Oklahoma City Crossroads: How the Thunder Can Improve Without Russell Westbrook

I’m normally not a big “gut feeling” guy, but I randomly mentioned to the Grantland bosses last week in L.A. that the Thunder just “felt due” for some unexpected move. They didn’t have enough financial flexibility to add even one meaningful NBA player in free agency, perhaps leaving them (and their rivals) to wonder whom they might have lured had the league kept Kevin Durant’s max salary at its original level. They’ve watched the Western Conference get stronger around them. The Spurs are the Spurs, the Grizzlies tweaked around the edges (including signing Mike Miller, one of several wing shooters the Thunder could have used), the Clippers reinvented themselves, the Warriors are good and young, and the Rockets annual candy budget is probably near the $185,000 or so Andre Roberson lost when the Thunder hardballed him.

But this wasn’t, and still isn’t, a sob story. The Thunder are contenders, even with Kevin Martin gone and no veteran in his place. And that’s sort of the point: The window is still open, even with the rocky offseason, only there are more Western Conference teams strong enough to shove it closed. A team in that position — a contender, but a wounded one with hunters stalking it — cannot afford to stand still, or to wait for next July.

That portrait gets more interesting now that Russell Westbrook will miss something like 20 games after doctors discovered complications from an earlier surgery to repair his torn meniscus. The obvious way to jolt a franchise is via trade, but the Thunder’s salary structure makes a game-changing deal difficult. Kendrick Perkins is the only highly paid player the Thunder might be willing to move unless they find a blockbuster involving Serge Ibaka, and the rest of the trade chips earn so little money as to make salary-matching a challenge in a big-time deal. There are interesting trade options at lower prices, and the Thunder could sign a minimum-salaried ball handler — Roddy Beaubois, Daniel Gibson, Chris Duhon, et al. — without going into the luxury tax, provided they waive one of the Hasheem Thabeet/Daniel Orton/Ryan Gomes trio. The Thunder have some interesting young pieces, a few appealing international guys, and a Mavs pick that could become unprotected in 2018. You could make a deal for a semi-unwanted mid-priced wing — Lou Williams? John Salmons? Courtney Lee? Evan Turner? — with that kind of treasure chest. (The Thunder have two significant trade exceptions, including a $6.5 million bad boy leftover from the Kevin Martin sign-and-trade, but using either would take them over the tax line.)

The other path is internal innovation, and it’s one the Thunder should have been on already, regardless of Westbrook’s health. Scott Brooks and his staff have turned this team into a defensive menace — a top-five outfit that smartly leverages its athleticism and length by walling off the paint, almost zone-style, confident it can find dangerous outside shooters without surrendering wide-open looks. That defense held steady in the postseason after some early hiccups against Houston.

The Thunder flamed out against Memphis because they couldn’t score against a top defense with just one opponent to scout. They won’t face that situation over this season’s first 20 games, a stretch that opens with six consecutive games against lottery teams, just three back-to-backs before mid-December, and a homeward bent until early December — when Westbrook might be back if things proceed on the faster side of the team’s announced timetable. They have the world’s second-best player, a very strong defense, some intriguing young pieces, and decent depth. They’ll be fine, provided Westbrook’s meniscus has really healed as well as Sam Presti, the team’s GM, claimed on Tuesday. Losing Westbrook might cost them two wins, maybe three on the high end, and that alone could be the difference between the no. 2 and no. 4 seeds in the loaded West. Westbrook will miss two games apiece against the Clippers and Warriors, giving each of those teams an early chance to seize the head-to-head edge. If injuries are relatively equally distributed among all teams, there would appear to be a significant gap between the no. 6 and no. 7 seeds in the conference, meaning snagging the no. 2 spot carries a bigger premium than usual in the first round.

But again, Oklahoma City will win a bunch of games without Westbrook, and at least a couple of the conference’s elite will suffer their own serious injuries at some point. The process is what matters now, and Westbrook’s injury will provide an interesting window into that process. The Thunder have less margin for error and waste, with both James Harden and Martin gone. They’ll have a dynamite regular-season offense again, but they won’t be able to get through four brutal playoff rounds — the end goal here, still — if their offense is as predictable as it has always been under Brooks, and if he maintains some of his stubborn rotation choices.

