-- It is strange that the one thing standing between Russell Westbrook and near-universal adoration was Kevin Durant. Westbrook has been the most nitpicked superstar of the past decade, save perhaps for the post-Decision LeBron James.
Every flailing Westbrook drive and bonked pullup represented precious chances that could have gone to Durant instead. Every 10-of-30 frenzy inspired pearl-clutching ruminations about what True Point Guards were supposed to do.
Durant is gone now, and everyone seems delighted to watch Westbrook play the exact same way -- without another superstar to feed. This is the season of Westbrook unhinged. We are tired of thinking about him, and ready to just gawk at the rampage.
This is the halo of liberty that protects a superstar playing alone. James Harden has enjoyed a variant of it in Houston, especially as Dwight Howard faded, and now that Howard is in Atlanta, Harden should have carte blanche in Mike D'Antoni's go-go offense. Sure, people complain about Harden's cadaver defense and occasional showboat dribble-fests. But surround a singular star with role players, and almost no one is going to fault him for dominating the ball.
"With Kevin gone," says one rival executive, "it's totally fine for Russ to do all the crap he does."
It's possible Westbrook is about to produce a season of straight-line, single-minded fury we've never seen before. When Durant missed the last two months of 2014-15, Westbrook hoarded 40 percent of Oklahoma City's possessions with a shot, turnover or drawn foul -- a number that would set the all-time record if done over a full season. He might come closer to averaging a triple-double than anyone since Oscar Robertson did in 1962.
And the Thunder will win many fewer games than they did during Westbrook's sometimes awkward partnership with Durant. After a year or two of trudging to 45 wins, the halo dissipates; the lone superstar becomes Carmelo Anthony, besieged with questions about why he can't win on his own -- and whether he's even cut out to be the proverbial Best Player on a Championship Team.
No superstar can win without at least one other All-Star. Even Michael Jordan needed Scottie Pippen. Westbrook, at least while he retains peak athleticism, can be the best player on a championship-level team -- or at least a co-best player. He just needs elite outside help, and that will be one of the more intriguing questions as the league watches Westbrook do whatever he does in a post-KD world: Which other star will want to sign up as his partner in one of the league's teensiest markets?
Durant won four scoring titles and one MVP sharing the rock with Westbrook, and if not for some absurdly ill-timed injuries, the Thunder may have won a title even after swapping Harden. That makes the idea that another superstar can't mesh with Westbrook potentially ridiculous.
Dig into newfangled tracking stats -- time of possession, total touches and dribbles -- and Westbrook looks very much like Chris Paul, Reggie Jackson, Kemba Walker, LeBron, John Wall, Harden and other guys who orchestrate offenses. Every star gets the ball a lot; pair them up, and someone is sacrificing. It's just a math problem, and it's not new. And remember: Even Paul, the pass-first Point God, has talked openly about his struggles relinquishing control of the Clippers' offense so that Blake Griffin might explore the breadth of his game.
Westbrook dished 10.4 assists per game last season, a career high, and has finished second behind Paul in assist rate in each of the past two seasons. Westbrook arrives every season with new passes in his bag. Can a player like that really be selfish?
But Westbrook is different than those other guys. He shoots more than they do, and passes a bit less often, per touch, than a typical ball-dominant point guard, per SportVU data. The difference between Paul and Westbrook might be four or five shots per game, but when a team gets only, say, 95 possessions, those five shots represent real meat for any superstar partner.
The Thunder as a team ranked dead last in total passes last season, and have been in the bottom five since the NBA began (publicly) tracking this stuff. At times, their offense has looked like a creeping dictatorship. If your point guard walks the ball up and kills seven more seconds calling a play, sometimes the only realistic result of his first pass is a shot attempt -- and a potential assist. Does anyone other than the guy catching that pass have any fun?
The Thunder fought through a ton of stagnant possessions like that, sometimes during their worst crunch-time meltdowns. Look at Durant and Enes Kanter gesturing and pointing as Westbrook attempts to communicate what in the hell everyone is supposed to do. That happened a lot. The Thunder led the league in confused shrugs during the first 15 seconds of half-court possessions.
It's hard to untangle whose fault that was, or whether it even mattered. The Thunder's offense never looked pretty, but on balance, they were the best scoring team in the NBA over the past half-decade. Coaches tried every season to introduce more ball movement, but it never took.
