By Jeremy Rucker
STANLEY PODOLAK’S FAVORITE LAUNDROMAT, Maryland, Earth — Here we are again. Another year, another deep but ultimately unsuccessful Thunder playoff run.
For the fourth year in a row, Kevin Durant and company made it to at least the conference semifinals, only to come up short of the NBA title. It’s not that that this exit comes as a shock, or that any of the previous Thunder teams were heavily favored to win an NBA championship. But what is worth noting is that this playoff exit comes at a time when the Thunder’s future is looking somewhat less optimistic than usual.
The abrupt departure of James Harden clearly shifted the immediate expectations, but Durant’s elevation to LeBron-level superstardom this year suggested that his path to Finals greatness might be more achievable than previously thought. Although the Thunder were never favorites to knock off the Miami Heat for the NBA title, in April there was a thought that some more wear and tear on the Heat’s big 3 could have primed a fully realized Durant and a seasoned Thunder team for a 2015 or 2016 NBA championship.
Fast-forward to now, where another series loss formally concludes a Thunder playoff run that suggests what many have feared: Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant will never win an NBA title together. Westbrook has always been hot and cold in the eyes of basketball enthusiasts. His athleticism is second only to LeBron James, and his knack for finishing at the rim, as well as his near-perfect midrange jumper, makes him one the league’s premier players.
On the flip side, six years of NBA exposure has done little to boost his basketball IQ or curb his tendency to act recklessly, especially in the clutch. His turnovers have actually climbed slightly from 3.3 a game his rookie year to 3.8 this season. While pinning the Thunder’s 112-107 Game 6 loss on Westbrook is definitely far-fetched – there’s plenty of blame to go around – his offensive tendencies, and more importantly, Durant’s inability to assume dominance in response, suggest an incompatibility between the two – an incompatibility that will prevent them from ever reaching the top together.
Sure, Ibaka’s injury and a complete lack of bench consistency beyond Reggie Jackson didn’t help Durant and Westbrook in battling a VERY good Spurs team. And the rest of the duo’s supporting cast was questionable all year. Thabo Sefolosha forgot how to shoot and Kendrick Perkins looked far-removed from his 2008 Celtics championship form. (He’s been so bad that a 2014 Perkins vs. 2014 Bill Russell 1v1 matchup might be a toss up at this point.) But even with some better luck in those areas, the Heat, and maybe even the Spurs, would still be able to expose OKC’s weaknesses in a 7 game series.
What if it’s just head coach Scott Brooks, as some have suggested? The duo’s playoff struggles almost mirror Jordan and Pippen’s struggles under Doug Collins in Chicago, who failed to lead the Bulls to a championship in four playoff appearances despite All-World talent. After Collins was fired, it only took Phil Jackson two years to win a title. The difference, however, is that MJ is MJ and Pippen wasn’t nearly the on-ball offensive player that Westbrook is now. Durant is great and might get even better, but a Jordan-Durant comparison isn’t happening anytime soon. In all fairness, Brooks is a great coach and he’s taken them as far as he can. At this p0int, even a coaching upgrade wouldn’t propel this team much further.
The issue here is with Westbrook and Durant. While Westbrook opted to accept an extension lower than the maximum in order to stay alongside Durant, his reduced salary didn’t equate to a reduction in his usage. This season, Westbrook had the highest usage rate in the league at 33.5, and Durant was right behind him at 31.5. But the league MVP is the last guy you want playing second fiddle on his own team. Unfortunately, Westbrook’s sensational stats make this power dynamic a tricky situation for any coach, especially during these playoffs. To be clear, Westbrook’s playoff stats were insane. His point, assist, rebound, and steal line was THE BEST IN NBA PLAYOFF HISTORY. He became the only NBA player to average at least 26 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and 1.5 steals. Ever.
But that’s the issue. Westbrook’s playoff performance this year showed that both he and KD are ready to take that next step. The only problem is, they can’t get there together. The Pippen-Jordan duo and the Shaq-Kobe duo (as tenuous as it was) were clearly Batman and Robin situations. You could make the case that Kobe’s stats were on par with Shaq’s by the 2002 title, but that Laker team, and Shaq especially, were good enough before Kobe reached that next level to rattle off a three peat. Thanks to LeBron and one of the deepest conferences in recent memory, the Thunder haven’t been good enough. And now Westbrook and Durant are too good, and this Thunder team needs to be split up.
Durant hasn’t yet indicated a desire for dramatic change and Westbrook doesn’t seemed inclined to shake things up either. They also both endorsed Brooks after their Saturday night elimination game. As far as egos go, all is right in Oklahoma City. But then again, Durant seems like the last person who would voice his displeasure on national media, and a recent trend of axing quality coaches suggests that Brooks’ job may be far from safe. Speculation has begun regarding the future of the Thunder’s coaching job, and fans have been questioning Brooks’ ability to feature Durant properly for years.
This season marked a turning point for both of OKC’s stars. Durant reached MVP status and Westbrook exceeded everybody’s expectations in his return from knee surgery. What this postseason indicated, however, is that the Westbrook-Durant tandem is at a crossroads. Durant’s play has made clear that he needs to be the focal point of their offense, especially in the playoffs, but his demeanor has often resulted in him quietly standing and watching Westbrook run the show in late game situations. Although Westbrook is about to fully grow into his ridiculously athletic prime, his improvement is inseparable from his usage rate, and KD’s scoring ability this season suggests that he needs the ball in his hands more than maybe anybody else in the league.
Durant’s time is now and Westbrook’s game has outgrown his place alongside Durant in the Thunder’s offense. Another season together would only limit their respective growth. Change is coming in Oklahoma City.