OKLAHOMA CITY—Russell Westbrook rose from his seat and prepared to face the media after the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 115-110 overtime loss to the injury-depleted Indiana Pacers. The look on his face was equal parts exasperation and frustration, with perhaps a hint of exhaustion.
When Westbrook wants to dodge a particular topic, he’ll often Eurostep the question completely. He’s known to respond with an answer to a completely different question. On this night, Westbrook had something he wanted to get off his chest immediately.
“I was s—-y tonight, honestly,” Westbrook replied to a question of whether the ball just didn’t bounce the Thunder’s way late in the contest. “I could have done a lot of things better.”
Apparently that’s what a stat line of 31 points, 15 assists and 11 rebounds looks like: a fecal word that rhymes with “city.”
He wasn’t merely being humble. Westbrook connected on only 13 of 34 shots and committed seven turnovers. One of those makes was a game-tying three-pointer to send the game into overtime, but one of those turnovers helped seal the game for Indiana.
It was just one game, but it’s an example of an ongoing trend this season. Westbrook’s teammates struggle to score, which causes the floor to shrink as the opposing defenses pack in. Westbrook feels the need to take matters into his own hands, resulting in an astounding yet flawed box score.
And yet the Thunder are 8-6 after Sunday night’s loss. The team is winning because of Westbrook, not in spite of him.
The pressure on the Oklahoma City star is only going to increase in the short term. Both of Westbrook’s backups are currently out with injuries. Cameron Payne is still recovering from an acute fracture in his right foot suffered in late September. Rookie Semaj Christon left Friday night’s game versus Brooklyn after slamming his head into Enes Kanter’s knee. He’s under the NBA’s concussion protocol, and there is no timetable for his return.
Semaj Christon is in the concussion protocol. Has a non-displaced facial fracture. Can play w/ mask once he returns from concussion protocol
— Brett Dawson (@BDawsonWrites) November 19, 2016
Coach Billy Donovan shot down the idea that the injuries would only add to Westbrook’s already enormous list of responsibilities.
“We’ve gotta obviously utilize different players to help generate offense. But I don’t think it should put any more on Russell’s plate,” Donovan said. “He’s gonna pretty much be in the same rotation he’s always been in.”
Westbrook’s night might be seen in a different light with a little help from his friends:
Russell Westbrook had 29 (!!) potential assists tonight.
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) November 21, 2016
It’s nothing new for Westbrook this season. He’s second in the NBA in potential assists at 21.1 per game, according to NBA.com.
Oklahoma City is hitting two-point shots at a very solid 49.5 percent rate, but it has connected on a dismal 33.2 percent from the three-point line. The team exacerbates the problem by attempting nearly 30 percent of its shot attempts from deep.
Opponents aren’t unaware of these things. Teams that can force Oklahoma City into half-court sets have a great chance of shutting them down. They pack the paint defensively and try to run multiple players at Westbrook. The strategy could leave a Thunder player with a wide-open shot, but so far, that’s an ideal outcome. Oklahoma City takes over 12 wide-open three-point shots per game per NBA.com, but they can’t make defenses pay for it.
The schemes also affect the Thunder in other ways. Westbrook and Victor Oladipo love to drive to the basket, but the degree of difficulty is now much higher. Pick-and-roll lobs to Steven Adams and others have all but evaporated due to paint congestion. Snagging offensive rebounds, a staple of the team’s offense last season, is far more challenging with more humans under the basket than usual.
The offensive struggles naturally lead to trade rumors. Anxious fans are calling for immediate fixes, but the trade market unfolds at its own pace.
Keep in mind that since the 2012-13 season only 4 trades have occurred in the month of November.
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) November 15, 2016
Keep in mind that 35% (over 160) of NBA players are not eligible to be traded until mid December and January.
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) November 18, 2016
When a team signs a free agent, he can’t be traded for three months or until December 15, whichever comes later. Teams that re-sign their own free agent with a form of Bird rights—the tool that allows a team to exceed the salary cap to retain the player—can’t move the player until January 15.
Neither of those would get in the way of Oklahoma City trading for Rudy Gay, however. It’s the trade rumor that won’t die. The report has been floated by Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical and more recently by ESPN’s Zach Lowe.
Gay would give the Thunder the additional scorer and creator they badly need. Even if he doesn’t drop 20 points per night, the team could benefit in other ways with his presence. He may add just enough gravity to the floor and make defenses adapt. Perhaps it would help create just enough space for those pocket passes Westbrook loves to throw to his big men or give shooters another half-second to spot up.
The fit could be odd in other ways. Sacramento Kings Coach Dave Joerger recently moved Gay to power forward, which may now be his most comfortable position. Oklahoma City has a surplus of big men and would only use Gay at the 4-spot situationally. Playing traditional big men is part of its identity as an athletic and physical team.
Gay can also opt out of his contract and become a free agent in the summer of 2017. That doesn’t necessarily mean Oklahoma City would be renting his services. There could be a long-term plan in mind for him, but he will be 31 years old when next season tips. The Thunder model doesn’t often include locking up aging players for the kind of money Gay could demand.
There’s also the fact that Oklahoma City won’t be in position to track down a scorer like Gay in free agency:
Re: Rudy Gay: The extensions for Oladipo and Adams makes OKC more likely to push for something, since 2017 cap space is toast.
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) November 17, 2016
A potential deal could be on hold until Payne returns. Wojnarowski reported in late October that the Thunder and Kings were “seriously engaged” in trade talks, but talks stalled when Payne broke his foot.
Whether it’s Gay or another proven scorer, the Thunder need help. Expect them to be active as the trade market opens up. Westbrook is entitled to the occasional “crappy” night. The Thunder need to have a chance of surviving when he does.
THUNDER INSIDER’S NOTES
Standing in the Hall of Fame
Westbrook was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame Thursday night. He called for unity in his acceptance speech. “I feel there is always room to grow,” he said. “I can be better, you can be better, and we can be better together.”
“I accept this award for all the young kids who are told because of the color of their skin, where they come from or what talent they don’t have, they somehow can’t achieve.”
Donovan praised the superstar’s speech. “When he talks he really speaks from his heart,” he said. “He’s very genuine and he’s very real.”
Westbrook was introduced by Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Hornets and possibly the greatest player ever. “I see a lot of resemblance in his passion for the game of basketball in the way I play the game of basketball,” Jordan said.
Jordan won over the room by mentioning Westbrook’s loyalty. "He decided to stay here in Oklahoma. I’m not here to try to bash anyone that’s not here,” Jordan said to the approval of the crowd. “Everybody has a choice. When I saw he chose to stay in Oklahoma, I was so proud."
Thumbs Down, Mate
Center Steven Adams hurt his thumb against the Miami Heat more than two weeks ago. He’s worn a wrap around it since then. He won’t admit it, but it’s impacted his play.
"He’s just not gonna acknowledge if his hand’s really bothering him or not," Donovan said. "I think that’s probably a futile attempt. He’s just not that kinda guy. He’s a warrior, Steven. He’s just gonna go out there, and he’s gonna compete and do the very best he can, and he’s not gonna complain."
In the seven games since hurting his thumb, Adams is averaging 9.4 points on .478 shooting. That’s down from 11 points and .528 shooting in the six games prior to the Miami match. He’s had noticeable trouble gripping the basketball.
"I’ve played enough games with the wrap for me to be used to it,” said Adams.
Adams has a point. It’s the same thumb that was wrapped during last season’s playoff run.