The Oklahoma City Thunder are now Russell Westbrook’s team. The meteoric missile of an athlete who has risen from unheralded recruit to back-to-back All-Star game MVP now can add 'franchise player' to his resume.
After Kevin Durant choose to skip out of town to the Bay Area, many Oklahoma City fans feared the worse. Westbrook — who acts curtly with the media to be nice — had maintained a silence on Durant’s move and rumors popped up that he too would ultimately leave the Thunder.
Potential trades were discussed, but in the end Westbrook decided to remain with the Thunder by signing a two-year contract extension with a player option in 2018. Sam Presti and the Thunder franchise were able to avoid going into a full rebuild and can now plan for a future that includes a top five player in the NBA.
The key going forward will be finding the right players to surround Westbrook with in order to get the most out of the superstar point guard. Even though Russ has become one of the top players in the game getting the right pieces will be harder than it seems.
Russ likes to have the ball in his hands, as do most star players, and he is always moving and attacking at 1,000 miles per hour. He isn’t a knockdown shooter, but has one of the best all-around games from 17 feet and in. His ability to get into the paint allows him to breakdown defenses and get the ball to players for open and easy shots.
As the roster stands, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Andre Roberson are the best fits next to Westbrook. Adams and Roberson offer elite defensive presences that can be the core of a top tier defensive team. With Roberson on the roster, Westbrook will not have to guard the opposing team’s best perimeter player night-in and night-out. Adams' ability as a paint protector helps to mitigate Westbrook’s tendency to gamble for steals and lack of defensive awareness off the ball. Meanwhile, Kanter and Russ have developed offensive chemistry and their pick-and-rolls almost assure a basket for the Thunder.
However, I will not be playing Sam Presti in this article (because I’m not a basketball genius). For this piece I wanted to breakdown the potential best and worst case scenarios for OKC after handing the keys over to Russ.
There are many case studies to choose from in regards to teams that are led by one superstar. However, two examples truly stood out above the rest when I began to think about what a team with Westbrook as it’s franchise player would look like. Both players are certified Hall of Famers and have given props to Westbrook’s style of play in the past.
WORST CASE: 1985–86 CHICAGO BULLS
In just his second season in the NBA, Michael Jordan showed the world that he was already one of the best players in the league. Following a rookie season where he averaged 28.2 PPG 6.5 RPG and 5.9 APG, Jordan saw all those numbers dip as he dealt with a nagging foot injury that caused him to miss 64 games. The Bulls would finish eighth overall in the East at 30–52 (9–9 in games Jordan played) and had an impending matchup with the super team Boston Celtics to open the playoffs.
Jordan, a noted fierce competitor, would return to the court in mid-March and was back to his dominant ways by the start of the postseason. He opened with a 49-point performance in the series opener. MJ topped that the very next game as he had 63 points, six assists and five rebounds in Game 2, which prompted Larry Bird to call him God.
The Bulls would end up getting swept in three games, only coming within double-digits in one game (three guesses which game that was). For all of Michael’s greatness, the team around him was a poor fit. Orlando Woolridge was the team’s second best player and his inability to score from the perimeter often cramped the lane for Jordan. Woolridge’s game most closely resembles a James Posey type, which is great when he’s your fourth or fifth best player, but not as the second option.
Chicago was a team that relied on offensive production. They finished the season eighth in Offensive Rating (108.6), but were an abysmal 23rd — out of 23 teams — in Defensive Rating (112.4). The Bulls also were under-utilizing future top notch role players like Charles Oakley and John Paxson while relying heavily on an aged George Gervin.
Those last two sentences scream Scott Brooks!, but with Billy Donovan running the show I don’t think players like Domantas Sabonis and Alex Abrines will be buried on the bench if they show they can contribute. Yet, I can easily see the Thunder slipping to the eighth seed this year and having to go toe-to-toe with the super team du jour, Golden State Warriors, in a first round series.
Westbrook could surely have a performance on par with Jordan’s 63 at the Garden in the 1986 Playoffs, but will their be enough help for the Thunder to ultimately get a win? At the moment the Thunder’s second option is Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has shown glimpses and flashes of potential stardom in his three-year tenure with the Orlando Magic, but will he ever be able to be a second option on a title contender?
Earlier this offseason Jordan had the following to say about Westbrook:
"Thirty years ago, that’s me," Jordan said. "The attitude, trying to prove myself. Showing so much passion for the game of basketball. You see it in his play. You can tell he loves the game. He plays with energy and flair."
Throughout the mid 1980’s the Bulls were mostly the Jordan show. That alone was good enough to keep them in the playoffs year-after-year, but they were never able to get over the hump until the right coach and right players were brought in as well. As OKC adjusts to being Westbrook’s team there’s a chance that the Thunder experience some early playoff exits.
