Posted January 10, 2014

Blame for the Thunder’s Westbrook-less struggles shouldn’t fall on Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder, Rob Mahoney, Russell Westbrook
Kevin Durant has often had to work against multiple defenders in Russell Westbrook's absence. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

With Russell Westbrook out, teams are focusing on Kevin Durant even more. (Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

After seeing his Thunder swept aside in a 101-88 loss to the Nuggets on Thursday night, Kevin Durant was insistent that the blame for Oklahoma City’s failings lie with him. Never mind his 30 points on 18 shots, nor the fact that his teammates combined to shoot 34 percent from the field, thanks to myriad blown finishes and forced jumpers. No matter the facts, in Durant’s eyes, this one was on him. From Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman:

“I’m not doing enough to help [my teammates],” he insists. “I’m shooting too much. I’m shooting too many 3s. I’m not helping them out at all. So it’s not on them.”

That, as anyone watching Thursday’s night cap well knows, is poppycock. Durant gets a gold star for positioning himself directly between the critical media and his underperforming teammates, though alleging this loss as a personal failure is a bit disingenuous. Could Durant have attempted fewer threes, of which he took seven and made just one? Probably, though of his six misses only two were all that questionable.

The larger problem remains Oklahoma City’s disarray in the absence of Russell Westbrook, which is less an assignment of blame and more a statement of fact. No one should much expect the Thunder to be the Thunder without one its foremost stars. Nothing is quite as it should be in his absence; Durant — contributing all possible with 34.4 points (on 48.6 percent shooting), 8.4 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game — is overstretched; Serge Ibaka is out of sorts; Reggie Jackson isn’t allowed the same margin for error; the presence of non-scorers like Kendrick Perkins is more painful than ever; Derek Fisher is using more meaningful possessions to the team’s detriment. To remove Westbrook from the rotation upsets a very delicate balance, which has thus far translated into an expected offensive dip. The finger points only to circumstance itself.

Bigger problems, though, have cropped up elsewhere. Easy though it may be to point to some of the Thunder’s more awkward scoring attempts as the reason behind the team’s four losses in its last six games, their output (per 100 possessions) since Westbrook’s injury has come just a point shy of their season standard. Nothing flows as smoothly without Westbrook’s gravitational drives, but OKC has largely trudged through the lags and hiccups in its execution to score at a manageable level all considered. The more concerning issues strike 47 feet downcourt, where a formidable Thunder defense has sequentially gone easy on the Celtics, imploded against the Jazz, and surrendered 89 points through three quarters against the Nuggets. That is not the work of a top defensive team, and yet the Thunder are left to reconcile their top-three standing in points allowed per possession with their scrambled state in coverage.

Oklahoma City has never been a by-the-book defensive outfit, and has instead drawn on length and athleticism to apply pressure at a few key positions. Point guard is among them; though Westbrook’s ludomanic defense has likely given Thunder coach Scott Brooks patches of gray, there’s value to the way his heightened energy puts opponents on edge. That void alone, though, doesn’t in any way translate to the easy scores OKC has surrendered of late. Jackson might not be quite as aggressive in his dealings with opposing ball handlers, but it’s through a larger carelessness that the Thunder have faltered.

This isn’t quite established as a general rule, as one noteworthy defensive performance against the Rockets on Dec. 29 (a 117-86 rout) stands as testament to what this particular Thunder team can still accomplish. Omit that standout performance, though, and Oklahoma City has essentially allowed its opponents to meet their season averages in points per possession in all seven other Westbrook-less games. For a team of the Thunder’s defensive standing (third on the season in defensive rating) playing through a relatively soft string of opponents, that’s a worrisome deficiency. On far too many occasions was OKC’s structured defense broken down by dribble penetration and a single pass — a mark of half-hearted commitment to the full responsibilities of team defense.

Such errors are part of the reason why the Thunder lost to the worst team in the NBA just a few days prior. They also partially explain how a winnable game went up in smoke on Thursday. They are not the defining reason for Oklahoma City’s rash of losses, but they shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of pointing out the Thunder role players’ predictable shortcomings, nor in Durant’s selfless acceptance of blame.

13 comments
friendly--neighborhood--scrawler
friendly--neighborhood--scrawler

Durant is jump shooter nothing more... he may have games with double digit rebounds or a few more assist than normal, but a lepoard can't change his spots... you can't win when the player with the ball all the time does not make the other players around him better.... Steve Nash did back in the days, but could not play a lick of defense, yet they gave him 2 MVP's... giving up as much as you score says to me....  you are average....

Your best player needs to be one of your best defender and Durant does not provide that flexiblity for the thunders...  if anything they hide Durant on defense at times... people can blame the coach all they want... it always comes down to the players

Mark4
Mark4

The thunder's true weakness is being exposed, just like last year in the playoffs.