Part of that is absolutely on Westbrook. He jacks nutty shots, and he has had to learn and memorize reads that come more naturally to guys -- like Paul - who have played point guard their whole lives. Westbrook has struggled at times to get the Thunder into their offense early in possessions. He has an unwavering belief that he can do it all by himself if he has to.
But the Thunder drafted Westbrook knowing he had limited experience running the point. In building his team, Oklahoma City GM Sam Presti has generally leaned toward athleticism, length and character over feel for the game. (Note: This hasn't always been true, but some of the craftier draftees haven't played much, or at all. That's true in the case of Mitch McGary, and remains to be seen regarding Domantas Sabonis.) Everyone wanted Oklahoma City to be more Spurs-y, but the Thunder just haven't had a lot of core guys who read-and-react at anywhere near that level. Swing the ball to Serge Ibaka, and it's not second nature for him to pivot into a killer dribble handoff that keeps the machine whirring.
In that context, who else but Westbrook and Durant should do stuff with the ball?
The Thunder also advanced very far, very fast, playing that way, and everyone who has been around the team agrees their success made it hard to coax Westbrook and Durant toward a more pass-happy style. Maybe former Thunder coach Scott Brooks wasn't the right fit for that, anyway. But reinvention would have been risky, especially given the lack of playmakers on the roster.
Some of those possessions stalled because Westbrook waited as Durant scampered around two or three screens. Sometimes, Durant didn't cut hard enough to ditch his defender. Sometimes, Ibaka whiffed on picks. If that first action produced nothing, the Thunder were already up against the shot clock.
That's part of what makes this new Westbrook-centric team so interesting: 75 percent of Oklahoma City's playbook vanished with Durant and Ibaka. Coach Billy Donovan has to reorient his entire offense around Westbrook. The offense started tilting that direction anyway as Westbrook developed a lethal pick-and-roll chemistry with Steven Adams:
Westbrook would be unstoppable in a spread pick-and-roll system. Pair him with a screener who dives to the hoop, surround the duo with three shooters, and he will tear apart opposing defenses. Imagine the damage he would do in Jackson's role in Detroit, running a two-man ballet with Andre Drummond.
The Thunder understood this and allowed Westbrook to gradually wrest more control of the offense. Two and three seasons ago, Durant touched the ball as often as Westbrook and ran nearly as many pick-and-rolls. The shift toward Westbrook started out of necessity in 2014-15, when Durant missed 55 games, and continued last season when Durant was back.
It made intuitive sense: Durant is much more dangerous away from the ball. Defenders stick to him 30 feet from the rim, freeing up the lane for Westbrook's mad dashes. Flip roles, and Westbrook's defender would clog up Durant's driving lanes.
Westbrook is the more dynamic ball handler. It is basically impossible to keep him away from the rim if he has any space. He can dust almost anyone one-on-one, and if you so much as lean in the wrong direction navigating a Westbrook pick-and-roll, you're done.
When defenders duck under picks against Westbrook, he just puts his head down, revs the engine, and outraces them to the other side of the screen. He's the NBA's race car: You sometimes hear his drives, and feel them, more than you see them.
Even in the age of the 3-pointer, there is no substitute for a destroyer who can knife to the rim at will. There is no defensive scheme other than, "Oh crap, send help," for a maniac about to dunk. Westbrook is almost a one-man small-ball deterrent; if you don't have a real rim protector in the game, he's going to finish enough layups to break your defense.
He has also become a much craftier passer in fluid situations. He maps the floor in ways he couldn't manage three or four years ago. He knows where all nine other players are at the start of a play, and importantly, where they will go once he picks one of the options before him.
He slings it lefty now, and with a soft touch on lobs and pocket passes. He ranks among the very best at setting up dunks and layups. Westbrook's improved vision in the pick-and-roll was a big reason the Thunder generated way more corner 3s last season than ever before.
Even so, the Thunder could never lose the "your turn, my turn" vibe to their offense; after a few Westbrook pick-and-rolls, it was time to call something for Durant. Now Westbrook can play with freedom, and perhaps even more pace, since he doesn't have to wait for Durant to run around baseline picks.
Alas, without Durant, the Thunder don't have the shooting to support a spread pick-and-roll attack. Victor Oladipo, a junior varsity Westbrook, is a career 34 percent shooter from deep, though he has done better than that on the sorts of catch-and-shoot looks Westbrook will get for him. But if the Thunder start Westbrook, Oladipo, Andre Roberson and Adams, opponents will smother the lane -- even if Donovan slots Ersan Ilyasova, a stretchy James Dean look-alike, as the fifth starter at power forward.