BEST CASE: 2000–2001 PHILADELPHIA 76ERS
Despite obvious differences in size, Allen Iverson and Russell Westbrook are cut from the same cloth. Both players possess a devil-may-care style of play and were just as flashy and rebellious with their off the court style as they were on it.
Iverson didn’t have the benefit of being teamed up with another top tier player for the first part of his career, and he was labeled as a selfish, me-first type of player that could never be the best player on a championship team. That all changed during the 2000–2001 season though. In 71 games and playing 42 minutes a night, Iverson averaged 31.1 PPG, 4.6 APG, 3.8 RPG and 2.5 SPG. He was everything for the Sixers that year and it was recognized as he took home the MVP award that season.
What made this Philadelphia team work was that it was very strong defensively. The Sixers had five players with Defensive Win Shares between 3.5 and 4.5 (Theo Ratliff 3.5, Tyrone Hill 3.5, Aaron McKie 3.5, George Lynch 4.2 and Iverson 4.5). For comparison, these are the Defensive Win Shares numbers for the 2015–16 NBA All Defensive First Team members, Kawhi Leonard 5.5 DeAndre Jordan 5.5, Draymond Green 5.1, Avery Bradley 2.8, and Chris Paul 3.5. The Sixers would finish the season with the fifth highest Defensive Rating (98.9) in the league that year.
With a strong defense and a great assemblage of role players, Philadelphia was able to ride a great season from AI to a 56–26 record and the number one seed in the Eastern Conference. After an easy opening round series against the Indiana Pacers, Philly was tested in back-to-back series against the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks, both of which they would win in seven games.
In the 2001 NBA Finals, they squared off with the then undefeated in postseason play Los Angeles Lakers super team. With Shaq and Kobe coming off a championship a year earlier, it looked like they would simply waltz to a repeat.
Iverson had different ideas. He and the 76ers went into Staples Center and in a shocking Game 1 stole victory away in overtime. Behind The Answer's 48 points, six assists, five rebounds and five steals, Philly took the game 107–101. In the end, the Lakers had too much star power and would beat Philadelphia in five games. However, Philly put up a fight in every game except Game 4, where the Lakers won by 14.
The Thunder lost two of their best defensive players this offseason in Durant and Serge Ibaka. Westbrook led the team in Defensive Win Shares (4.0) last season, but with Ibaka and KD gone the rest of the top five is now Steven Adams (2.3), Victor Oladipo (2.2), Enes "How You Like Me Now, Analytics Buffs!" Kanter (2.1) and Andre Roberson (1.6).
Adams, Oladipo, Kanter, and Roberson are young enough to where we can expect defensive improvements from them as they approach their primes. If Billy Donovan and the coaching staff can drill in the importance of them being a great defensive team, the pieces are there for them to follow Larry Brown’s blueprint for the 76ers.
If the Thunder are amongst the top seven in Defensive Rating, it isn’t out of the question for them to win between 50 and 55 games this upcoming season. They finished 13th last year on their way to 55 wins, but having the second best Offensive Rating helped them win some high-scoring contests last season. On the other side of the coin, OKC lost a league-leading 14 games during the regular season after leading through 3 quarters, with their defense often playing a huge part in the frequent late game collapses.
OKC will definitely ride the coat tails of Russ in 2015–16, and though I don’t think he’ll match Iverson’s 42 MPG totals he will most likely have the highest minutes per game average on the team. When KD missed most of the 2014–15 season with his Jones Fracture and subsequent surgeries, Westbrook’s numbers most closely resembled Iverson’s from 2000–01 according to Basketball Reference.
Iverson offered this commentary on Westbrook during 76ers game in March 2015:
"The fight," Iverson said. "The fight in the guy. I’m the biggest Westbrook fan, I think, there is. You know what I mean? Because he reminds me so much of myself as far as his heart and laying it on the line night in and night out. Just a guy that’s going to bring it every single night."
Adi Joseph of Sporting News captured it even better in his May 2015 piece:
The beauty is in the ugliness. It easily could be argued Iverson and Westbrook hurt their teams with their selfishness. Iverson shot 42.5 percent from the field for his career, Westbrook 43.2 percent. Each averaged 3.6 turnovers a game. They gambled on defense and offense, always putting all their chips on their own numbers.
Iverson played his first 10 seasons with the Sixers before being traded to the Detroit Pistons after playing 15 games in Philly during the 2006–07 season. After signing the extension Russ has the opportunity to play his first 10 seasons with the Thunder and with Presti being an aggressive general manager he could ultimately leave town via trade as well as he approaches the end of his new contract. In the end, by putting his signature on a piece of paper he has assured himself the same type of love and support from Thunder fans that Iverson has received from the city of Philadelphia.
So which will OKC be next year? The '86 Bulls or the '01 76ers?