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Russell Westbrook and Billy Donovan’s Sink or Swim Season

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Is 2018 a do-or-die year for Westbrook and Donovan?

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last handful of seasons, there has always been a valid reason the Thunder didn’t meet expectations. For example, we will never know how good the 2014-15 squad could have been. It was an injury riddled season for the Thunder that ended in Scott Brooks being ousted.

Billy Donovan’s first season as head coach in Oklahoma City went well, but could have had a storybook ending if the Thunder hadn’t lost a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference Finals. Kevin Durant would then leave OKC for the 2016-17 season and the Thunder were bounced in first round by the Rockets. Then the Melo experiment didn’t turn out how anyone had hoped it would, and Andre Roberson suffered a season ending injury halfway through the season.

The 2018-19 season will be different. The Thunder countered Durant’s departure by acquiring Paul George. Now the Thunder have “their guys.” There is no more Melo distraction. Once Roberson returns to the floor, everyone will be healthy. If the Thunder can stay healthy throughout the season, this is a sink or swim season for Billy Donovan and Russell Westbrook in different ways.

The Thunder have two All-NBA players in Westbrook and George, and they will have one of the best defenses in the league once Roberson hits the floor. Oklahoma City has high expectations, and deservedly so. That doesn’t mean they won’t have a gauntlet playoff road to run through. The Western Conference is deeper than ever this year. Here’s how Billy Donovan can save his job and Russell Westbrook can end the debate about him being a good teammate or not.

Ball movement

It’s common sense that the more an offense moves the ball, the more opportunities there are for a defense to make a mistake. Billy Donovan said as much in a press conference just a handful of games into his Thunder coaching career. But Donovan needs to put his foot down an implement a motion offense that his guys are willing to run. As talented as each player is individually, there has to be ball movement and screens set. This starts and ends with Russell Westbrook because he constantly has the ball in his hands. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Conner wrote about this back at the start of last season when the Thunder were struggling.

Donovan draws up a fairly creative play here. The handoff to Westbrook leads to multiple switches, as Melo pops and Steven Adams rolls. Carmelo has a mismatch on tiny Yogi Ferrell that he can exploit, or they can swing the ball to the corner to an open Felton. Instead, Westbrook pulls up for a contested midrange jumper. Yuck.

I put this quote here to show that Donovan tries to run sets from time to time, but none of that matters if Westbrook ends up taking a contested midrange jumper. While Westbrook is still going to do plenty of this in the future, Donovan needs to do his best to get Westbrook to cut back on doing it and let the offensive sets fully develop to have a better chance at an open shot.

The other side to this comes when Westbrook doesn’t have the ball in his hands. This goes for the whole team and not just Westbrook, but he needs to move without the ball. Russell Westbrook sets far fewer ball screens than his teammates. A big part of this is because he’s usually the one with the ball in his hands when he’s on the court, but his numbers are abysmal. According to an article from Zach Lowe from ESPN, Westbrook only set 24 ball screens in 86 games last year. How hard is it to set one a game? By standing in one spot while teammates have the ball, Russ makes himself one dimensional and decreases his chances of getting the ball and an open shot on that possession.


For an offense to be successful, there has to be trust between all five guys on the floor. While Westbrook and George are stars and Adams and Robes are valid role players, there are still holes. That makes ball movement all the more important. Ball movement will help get his teammates open midrange looks, but it also make the offense more unpredictable. It should help draw a just enough attention away from Westbrook and Paul George tomake their jobs easier.

Westbrook is a superstar, one of the best players to ever play the game, which means he isn’t going to stop taking pull up jumpers. It’s about being more efficient and getting more open looks. If he just cuts back on a few of those no pass possessions where he dribbles up and shoots immediately, and instead moves without the ball throughout the game, it would give the Thunder offense a dimension it hasn’t seen in a long time.

There’s no telling what could happen in Oklahoma City if the Thunder endure another season like last year. It’s time for OKC to take the next step as a team, and trusting one another on the offensive end is a big part of that.


Is this a make or break year for Donovan & Westbrook?

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