Even Westbrook runs into issues when multiple defenders lay in wait for him near the basket.
The Thunder have a few long-shot remedies. They could throw Alex Abrines, their sharpshooting rookie from Spain, right into major NBA minutes. They could pray that Kyle Singler rebounds from a catastrophic tenure so far in Oklahoma City. Maybe this is the year a coach trusts Anthony Morrow. (It isn't.) Oladipo might work best as a super sixth man, untethered a bit from Westbrook, but the Thunder don't have the wing depth to bring him off the bench.
They'll try King Joffrey Lauvergne, recently acquired from Denver, as a shooter at both big man positions; Lauvergne shot 50 percent on long 2-pointers last season, though he clanked from deep and can't defend opposing power forwards far from the rim.
Most likely, the Thunder will just make do without much shooting. It will take some nuance and craft. Teams will barricade Westbrook's basic high pick-and-rolls when they can. Westbrook will have to suck the defense toward one side, swing the ball to Oladipo on the other side, and see what seams might open:
Roberson is a canny passer and cutter, and Adams is developing a really nice feel for how to keep the ball moving. People who know Westbrook suggest he might play a more egalitarian style than those anticipating a scorched-earth revenge tour might expect. Westbrook has shown glimpses of a nifty off-ball game. He got a bundle of baseline dunks on backdoor passes from Durant out of this specific action:
Westbrook's cutting always seemed a bit scripted and mechanical, though: When we run this play, I cut here. In the flow, he would often just stand and watch Durant work. Cameron Payne represented another ball handler who might open up Westbrook's cutting game, but he broke a bone in his foot on Tuesday.
It's a tricky balance, anyway. We're all guilty of fetishizing the Spurs' and Stephen Curry's give-it-up, get-it-back style, but not everyone shoots it well enough to thrive that way. Westbrook needs the ball, and it's unclear whether any team featuring him would be better off if he had it less.
Given a potentially severe lack of shooting, it might take a little more guile than "Go, Russ" for the Thunder to open pathways to the rim. Once they do, they will gobble up more second-chance points than anyone. They led the league last season in offensive rebounding rate, and the gap between the Thunder and the No. 2 team (Detroit) was the largest in league history. When Westbrook played the last 27 games of the 2014-15 season without Durant (and then Ibaka), their offensive rebounding rate soared even higher. Every deranged Westbrook drive leaves easy put-back attempts in its wake for Adams, Kanter, Roberson, and other Thunder mooches.
If the Thunder focus harder on defense -- something they let slide in the regular season last year, and can't let slide anymore -- this haphazard, brutal style can win 45-ish games with Westbrook at the controls. The Thunder should make the playoffs. That is the best they can do, since Presti had no time or resources to tailor his team to Westbrook.
Going forward, the Thunder need another stud player -- or two very good ones -- who fit the spread pick-and-roll model and unlock other options when playoff defenses tighten. The organization knows that. Maybe it's Gordon Hayward or Paul George as a supplementary ball handler who can space the floor on the wing. Maybe it's squeezing Blake Griffin into the connector role between Westbrook and Adams that Griffin plays now between Paul and DeAndre Jordan. Maybe it's a pick-and-roll dive man even better than Adams, with a face-up game -- Westbrook's version of Amar'e Stoudemire.
A big man would be the more natural partner. They aren't as accustomed to handling the ball, they set screens, and it is harder for defenses to switch a point guard-big man pick-and-roll.
It's trite to say Westbrook isn't good enough to be the undisputed alpha dog on a championship team, and it's correct that teams with point guards as their best players rarely win the title. That doesn't mean those things hold in perpetuity. Build the right roster around Westbrook, and the Thunder could get damned close.
That involves snagging another star. Every player in that fraternity will be watching Westbrook this season. Players marveled at the triple-double numbers Westbrook put up in Durant's absence to close the '14-15 season, but the spectacle rubbed some of them the wrong way.
"He's putting up insane numbers," Clippers guard J.J. Redick told me on a podcast that spring, "but after we played them, it was like, 'OK, a different MVP for me.' It's kind of crazy how many possessions he uses."
Everyone admires Westbrook's snarling anger and balls-to-the-wall competitiveness. They want that fire in their teammates. They also want the ball.