They have no system.  Everything is a isolation, and that worked OK when you had Durant and Westbrook and Harden.  Now, there's just Durant and their lesser players, and they're struggling.

BruderJakob
BruderJakob

So what is OKCs problem defensively. You posted the video, and said Westbrook's missing energy explains part of the problem. What are the other parts? To me it seems Jackson is not as good at leading the ball handler into the help side because you have a lot of Denver scores where the helpside is late, or the second helpside is non-existent. Since the players are normally capable of doing that, something appears off. This, of course, is a nuance and Jackson is just a second-year pro. I would have liked a little more detail on that.

slimlemon
slimlemon

Ludomanic? What the heck is that?

J.Rob
J.Rob

The thunder defense has always surrendered points but it goes unnoticed because usually they are close or in the lead. The blame should go to Presti & Scott Brooks. Though, Scott Brooks was able to assemble a playing style for the formidable & dominant selection Presti created. It does not go unnoticed that this is the same starting line up from 2012 Finals against the Heat. The bench was not as powerful as it is now lead by 6th man Reggie Jackson & Jeremy Lamb. The starting line up depends on 3 primary scorers Durant-Westbrook & 15pts with Defense by Ibaka. Now it is time for a spot up (more effecient) young SG instead of Seflosha & a veteran C instead of Perkins. If Westbrook came in and Durant sat out it would be the same way. Like Boozer-Noah Gasol-Bynum Duncan-Splitter. They need a fourth scorer down low with Ibaka. They get way too many open shots, single digits or no points, & unnecessary fouls at the wrong time (especially Perkins). If they want a change & a championship. Before Westbrook comes back turn them into a playoff contender without him. Make it so Durant wont worry when he tries to rest. Go for Andrew Bynum (Ibaka-Bynum), Get rid of Sef, Perk, and Thabeet (for the 30 mil cap room it brings). Also try to get a young SG like J.R Smith, Iman Shunpert, or Wesley Johnson who actually can fit & be used & paid right.

DanielSmith2
DanielSmith2

@friendly--neighborhood--scrawler Nope, wrong. Durant can shoot jumpers well, but he can really do it all on offense. The sole reason we aren't calling him the best all-around player in the game right now is LeBron...his average is 8 rebounds and 5 assists from the small forward spot. Can you explain how you can take those numbers and act like there's something wrong with them? 


Durant is not the best defender, this is true. But he's not horrible, and averaging a bit under a block per game from the SF position is, again, nothing to sneeze at. The Thunder's defense works off of funneling offensive players inside to Ibaka and Perkins, and Durant does his job by running at open jump shooters and deterring them with his length. 


I really don't know what you're watching. I'm a Warriors fan, not a Thunder fan, and to my eyes there really is zero doubt that Durant is the 2nd best player in the league. 

JohnMarshall1
JohnMarshall1

@friendly--neighborhood--scrawler 


Boy I hate when people diminish what Steve Nash did in Phoenix. He deserved the MVPs he got and it's not even a discussion. Nevermind the fact that Cleveland LeBron was a bona fide choker and had phantom elbow injuries; the Suns were the best team in the league with him, and a lottery team without him. The only reason we didn't win a championship? Injuries and cheap shot Spurs and David Sterns stupendously ridiculous suspensions. We always lost players at the wrong time and could have won 2 championships had things been different. Now we have Steph Curry, but Nash was by far the best shooter in the league in his day. Nobody even came close. And Curry will never have the same command of an offense as Nash did even if his three is more dynamic in its execution.


No, Nash couldn't really play defense. But he was competent in funneling players to the right position. He couldn't stay in front of a sign post, but as bad as he was on defense he was the best offensive player in the league for a long, long time. He couldn't destroy people like Shaq, cross people like Iverson, or rise over people like Kobe, but Nash was a better offensive player than all of them. And as great of an offensive mind D'antoni was (really he just let Nash be Nash and preached running), he ruined that team by not even practicing defense. Marion though was enough on that end (along with Raja Bell) to make us competent defensively and make us the best team in the league, which we were for at least 2 seasons. If it weren't for luck (and Stern's idiocy) we would have beat Lebron and D-Wade in the finals. 

DanielSmith2
DanielSmith2

@Mark4 I do agree their weakness has been exposed, though...when one of their top 2 players get hurt, it's much harder to win. 

Hm, what do you know, that's a weakness for every NBA team ever in the history of the game. Go figure. 

DanielSmith2
DanielSmith2

@Mark4 ...um, they weren't struggling whatsoever this year with Westbrook. Were you out of the country or something during that time? They had the 2nd best record in the league and one of the top point differentials. Explain to me how that's struggling? 

BruderJakob
BruderJakob

@Malik4 I don't really see why LAL would do that, what is D'Antoni supposed to do with Perk? OKC would have to throw in Steven Adams ...