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NBA Daily: Optimizing The Thunder Around Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook’s legacy has been questioned of late, especially since the Thunder’s first-round exit. Can OKC circumvent its payroll restrictions enough to build a winner around him before it’s too late?

Drew Maresca profile picture
Updated 1 year ago on

7 min read

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Russell Westbrook’s legacy has been questioned of late, especially since the Thunder lost to Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers in dramatic fashion – but that shouldn’t necessarily fall on Westbrook’s shoulders.

In a vacuum, Westbrook looks like an all-time great. He’s one of two players to ever average a triple-double and the only one to do so more than once, and he’s accomplished it for an incredible three seasons in a row and counting.

He was the 2016-17 NBA MVP and led the league in scoring and assists twice. He also did the unthinkable when he re-signed with the team that drafted him instead of signing on with a super team or bolting to a bigger/more desirable market.

But Westbrook also possesses intangibles, including antics with local media, that negatively those around him.

Westbrook looks for his own shot more often than he looks to create for others, he hasn’t advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs without Kevin Durant by his side and his cantankerous approach to the game promotes a negative environment and a distraction from the game itself.

Love him or hate him, we can all agree that Westbrook is a great player. But like other great, high-volume shooting point guards before him, it’s more challenging building around him than it is to build around a player not tasked with initiating offensive possessions.

And as his former teammates – James Harden and Durant – square off in the Western Conference semifinals, Westbrook can only sit idly by and watch.

While Westbrook deserves his share of the blame, the Thunder’s lack of depth is to blame, too.

But if the Thunder hope to achieve what other teams led by shoot-first point guards like Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers or Derrick Rose’s Chicago Bulls – namely another conference championship appearance, at least –  they must build around him carefully and deliberately. Westbrook is an ultra-talented player who can almost certainly lead a team to the promised land, he just needs specific pieces around him.

Unfortunately, the Thunder have limited wiggle room to assemble a proper cast. They are already over the cap for 2019-20 with a projected payroll of at least $146 million. They are also projected to be over the cap in 2020-21 at $132 million – although the cap is not yet set in stone and the team could offload contracts to free up space if they must.

But with the cap projected at $109 million in 2019-20, the team will only have its Taxpayer Midlevel Exception and minimum contracts to offer, so they must be creative. Let’s examine some possibilities for the Thunder in 2019-20.

The Thunder’s two best lineups that include Westbrook also feature Paul George and Dennis Schroder at (+14.8 and +11.2 per 100 possessions, respectively), so it’s safe to assume that those three will remain in the rotation next season.

Ultimately, the Thunder need to add talent and depth to their roster. Here are three decisions this writer believes would improve the Thunder without adding significant salary.

Move Westbrook Off The Ball

Westbrook plays more like a traditional shooting guard than a point guard anyway, so maybe it’s time to embrace that. The most important point to emphasize here is that this move doesn’t require the Thunder to add players to their already bloated payroll. Schroder has been a below average three-point shooter over the course of his career, but showed promise this season with career highs in percentage (34.1 percent) and attempts (4.6 per game).

And what’s even more interesting is that Schroder is the point guard in the Thunder’s two most successful lineups from a plus-minus standpoint, neither of which includes Westbrook, reinforcing the idea that they must let Schroder initiate.

And with Westbrook off the ball, the team can deliberately run plays for him without hurting the rest of the team’s involvement. His stats may take a hit, but it is a more natural role for a player like Westbrook, who can attack with a viciousness rarely seen in professional sports. Furthermore, it should allow him to conserve energy and slightly dull down his responsibilities.

Procure A Stretch Big

Getting Westbrook off the ball should help the team’s spacing a bit, but as noted above, Schroder isn’t a knock-down three-point shooter. Steven Adams is an incredibly effective anchor, but he rarely shoots threes. If the starting lineup is rounded out by Paul George and Jerami Grant – two above average shooters – that’s something. But there is still room for improvement, especially when it comes to shooting big men.

Westbrook and George are better when they have space to operate, which would only be available with certain lineups. Adding another big man who can shoot from deep would buoy their offense by providing them with an additional shooter, and one who pulls the opposing big man out of the paint.

Brook Lopez would be a great fit, but he will fetch a number of pricey offers. If Lopez is unattainable, there are other big men to examine. Dewayne Dedmon (Atlanta Hawks) is a strong option. He shot over 38 percent from deep on 3.4 attempts per game this season and will be an unrestricted free agent having made $6.3 million in 2018-19.

Even forwards who can play the five in smaller lineups like Noah Vonleh (New York Knicks) should be considered. Vonleh shot 33.6 percent from three on two attempts per game. Vonleh, like Dedmon, is a free agent. He would at least entertain negotiating a contract with a team like the Thunder if they were to offer a multi-year contract given that he has played for four teams in five seasons.

Either way, the Thunder should make this a priority. It opens up opportunities in the pick-and-roll and spaces the floor for the Thunder’s playmakers to operate more effectively. It would be an added bonus if the big man they hypothetically sign can also defend.

Draft Smartly

This one goes without saying, but is not always followed by NBA teams. The draft is one of the few guaranteed ways the Thunder have to add talent to a team whose longevity is built around a thirty-year old guard whose skills are predicated on his athleticism. They must capitalize on this window, and the draft is a key way to continue adding talent.

They possess the 21st overall pick, which could realistically net an impact player (Terrance Ferguson was selected 21st overall in 2017). They might be tempted to pair their pick with a future asset to move up a few spots, which is a fine move if they have eyes on a specific player. Guys that could be available at 21 include Brandon Clarke from Gonzaga, Louis King from Oregon, Cameron Johnson from UNC and Keldon Johnson from Kentucky.

Additionally, the Thunder must hope for internal improvements if they want to compete for a championship next year and beyond. Fortunately, they should expect the return of Andre Roberson – their best wing defender prior rupturing his patella tendon in January 2018. Roberson will only be 27 at the start of the 2019-20 season and should have a fair amount left in his tank, although he will almost certainly be rusty having missed a season and a half. Roberson’s return will be a sight for sore eyes for Thunder players and fans alike.

There is also Hamidou Diallo and the aforementioned Ferguson – both of whom are 21 years old – who should continue to develop. Ferguson showed promise this season taking steps in both shooting, defense and his ability to take on a starting role. And while Diallo’s rookie campaign was a bit underwhelming – he was always viewed as a bit unpolished – his athleticism (44.5-inch vertical jump) certainly sets him apart. The Thunder would be best served if both Diallo and Ferguson stuck around Oklahoma City this summer to work on their games.

For Russell Westbrook’s sake, the Thunder must improve. Unfortunately, their hands are tied as far as they ways they can do so is concerned. Ultimately, they need to add talent and versatility, regardless of positions of need. Westbrook’s legacy hangs in the balance.

Now is the time for Westbrook and the Thunder to figure out the best path forward because the criticism will only getting louder with each passing year.

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Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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