On Saturday, March 21, the Oklahoma City Thunder announced that Kevin Durant would be likely shut down for the remainder of the 2014-15 season. Durant had undergone surgery in his right foot due to soreness and discomfort, and the team removed him from "basketball activities", and they set no timetable for his return.
The soreness was likely due to a stress fracture suffered at the beginning of the season, and the team was concerned with exacerbating the injury, which could shorten Durant's career down the line just like it has with many other players in the past.
The previous night, the Thunder took on the Eastern Conference leading Atlanta Hawks in Oklahoma. Russell Westbrook registered his ninth triple-double of the season (and his seventh sine the All-Star break); he recorded 36 points, 10 rebounds and 14 assists and converted all 17 of his free throws. With Durant watching from the sidelines, the Thunder won 123-115, and improved to 39-30 on the season.
Following Kevin Durant's MVP campaign last season, it would not have been an absurd notion to consider the small forward on his way to becoming the greatest scorer in NBA history. He was considered by many the second best player in the NBA behindLeBron James, and had already eclipsed LeBron as the league's most deadly scoring threat from all over the court.
Now, he might not even be the best player on his team.
Whereas Durant commands the ultimate attention of the defense when he is on the court, Westbrook is a force that completely alters the game by pushing the tempo, distributing the ball and sparking the defense with his intensity.
Plus Westbrook is just a peach to watch. It seems to be a semi-nightly occurrence that he either flies coast-to-coast on a slam dunk that alters the Earth's rotation (this is why it was snowing in the Midwest on Monday) ...
... or delivers a clutch layup while moving near the speed of sound.
He approaches the game with a chip on his shoulder the size of a door wedge.
In his Trade Value Rankings, Grantland's Bill Simmons ranked Kevin Durant sixth and ranked Russell Westbrook fifth. He had this much to say about Westbrook:
... the right pop-culture comparison for Westbrook (at least lately) is Scarlett Johansson in Lucy. Remember when her brain usage started expanding and she started making crazy stuff happen? Hasn't that been Westbrook these past few weeks? He's using 7 percent of his brain and the number is climbing. In Round 1, he's shedding his skin and becoming an actual robot.
Perhaps right now, with Durant's uncertain future both as he recovers from injury and as he prepares to potentially leave the Thunder for another squad, the solid Westbrook is the more valuable asset. Whether or not he is actually the better player depends on how the term "better player" is measured.
Is Westbrook a more important element of the Thunder than Durant?
Both players are an offense onto themselves, and Scott Brooks really doesn't have any sort of playbook outside of letting one of their two stars play off isolation. Without Durant (or the injured Serge Ibaka) this season, the Thunder have been simply reliant on allowing Westbrook to run wild in order to generate offense. All of the offensive attention gets drawn to Westbrook, and the Thunder don't have enough two-way players to add as offensive threats that can hold up as a defense.
As such, Oklahoma City's offense is highly limited without Durant in it. They either give up offense or defense, and they have chosen the former. Even so, within the last stretch since the All Star Break the team has gone from a bubble team to a solidified playoff contender. Westbrook is the primary reason; it doesn't matter that he is being double-teamed and drawing all the attention without any support from teammates (Enes Kanter's recent stretch aside).
That being said, while the team is dangerous now, without Durant the Thunder aren't a legitimate contender to win a championship. The offense totally relies on Durant's presence to maintain a championship level, and the same can't be said for Westbrook. Therefore, by this metric, Westbrook is still behind Durant.
Who do opposing teams fear more?
The fact that Durant can score at any time in the game, anywhere on the court in any way possible no matter what kind of defense you put on him must at least fill opponents with a sort of morbid dread. At the same time, Westbrook is a harrowing force, an active volcano who can erupt at any point and is erupting at a higher rate than normal.
NBA players know that whenever they go up against Westbrook, they will be outworked. In every phase of the game, Westbrook will be on the minds of everyone on the court, creeping up to steal the ball, lurking by the glass to get a rebound, barreling towards the basket to score and creating offense with his assists. Every offensive possession for Westbrook is a mystery to everyone except for Westbrook himself. He's a mystery box Dum-Dum, and those are absolutely frightening. Westbrook takes this one.
The question then becomes: if given one opportunity to win a game, would the Thunder rather have Durant or Westbrook?
At this stage, it's a cute idea to think of any star player as being "unafraid" of the moment if given the chance to win a game. But Russell Westbrook's confidence is so inflated that in any game situation, he may be able to simply will his way into the basket. Westbrook has the mentality that will commit him entirely to the goal of winning, and he will zero in on a goal like an Amazon drone.
Durant does not raise his game in clutch situations. He doesn't need to raise it. It's already raised. When healthy (which is every year but now), Kevin Durant will surpass every player not only in the volume of his scoring, but also in the nature of his scoring. When an end-game situation has so many variables, a player with a utility knife repertoire of offensive moves is almost necessary.
Kevin Durant can create a mismatch with any defensive alignment, and he produces with such consistency that he erases any uneasiness in Thunder fans. Westbrook is the embodiment of uneasiness. This one goes to Durant all the way.
It's dependent on how it is measured, but overall, Westbrook has not yet surpassed Durant. He has closed the gap significantly this season, but for the time being this is still Kevin Durant's team.
It is difficult to say how Durant will look after he returns from his foot injury, and it depends on how eager the Thunder are to have him return to see how well he recovers.
But for the time being, the king stays the king.
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