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Russell Westbrook Is A One-Man Show, But The Thunder Are A Team

While Russell Westbrook is on pace for a historical individual season, Oklahoma City also is getting valuable contributions from the rest of its overlooked roster.
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

There is presently no better show in the NBA, and maybe on earth, than Russell Westbrook's one-man onslaught against the rest of the league. Through 40 games, Westbrook averaging 31.0 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.5 assists per game, putting him on track—stop me if you've heard this before—to become the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double over an entire season.

Let's just list the rest. Westbrook leads the NBA in scoring, Player Efficiency Rating, Value Over Replacement Player, and Box Score Plus-Minus. He's carrying what is by far the highest usage rate in league history, yet his shooting efficiency has barely dropped off from last year's mark. He's also leading the league in assist rate, creating 57.5 percent of his teammates' baskets while he's on the floor. If he's not the biggest story in the NBA, he's damn close.


One would be forgiven for thinking that Westbrook really is doing all this by his lonesome—dragging the Thunder to a 24-16 record that puts them on pace for 49 wins and a firm Western Conference playoff spot, even after losing Kevin Durant. But these Thunder aren't akin to Allen Iverson's 2001 Philadelphia 76ers, or not exactly. Westbrook is going supernova on a nightly basis, but Oklahoma City is also getting contributions from up and down the roster; everyone other than Westbrook just happens to be contributing within a narrowly-defined role that suits their particular talents.

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In Victor Oladipo, Oklahoma City has a secondary playmaker and spot-up shooter who can, for the most part, handle tougher defensive assignments than his backcourt counterpart. Oladipo is shouldering the lightest shot-creation burden of his career so far, but he also has shown meaningful change and growth in areas that have helped the Thunder on both ends of the floor. Most notably, Oladipo is taking a career-high 42 percent of his shots from beyond the three-point line and has connected on over 38 percent of those looks. Only 18 other players league-wide are taking and making as many shots from deep as Oladipo, who has worked his way over the course of his time in the league from being a reluctant, below-average shooter into a high-level one.


Oladipo is also the most likely non-Westbrook player on the Thunder to puncture the defense and create a look for one of his teammates. He's second on the team in both drives and assists per game, using the creation skills honed over three years at Indiana University and three years splitting time between both backcourt slots with the Orlando Magic. Westbrook still shoulders the overwhelming majority of the creation burden, but Oladipo has shown the important ability to take advantage of the unholy contortions that Westbrook forces upon defenses. A decent portion of Oladipo's attacks take on an air of "keep it moving," but in a league where scrambling sophisticated defensive rotation is paramount, sometimes keeping it moving is all that's needed.

Not shown: a fairly significant supporting cast, actually. Photo by Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Pick-and-rolls featuring OKC center Steven Adams haven't yet yielded quite as many clean looks as they have in years past, thanks in large part to the lack of shooting elsewhere on the Thunder roster. In fact, more than 10 percent of Adams' shots have shifted from the area within three feet of the rim to the floater range three-to-10 feet away. Opponents have become more aggressive at packing the paint and taking away the lob, but the attention Adams draws while rolling to the rim, even if that attention only lasts for a beat, helps free Westbrook as he knifes through defense. Not that he needs much help.

Adams also has flashed improved skill in several areas. He now appears comfortable catching the ball on the roll and finding a teammate elsewhere on the floor, and is on track to blow away his career high in assists. His free-throw percentage has ticked up above 70 percent for the first time, which can make opponents hesitate just a bit before hacking him near the rim. He's working on career-high figures in both usage rate and true shooting percentage. He also has cut down on his fouls, allowing him to finally creep above 30 minutes per game. And he's still doing the thing he does best, challenging 6.8 shots per game at the rim, per, and holding opponents south of 50 percent shooting on those attempts.


Like Adams, Andre Roberson is in the midst of the best season of his four-year career. He is and always will be a negative shooter, but he's able to keep himself from being too much of an offensive negative with smart, instinctual cutting—about a quarter of his baskets have come via the cut, per Synergy Sports—above-average finishing near the rim, and an increased willingness to actually let it fly from deep, results be damned.

But Roberson's not on the floor for his offense, anyway. He's out there because he's one of the very best wing defenders in the league. Roberson stands 6-foot-7 and has a 6-foot-11 wingspan, and those long arms help him patrol passing lanes and block shots, whether working as a primary defender or a helper. He and Adams are two of just nine players in the league averaging at least a steal and a block per game. Roberson's quick feet allow the Thunder to use him in a variety of matchups, as he can either switch or act as the primary defender across three positions. It's not uncommon for him to work against the opposition's point guard for extended stretches, for example, and he's capable of swinging up to defend certain power forwards as well. Add it up and Roberson is putting together a campaign that should deservingly land him on an All-NBA Defensive Team and have him on the fringes, if not quite near the center, of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.


What the stat guys call "a high-percentage shot." Photo by Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Enes Kanter is Oklahoma City's primary scoring option off the bench, averaging 14.0 points in just 21 minutes per game. Kanter's obvious limitations on defense mostly stem from the fact that he can't manage to move his feet quickly enough to cover the ground required of players his size, but those feet are almost impossibly quick when he has the ball on his hands. There isn't a single player in the league average more points per play out of the post than Kanter's 1.03, per Synergy (minimum three possessions per game), and the Westbrook-Kanter pick-and-roll still works wonders against opposing defenses. As usual, Kanter is hammering the offensive boards to help create extra possessions and spending plenty of time at the free-throw line.

Rookie big man Domantas Sabonis has started in front of Kanter at power forward, and while he has had his own struggles defensively, his offensive versatility has been an early surprise. Defenses tend to leave Sabonis alone on the perimeter rather than show much respect to his jumper, and he has made them pay by knocking down 37.5 percent of his tries from beyond the arc. Like his father, Sabonis is a whip-smart passer, capable of spotting creases in the defense from the top of the key and sliding a pass right through them. It wouldn't kill him to ramp up his aggression in a few areas—he's carrying the lowest usage rate among regular Thunder rotation players—but it's not uncommon for rookies be a bit trigger-shy. There's a lot of promise, here.

Jerami Grant is playing more far small forward than would be ideal thanks to Oklahoma City's overabundance of frontcourt players, but he also injects exactly the kind of preposterous athleticism the Thunder were looking for when they ponied-up a shockingly high price for him early in the season. Grant is not shy about trying to dunk all over everyone in his path, and he's just bouncy enough to actually do it a lot of the time. He has that in common with several players on the Thunder roster. Length and bounce are core traits the Thunder front office values in players at every position, the better to leverage in an aggressive defensive system.

King Joffrey Lauvergne, Alex Abrines, Anthony Morrow—they're all counted on to varying degrees to provide perimeter shooting in limited roles. Cameron Payne has finally returned to take over backup point guard duties from Semaj Christon, and should prove an immediate upgrade. If he continues to give us elite-level Vine work while dancing around with Westbrook in the 30 seconds before tip every night, that's all the better.

None of these players is the driving force behind the Thunder, and nobody would deny that Westbrook is the one doing the (historically) heavy lifting here. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't give the other guys their due. Westbrook's a force, but the Thunder are for real.

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