clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

With Kevin Durant injured, Russell Westbrook goes from sidekick to alpha dog

If Russell Westbrook really has been the Scottie Pippen to Kevin Durant's Michael Jordan this whole time, the Thunder may not be in that bad of a position after all.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most famous anecdote as it pertains to Scottie Pippen comes from the 1994 Eastern Conference Finals. Pippen, the Chicago Bulls' small forward, had spent his entire career in the shadow of Michael Jordan, winning three NBA championships as his sidekick by 1993.

Jordan infamously retired before the '93-'94 season and,  despite being in Jordan's shadow for all that time, Pippen finally got his chance to showcase just how much of a star he'd been all along. He did a more than admirable job of it, too, finishing third in league-MVP voting en route to leading his team to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

It was in Game 3 of that series, though, with the Bulls down 2-0 in the series and tied in the game with 1.8 seconds left, when Pippen thought for sure he would get his signature moment. Problem was, Bulls' coach Phil Jackson drew up a play for Toni Kukoc, with Pippen being given simple inbounds duties. Pippen, always admired for being a great teammate, cracked, pulling himself from the game.

Kukoc made the shot and the Bulls won the game, but that decision lingered for Pippen. The Bulls ultimately lost that series, and while Pippen played well enough to make you believe he was over the incident, it's long been a topic of discussion just how much that decision really affected him.

A guy in the shadow of the greatest player of all-time proves himself a worthy successor in his absence, only to be asked to hand over the duties of making the biggest shot of the season to someone else. No matter how loyal a teammate may be, you can understand why - in a sport where having an ego seems to be a prerequisite - Pippen felt slighted. Guys work their entire careers to be given that moment, and when it finally comes, well, you just hope you have a resume as extensive as Phil Jackson in order to take it away from them.

There have been obvious MJ/Pippen comparisons between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook basically since Westbrook entered the league in 2008. Durant, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 Draft, was handed the keys to a franchise that was literally forging a new identity. Westbrook, the No. 4 pick in the 2008 Draft, was the passenger in that ride.

In 2011, the first year the Thunder truly announced their presence as a contender, it was Westbrook that took most of the flak for the team's inability to take the next step. In 2012, even though Oklahoma City advanced to their first NBA Finals,  it was Westbrook that took the majority of the heat when they came up short against Lebron James' Miami team.

It wasn't until Westbrook went down with a knee injury in the 2013 playoffs that most people began to come around on the headstrong Thunder point guard. Last season, with Westbrook recovering from knee surgery for almost half the year, Durant further established himself as the alpha, reaching statistical heights that hadn't been seen since Jordan. Not that it was ever in doubt, but more than ever, Oklahoma City became Durant's team, and Russell Westbrook was the super-gifted sidekick.

Kevin Durant didn't retire, thankfully, but he will be out 6-8 weeks to start the 2014-15 season with a Jones fracture, meaning the Westbrook/Pippen parallels will only grow stronger. Those that have followed Westbrook's ascension into the upper-echelon of NBA talent already know he should be more than ready for the task.

In fact, there are plenty of folks that would argue this is what he's wanted all along. There's no evidence to support that, but if ever there was a guy that was confident enough that he could fill in for the league MVP, it's Russell Westbrook.

It's that confidence that has defined Westbrook to this point in his career. No player is as comfortable in his own unique brand of basketball - which is one that is criticized seemingly every time the Thunder find themselves in the spotlight - as No. 0 in the Thunder uniform. Westbrook's erratic style on the court no doubt has its drawbacks for the Thunder team, but with Durant sidelined, it will become the biggest weapon they have.

By now you've seen the numbers, but they're worth rehashing: Westbrook played just 41 minutes without Durant on the court with him last season, and shot it 35 times, resulting in an insane 47.5 usage rate. It's long been the screaming point that Westbrook, already a shot-happy point guard, needs Durant to reign him in and keep him under control. With Westbrook as the best player on the court, there will be no one to stop him from taking ill-advised shots.

The problem with that sentiment, and what will become so vital over this time period without Durant, is that that fearless mentality by Westbrook is what will most likely give the Thunder their best chance at staying afloat in the absence of Durant.

It's beneficial to focus on last year's postseason's numbers more than the regular season when it comes to Westbrook, simply because it was the first time post-Christmas Day he was free to play without any minutes restriction. With the shackles off, and the freedom to play that wholly-unique brand of basketball, Westbrook did things on the court no man since Oscar Robertson had done.  Since 1964, no one had averaged 26 points, 8 assists, and 7 rebounds for an postseason until Westbrook did it last season.

Of course, of the five times that ever happened, Westbrook's shooting percentage was the lowest, and that fact, combined with the fact that he shared the floor with Kevin Durant the entire time, still won't win over everybody. Where Westbrook did surprisingly well (or at least wasn't atrocious) in the postseason, though, is exactly in the area where he receives the most criticism: pull-up jumpers.

Westbrook averaged the second-most pull-up jumpers of anyone in the postseason - trailing only James Harden - and his percentage on those attempts was actually only mediocre. His 35.9 percent on those attempts is of course not great, but it's only a couple percentage points off NBA champion Tony Parker, and higher than Harden.

The point is that Westbrook will now be more free than ever to take those pull-up jumpers, and even if he is mediocre at them again, he influences the game in so many ways that if it means taking those shots to stay in rhythm, the Thunder will more than live with it.

Add to that the fact Westbrook's 8.9 points per game on drives was more than anybody in the playoffs, and you understand just how versatile an offensive weapon Westbrook truly can be for this offense. His jumper is just effective enough to keep a defender honest, and it is when that shot is respected that Westbrook can, in turn, find his way to the hoop for easy layups at the rim.

As a point guard, Westbrook's job is more than just to score, and those eight assists per game in the playoffs are a testament to his ability in that department, as well. Westbrook has always been an underrated passer, and it's worth nothing that of the 16 second-round-or-better point guards in the 2014 postseason, only Chris Paul created more points by assist per 48 minutes than Westbrook.

Again, a lot of this is contingent on the fact that Westbrook was sharing the court with Durant, making all of this easier. No matter how much he has had to face, he's never really known what it's like to be gameplanned against as the No. 1 option.

Still, when it came time for Westbrook to lead his team last season, he answered the bell. Maybe Westbrook, like Pippen before him, has secretly been waiting for an opportunity like this his entire career. For all of the heat he gets, for every Charles Barkley "pass the damn ball" that must play in his mind over and over, this may be exactly the opportunity Westbrook always hoped for. Again, it's the NBA, and everyone wants the chance to prove how great they can be all on their own.

For 6-8 weeks - and hopefully no longer - Russell Westbrook will be getting that opportunity that sidekicks like he and Pippen only get but once or twice in a career. If recent history is any indicator, he may be even more prepared for it than we think.

Losing Kevin Durant won't be easy, but the Thunder should feel confident that Russell Westbrook can steady the ship just fine in his absence.

All stats via basketball-reference and