Thursday night's honestly-not-that-bad-of-loss to Cleveland set off a familiar alarm on National TV NBA Twitter. That, of course, is the inevitable "Why isn't Russ or KD always on the floor?" clamoring that comes from people that expect the Thunder to change what they've done for eight seasons now.
On its face, the argument makes sense. You have two of the best players in the world, you should want at least one of them on the floor at all times. It's not that simple, though, and it actually just comes down to some basic math. Both guys should be playing around 36-38 minutes a night, more or less. That's six minutes of rest per half. Again, more or less.
There are two ways of looking at this. The Twitterverse always seems to gravitate to the need to stagger their rest periods so that one is on the floor at all times. Does this pattern work? Fortunately for us, we have a very recent example of a team that staggered their stars' minutes, when the Miami Heat had Lebron James and Dwyane Wade.
Looking at some old play-by-play rundowns, (specifically Feb. 6, 2013 against the Rockets) the pattern seemed to be this: Wade would sub out with 3 min. remaining in the first quarter while Lebron played until the buzzer. Wade would check back in to start the second while Lebron sat. Lebron would check back in around the 6 min. mark, and Wade would again check out for a second rest. Finally, they would rejoin for the final 3 minutes to close out the half. Because of that, the Heat would have either Lebron or Wade on the floor for all 48 minutes of game time, but only about 24-28 of those minutes - depending on how games shook out - were when they occupied the floor at the same time.
That's a complicated pattern, but it's necessary because the alternative is for one to check out at 6 min. in the first quarter, check back in to start the second while the other sits, and have them both close out the final six minutes of the half. In that scenario, you're risking your early sub guy not getting into his rhythm, and you're still only getting them together for 24 minutes a night.
It's those minutes together that are the most important for the Thunder, too, and could explain why their current substitution pattern is the way it is. That's because, and this may surprise you, when Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are on the floor together, they are as deadly a duo as there is or ever has been in the entire NBA.
That leads to the second way of looking at this, which is the way Billy Donovan and his staff look at it. As it stands, the Thunder rotation goes Russ/KD until 3 min. mark of the first quarter, Russ checks out, KD checks out at the buzzer, Russ checks in at 9 min. in the second quarter, KD checks in at the 7 minute mark and the two close out the half together. Per game, that's 32 minutes with both Russ and KD, six with just KD, and four with just Westbrook, and just six total minutes with neither Westbrook or Durant on the floor.
These are obviously estimates and can fluctuate by a minute or so each game, but it's the general pattern that suggests that it's not so much important to have one on the floor at all times, so much as it is important to have both on the floor for as long as possible.
Those 32 minutes together, the longest amount possible under the 36-38 minutes-a-night plan - compared to the 24-28 of the Lebron/Wade Heat - are significant because of just how well Westbrook and Durant play together when they share the floor.
Among two-man lineups, Westbrook and Durant rank 6th in the NBA in +/-, behind Stephen Curry/Draymond Green, Curry/Klay Thompson, Dray/Klay and Curry/Andre Iguodala and Dray/Iggy - all Warriors duos. The Thunder's net rating with both on the floor is +16.9. In offensive rating, KD and Russ rank 5th behind four Warriors duos. In net rating, they rank 9th, behind five Warriors duos and four Cavs duos. In field goal percentage, they're 4th, behind three Warriors duos. Field goals made? 2nd, behind Steph/Draymond.
You get the picture and, if you operate under the undeniable assumption that the Warriors and Steph are a cheat code, Russ and KD are as good as they come. It's also worth noting that the Warriors go stretches with both Steph and Klay on the bench. Yes, their supporting cast is worlds better, but it's still worth noting.
One up, one down
To further understand how important it is to have both Westbrook and Durant on the floor for as many minutes as possible, you also have to look at how they operate with the other off the court.
With just Westbrook on the floor and no Durant, net rating drops, but only to a still-impressive +7.5. With just Durant and no Westbrook, though, it takes a huge dip to -4.7. That's likely due to the fact that Westbrook tends to play his KD-less minutes with his offensive helper in Kanter.
Conversely, when Durant is on the floor without Westbrook, he has D.J. Augustin as his point guard. That duo has combined for a meager 2.4 net rating in their time together, and Durant's field goal percentage in his time with Augustin is an ugly 41 percent - and 27 percent from deep - compared to 54 percent - and 47 percent from deep - with Westbrook.
That's a key point in this, and while Durant clearly proved his ability in the past - specifically his MVP season - to be a playmaker, it's worth wondering if having an offensive weapon like Reggie Jackson next to him as opposed to D.J. Augustin aided in that.
The biggest barrier to the argument that the Thunder isn't totally screwed with Russ and KD on the bench must be pointed out, and that's the Thunder lineup without them - the one that gets Twitter up in arms. The furor is definitely warranted, as the rotation that has played the most often of Augustin/Kanter/Nick Collison/Anthony Morrow/Dion Waiters produces an atrocious 93.8 offensive rating and 116.1 defensive rating for a truly hideous -22.3 net rating.
With that, we reach the ultimate question that Billy Donovan, his coaching staff, and every frustrated Twitter user must ask, and one that seemingly no one on National TV NBA Twitter ever seems to acknowledge:
Would you rather ensure that ugly basketball (no Russ or KD) never happens by increasing the amount of very good but sometimes not very good basketball (either Russ or KD) while minimizing the amount of stellar basketball (Russ & KD)?
Would you rather maximize the amount of Russ & KD, even if it means for six minutes a night you may have some pretty awful basketball, knowing full well you'll still have a few minutes of one or other?
Look, there's no way to defend that bench lineup. But, as we just saw, there's no guarantee that simply adding either Westbrook or especially, Durant, just magically fixes the problems with that unit. In fact, it's entirely possible that simply restructuring Ibaka's minutes so that he could be on the floor while Durant and Westbrook rest would be just as viable of a solution.
When put that way, it's not as simple as just saying, "One of them needs to be on the floor at all times." To have one on the floor at all times means to sacrifice five to eight minutes from your team when it is at its most productive, and the Thunder is never even close to as effective as when both Durant and Westbrook are on the floor.
Five to eight minutes isn't a small amount in an NBA game. Which is why it's not a problem if Russ or KD's minutes aren't staggered. It's fine for the Thunder to go without either for small stretches, because it's more important to make sure that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook maximize the amount of minutes they spend on the floor together.