are too good in Miami, but Scott Brooks does not have a talent to convert explosiveness of KD & RW in quality. On the other side look at Rockets and what is going on- H&H (Harden-Howard)- they try to do everything by themselves, and result is ugly 1-3 and Daniels (who?) win that one. Playoffs are not for stats- it is for wins. Blazers won yesterday by Batum & Mo. More time and credits for Jackson and other role players- and you’ll see how much PPR of KD&RW will grow (including clutch time). Spoelstra understood it earlier and won last year with Anderson and Allen perfect playoff perfomance. So the deal is not about KD and Russell, it is about Brooks.

  37. Game Time says:

    It’s easy to pick apart a team when they look like they might be heading downhill. WB takes some really bad shots, but if you look at the past two games both him and Durant have been shooting poorly and shot almost the same amount of times. I think it would be foolish for OKC to get rid of WB and try to work Durant harder in hopes of a title.

  38. lakers says:

    here’s the problem…westbrook thinks he’s better then KD…he feels like he should have the ball in his hands at cruchtime…trade him promote Jackson as your starting PG..PROBLEM SOLVED…I just don’t see OKC winning a ring with westbrook

  39. educatedron says:

    Westbrook, is physically gifted and can get a shot off from anywhere on the court at anytime. He thinks score first which hurts the team. Durant and him take turns and many time Durant has to beg for the ball. He takes forced ill advised shots because he can.

    What needs to happen is westbrook should be traded to a team where he is primary scorer at the 2 position.

    A team like charlotte, kings, boston, atlanta, or even milwaukee would be a good place for him. Despite how good westbrook is offensively, Durant is just that much better. Has awesome trade value, could trade him for Rondo with boston’s number one pick, or trade him to the kings for rudy gay and their number 1. They don’t mesh well. When westbrook wasn’t plyaing that is when durant became the MVP of the league. Plain and simple

  40. Realist2014 says:

    Westbrook and KD are fine it’s their supporting cast that lacks offense and tends to be too sporatic. If they didn’t have Ibaka they wouldn’t have as many wins as they do. He’s the core of their defense. They get little to no production from the rest of their starters. I think Westbrook should come off the bench unless that would hurt his ego, to lead the second Unit. Like Ginobli does for the Spurs. Put Reggie back in the starting line up. I don’t care what anyone says Perkins doesn’t change anyones offensive prowess otherwise zbo and gasol wouldn’t be dominating the paint as they do. All year long I would have gave Jeremy Lamb a starting spot and a some veteran guidance and he would be a viable scoring option. Hate when they draft a scorer then don’t use them.

  41. Patty says:

    OKC NEEDS TO TAKE CONTROL OVER HOW WESTBROOK PLAYS THE GAME.

    IT IS NOT WESTBROOK”s FAULT THAT DURANT APPEARS TO BE SCARE OF WESTBRROK.

  42. Patty says:

    WESTBROOK IS A WILD ANIMAL. THE COACH HAS NO CONTROL OVER WESTBROOK.

    OKC MAY NEED A NEW COACH TO TAKE CONTROL OF THE TEAM.