The Oklahoma City Thunder are in a tough situation. As they enter the stretch run of the 2015-16 NBA season, they are (again) among the better teams in the league, but (again) have a brutal path to a potential title run. Not only that, but this spring is realistically the final chance that OKC has to earn the coveted Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy with both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook on their roster.
While the pairing of such elite talents on one team is becoming a bit more common these days — and the ever-growing “Big Three” trend, too — it is rare for an organization to snag a duo this good in back-to-back NBA drafts. The well-known couples and trios in today’s game (LeBron James/Kyrie Irving/Kevin Love, Chris Paul/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan, and James Harden/Dwight Howard) are often formed through mega-trades and monster free-agency signings.
In the Thunder’s circumstance — or in this case the Seattle SuperSonics — they were fortunate that the balls didn’t bounce their way in 2007 as they took KD with the second overall pick, and the following year chose Westbrook at No. 4 overall to kickstart their inaugural campaign in Oklahoma City. Now, nearly nine years after the Portland Trail Blazers picked “shudder” Greg Oden and Durant fell into OKC’s lap, the 2013-14 MVP is scheduled to hit free agency this summer.
With a bevy of suitors expected to vie for No. 35’s affection and his current employer having a decent, but not great shot at pulling through with the NBA Finals win, these could very well be his last couple of months calling the Chesapeake Energy Arena his home court. Westbrook by the way, signed an almost as lucrative five-year, $78.5 million extension with the squad just one year after the Durantula did to begin the 2011-12 year.
As hinted at last week, we’re here to argue that at this stage, the point guard has become more valuable to the Thunder than the small forward. That’s not to say that OKC shouldn’t try to retain the services of Durant this summer, but unless they can get a hometown discount due to a championship in June (probably not happening), it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to lose him.
When considering the Durant/Westbrook debate, there are two primary factors that we looked at: durability/recent injury history and overall game. Although both players have stayed fairly healthy throughout their careers, the obvious edge goes to the point guard over the past two seasons. When Durant went down for 55 games last season after three surgeries on his right foot, as well as a severe ankle sprain and toe injury, down too went the Thunder’s playoff chances (despite the legendary performances of Westbrook).
KD was ready to go at the start of this season but has also missed seven of OKC’s games this year due to a variety of injuries, in particular a hamstring ailment. No. 0 meanwhile has played in all of the team’s 61 games in 2015-16, despite missing 15 contests to injury a season ago. Westbrook has played in all 82 of the Thunder’s regular-season games in four of his seven campaigns, while Durant has accomplished the feat just once (back in 2009-10.)
True, Durant played in 80 games his rookie season and then 81 in the two seasons between 2012 and 2014, but for the last 16 months or so, this has been Westbrook’s team to lead. It’s impossible to predict the future and the former Texas Longhorn has surely put on some muscle since his rookie year, but the fact that he’s only 40 pounds heavier than his teammate despite being six inches taller, you would think, creates a significantly larger injury concern down the road than with the UCLA product.
When you compare the career numbers of these two (probable) future hall-of-famers, it’s clear that their strengths are different. The Durantula is a scoring machine who is among the best three-point shooters in the business. He’s also a solid rebounder, a good passer, and alright defender. Other than pure shooting though, Westbrook has got him beat. Despite the significant height advantage (and playing an additional 1.5 minutes per contest), Durant only out-rebounds his counterpart by 0.7 boards per game.
Sure, Westbrook has played in seven more games than Durant this season, but does that really account for the monstrous 109-30 advantage on the offensive glass? The difference in assists per game (10.3 for Westbrook and 4.6 for Durant) is hardly surprising given their different positions on the floor, but the margin is clearly more obvious than the one KD leads by in the rebounding department. Westbrook’s defense also continues to improve and entering Thursday night, he paced the league with 2.2 steals per game.
When continuing to assess the duo’s all-around game, the numbers still point to Westbrook as the more valuable player, at least in recent seasons. His 42 double-doubles are stunning, as he only trails Andre Drummond for the lead-league and is the only guard with over 35 this year. In triple-doubles, Westbrook’s total of nine again trails just one man — Draymond Green with 11 — and if those aren’t a good indicator of a player’s overall game, we don’t know what is.
The chance that Durant returns to play with OKC next season and beyond is always there, but if we had to put money on it, we’d bet against it. Assuming they can’t take home that elusive championship in KD’s last hurrah, it’ll be up to Westbrook and company. Believe it or not, his contract will be up after next season. This team better get negotiating.
Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127