Westbrook’s injuries exposed Oklahoma City’s offense for what it has always been in this era: a stagnant collection of four or five set pieces with nothing behind them — no counters, no constant motion, few bits of exciting improvisation. Any halfway smart team could sniff out what was coming by the time the ball crossed midcourt. And if those set pieces failed, the Thunder would fall back on something even simpler — a one-on-one play for Durant or Westbrook, or perhaps a semi-improvised pick-and-roll, as the other players stood around.

The offense depended upon the individual brilliance of its two stars, and it worked well enough when both were there. Remove one, and it crumbled. Nobody guards Perkins or Thabo Sefolosha to begin with; toss in a third player, Reggie Jackson, unworthy of constant and urgent attention, and whatever spacing might have existed before disappeared. Bodies just swallowed Durant, leaving everyone else open, sticking arms in passing lanes, and daring Durant to test perhaps his least-refined skill — improv passing on the move, in crowded situations:

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The Thunder scored just 94.3 points per 100 possessions in their five-game loss to Memphis — far worse than Washington’s league-worst mark for the season, per NBA.com. Their projected starting lineup didn’t even sniff that mark. Opponents outscored that five-man group by an unthinkable 55 points in just 107 postseason minutes. Durant played just 209 minutes all season in 2012-13 with both Westbrook and Martin on the bench, per the new stats site NBA Wowy. The Thunder in those 209 minutes also scored at a league-worst rate. The pet two-man plays between Durant and Westbrook — a killer pick-and-roll, or Westbrook setting a pindown screen for Durant to pop out from behind — haven’t worked with Jackson in Westbrook’s place, because defenses in those situations just temporarily double Durant until they can recover from the picks.

It’s easy to say that was last year, and this is this year. Westbrook will be back before Christmas. Jeremy Lamb is ready for real minutes, and should eventually turn into a useful shooter. Jackson had cracked 20 minutes in a game just 13 times in the regular season before doing so in all but one of Oklahoma City’s playoff games, and suddenly found himself a primary scoring option under enormous pressure. He didn’t always respond well, particularly down the stretch of two series-turning games against Memphis, but he shot a whopping 55 percent out of the pick-and-roll for the season — one of the very best marks in the league, per Synergy Sports. He was turnover-prone on those plays, as the Thunder are in general, and he has a long way to go as a distributor and reliable spot-up guy. But he’s explosive and crafty in the lane, and he has had months now to prepare for a larger role this season.

Those are all reasons for blind optimism. But that’s the wrong reaction here, and it was wrong before Westbrook’s injury. This team cannot go into the playoffs with the same style of play, and same rotation choices, and expect to win four rounds. It needs to craft something like a continuous offensive system, rather than a handful of scripted plays, and that falls mostly on Brooks and the coaching staff. A simple offense was healthy for these guys when they were young, inexperienced, and learning on the fly. And it worked damn well in the macro picture. That’s how good Durant and Westbrook are. But in the micro picture of the postseason, when there is very little room for inefficiency, the Thunder needed to be better.

Part of that is understanding more quickly which lineups are working and which are not. That’s not a blind anti-Perkins thing, necessarily. The Thunder killed Houston with size when Perkins and Ibaka shared the floor last season, and their starting lineup with Westbrook — once a “blah” group — emerged last season as one of the very best lineups in the league. But Brooks was too hesitant at times to use Durant as a power forward in smaller lineups, which generally fared well even after Westbrook’s injury, per NBA.com. Nick Collison isn’t a savior, but he provides the combination of canny screening, passing, and jump-shooting that might help the offense flow better.

Crafting a broader offensive system is tedious, hard work. And it’s not like the Thunder have been totally static. Brooks has installed new, smart sets over the last two seasons, revamped the team’s defense, and gotten more players in motion on a few sets. The Thunder aren’t going to transform into the Spurs or the 2011 Mavs in one season, or maybe not even in two or three. But they have to start that process. Brooks is entering the second year of a big-money, four-year deal, and the budget-conscious Thunder would obviously prefer Brooks finish out that contract so they don’t have to pay two coaches at once. Brooks isn’t on the hot seat. He’s not even on a tepid seat. But he has to prove he’s the right coach to take this team over the top.

