On January 22, the NBA announced the starters for the 65th annual All-Star game in Toronto, as selected by fan voting. Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, playing in his final season, and Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP and burgeoning face of the league, made the biggest noise throughout the selection process but neither was joined in the starting lineup by a teammate. That distinction went only to the dynamic duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Neither selection should come as a surprise. Both players are immensely popular nationwide despite being in a relatively small media market, combining highlight-reel playmaking ability with the charisma and bravado of movie stars. Curry is in a conversation by himself for MVP at the midway point of the season, but Durant and Westbrook are certainly worthy of their starting nods and are waiting at the door should anything happen to derail Steph’s magical three-point stroke.
Coming back from a devastating foot injury that kept him out for most of the 2014-15 season, Durant is averaging 26.5 PPG, good for third-best in league, as well as 7.7 RPG and 4.5 APG. Despite struggling to find his legs at the start of the year and a recent slump, he is quietly putting up a fantastic line and shooting as well as anybody in the league not named Steph, with percentages of .507/.390/.889 (shooting/three-point/free-throw).
Westbrook, meanwhile, has managed to maintain the “Alpha Dog” status he achieved last year in Durant’s absence, emerging as the clear leader of the team and scoring 23.9 PPG with a point guard-leading 7.1 RPG and a career-high 9.8 APG. He has recorded five triple-doubles and continues to terrorize opponents with his relentless style of play and gravity-defying athleticism, while also continuing to grow as a distributor. Once criticized as being more concerned with scoring than setting up teammates, Westbrook has finally reached a happy balance: he ranks seventh in the league in scoring and second in assists.
The two together make up what is inarguably the most talented pairing in the league…so why do the Thunder continue to play at a level below that of the league’s true elite?
Let me be clear, the Thunder have been very successful to this point in the season. At 33-12, they rank third in the Western Conference and would probably be the favorite to advance to the Finals if they played in the East. But compared to the Warriors (40-4) and San Antonio Spurs (38-6), the Thunder look closer to a middle of the pack playoff team than a legit contender.
Some of that disparity comes from the greater depth of the former two teams. It’s an old cliché that it takes an entire team to win, but it’s a truth that comes to bear time and again. Both the Warriors and Spurs are amongst the deepest teams ever, playing regular rotations of 11 or 12 men and bringing players off the bench that could probably start for the majority of teams in the league. It’s simply a fact that the Thunder don’t have that kind of depth.
Still, it would be fallacious to suggest that there is no talent surrounding Durant and Westbrook. Serge Ibaka, though he never developed into the pick-and-roll beast he was expected to, is still one of the top rim protectors in the league, as well as a capable shot-maker from midrange. Steven Adams does everything that fails to show up in the stat sheet, effectively boxing out, rotating on defense and passing from the interior while slowly improving his offensive game.
Off the bench, Dion Waiters can make a shot from just about anywhere on the floor when he’s hot (and can shoot the team out of the game when he’s not), Anthony Morrow continues to be one of the game’s premier snipers, and Enes Kanter, a one-dimensional talent who lost favor with the Utah Jazz, has found an effective role as perhaps the best post scorer in the league. In short, this isn’t LeBron James dragging a collection of scrubs to the Finals in 2007 or Michael Jordan single-handedly battling the great teams of the ‘80s. The Thunder have everything in theory that they need to tackle Golden State and San Antonio.
The main problem, and it’s a hard one to admit, is that the styles of Durant and Westbrook simply do not mix. This has been evident for the eight years the two have played together, as KD works best shooting off the dribble and Westbrook needs to dominate the ball to succeed. When Scott Brooks coached the team, the offense looked like a jumbled, horribly-spaced mess, with the two superstars often just trading off possessions and standing in the corner while the other went to work. It was a criminal misuse of talent and a terribly easy strategy for an elite defensive team to defend, the primary reason why Brooks was fired despite never failing to win 45 games with the team.
Brooks’ replacement, Billy Donovan, has done a slightly better job in getting both of his stars consistently involved, mainly by using the pair more frequently in high pick-and-rolls, but in doing so he is not utilizing the best abilities of his players. In truth, it is probably impossible to do so. Durant’s and Westbrook’s best seasons came when the other was out with an injury and each was allowed full jurisdiction over running the offense. The two can be friendly and show each other as much solidarity as they want, but they and anyone looking at the situation honestly knows they play best without one another.
It’s a difficult truth to swallow but one that the team’s brass will have to consider in the upcoming years as Durant and Westbrook reach free agency. Fans will likely clamor to re-sign both but even if the Thunder can afford it, the smarter move may indeed be to let one go.