It’s not on Brooks alone. It’s also on the players, and on the team’s player development staff. Westbrook’s injury is an opportunity. Ibaka has to get better, and not necessarily in large, sweeping ways. He doesn’t have to become a high-volume 3-point shooter or some post-up beast who sucks in double-teams. Those processes are long and considerable. The simpler, smaller stuff matters more. Can he set more solid screens for Durant on the pick-and-roll, and set them in more unpredictable, sophisticated ways — changing the direction of the pick at the last second, for instance? And when he does run the pick-and-roll, slips open into space, and catches the ball at the foul line, can he spot cutters and shooters open around the floor with quick-hitting passes? Ibaka is a finisher first, but a guy who touches the ball this often in space should record more than 43 assists over a full season.

The other perimeter players — Jackson, Sefolosha, Lamb, et al. — can help by cutting actively off the ball, especially along the baseline. Durant has a knack for finding baseline cutters as he isolates or posts up at the elbow. The “other guys” need to get better at making improv reads that take advantage of all the attention Durant draws — reads like the one Ibaka is making here, as he prepares to set a back screen that will free Jackson for a wide-open corner 3:

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Durant has made huge strides as both a ball handler and passer. He can read layers of help defense, often skipping over the guy who is open at this very second, because he understands another teammate is about to come open behind the play. His teammates need to present him more fluid options. It’s a teamwide challenge, and Westbrook’s injury forces everyone to get right to it with an urgency that may pay off in May and June.

Chase Budinger Is Out Indefinitely

The freaking meniscus, man. Did we non-doctor NBA people even know the term “meniscus” before Brandon Roy? Now it seems we can’t go one day without thinking about this little piece of cartilage cushioning in the knee. Westbrook’s has fully healed after doctors stitched it together, but surgeons this week had to remove a chunk of Budinger’s left meniscus after surgery to mend the damage last season apparently didn’t work. Simply removing the damaged chunk carries a quicker recovery process, several experts have told me, but removing too much brings the risk of going down the Roy track — removing so much cushioning that bone-on-bone stuff starts to happen.

There’s no evidence Budinger is on that kind of track, and the Wolves will be fine without him. Flip Saunders, the team’s new president, came along when the Wolves had too many point guards, and he made a point this summer of redistributing that depth to the wing. Corey Brewer will probably start in Budinger’s place, with Kevin Martin at shooting guard. The Wolves might able to slide Martin down a slot in smaller groups featuring two of the Ricky Rubio/J.J. Barea/Alexey Shved trio, and Derrick Williams will get time at small forward. Dante Cunningham can guard some larger wings and played a tiny bit of small forward last season, but he most often logged minutes alongside both Andrei Kirilenko and Nikola Pekovic — setups in which Cunningham functioned mostly as a power forward. But with Kevin Love back, we may see Rick Adelman at least try the Cunningham-Love-Pekovic ultra-big trio.

But if you can’t survive a month or so without Budinger — and that’s how long this recovery should take — you shouldn’t be in the playoff conversation. The reintegration of Love and Rubio, and their health, are what matters here. Budinger’s a nice player who fits well in Adelman’s corner offense, and the Wolves will feel the giant shooting drop-off from Budinger to Brewer. But Brewer’s a better defender, and the Wolves are positioned to ride out injuries to anyone but Love, Pekovic, or Rubio.

The race for the last two playoff spots in the Western Conference is going to be tight. Dallas, Portland, Minnesota, and Denver all figure to be involved, and the Pelicans could stick their beaks in if everything goes (very) right for them. (They’re already holding Eric Gordon out of training camp, so …) A couple of wins here and there could matter.

But Budinger won’t cost a team a couple of wins over 15 games, and other teams in that group will deal with more serious injuries at some point. “We’re disappointed,” Saunders told Grantland, “but this doesn’t change our goals for the season.”

Filed Under: Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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