Better Together? Kevin Durant And Russell Westbrook's Overlapping Stardom
Russell Westbrook is unfair. He has five triple-doubles in his last six games.
But, his best teammate is last year's MVP, and that man comes back in about a week.
The Thunder are a band with two lead singers: Kevin Durant is Adele, a steady performer who impresses with consistency, but also busts out irreplaceable solos to remind everyone of what is possible; Westbrook is Tina Turner, a natural force of unquenchable energy that barrels down the line between reckless and stupendous.
Like Jay Z and Beyoncé, Westbrook and Durant seem an ideal power couple. Westbrook's fearless drives and unchecked aggression are the deadly diversion from Durant's outrageous blend of size and agility.
As Westbrook's offensive gravity pulls defenders into the paint, Durant is given more space to execute. When teams honor Durant's power, they are left vulnerable to a jugular slash from Westbrook.
But, also like Jay Z and Beyoncé, the pairing has not been as perfect as they are on paper. While Hova and Bey have their conflicts in exclusive elevators, Westbrook and Durant clash when their seasons are on the line and millions of people are watching.
Their relationship is plucked apart each time they fall short of the championship. The typical criticism accuses Westbrook of hogging the ball on too many crucial possessions.
But, for the Thunder to succeed, Westbrook must attack to generate offense. And, often he is effective.
So, the very thing that makes the Thunder great is what unravels them.
Durant has a lucky place in their partnership, as he rarely catches the heat for a loss. If KD struggles, we blame it on Westbrook's inability to open up the game. But, that's not really true.
As Tony Allen proved last year, Durant is liable to be smothered by tough defense, meaning he might lack presence when his team needs him most.
Westbrook's aggression is a sacrifice for his teammates. Every time Russ rips down the lane, he collapses the opponent's scheme and gives his team a better chance of victory while opening himself up to criticism and injury.
In crucial moments, both Westbrook and Durant receive more attention, but it is Westbrook who is usually willing to chance failure for the possibility of success.
In truth, their issues boil down to single problem: There is only one ball. These two stars might be better as the leaders of different systems.
Westbrook would likely thrive in Derrick Rose's perpetually vacated spot in Chicago, where he would be required to instigate almost all the offense while surrounded by competent role players that hit shots and play pitbull defense.
Similarly, it seems obvious for Durant to be the unquestioned number one option on a team that has a system to get him open looks, and boasts secondary options that stay in their roles, but can get hot when Durant is doubled.
Durant played for team like this last season during his dominant Westbrook-less run in the MVP campaign. During Westbrook's absence, Durant was required to do more, and he handled the extra responsibility in stride.
He scored 25 points in 41 straight games. He won the scoring title and put up a statistically better seventh season than Michael Jordan. The Thunder remained among the league's elite and went 20-7.
This season, during Durant's absence, the Thunder are an unimpressive 19-20 overall, and a mediocre 3-3 since Westbrook announced his scorched earth policy six games ago. The sample size is small, as many of those previous losses came during a concurrent Westbrook injury.
But, it is clear how much the Thunder miss Durant as they improve in every single category when he is on the floor. To be fair, the same is true of Westbrook, except for a minuscule dip in assists. The two affect each other in different ways.
Westbrook's game is elevated by the presence of Durant. Westbrook is good enough to single-handedly lead a team into the playoffs.
But, it is dubious if he could win a title on his own, especially with the multi-star tendencies of today's teams. Here is where Durant makes the Thunder a terrifying juggernaut. Westbrook can push up to the summit, but Durant is needed to charge over the mountain.
In the opposite way, Durant might be better without Westbrook -- not because of Westbrook's selfishness, but because of Westbrook's greatness.
Russ does so much, Durant can become lax if he over-defers to his teammate. Just as last season's Miami team suffered by leaning too hard on LeBron, Durant's individual play drops when Westbrook is around to shoulder the burden.
So, the fault in the Thunder's stars is complementary; Westbrook does too much and Durant does too little. But, their minor weaknesses aside, these are two of the five best players in the league.
The Thunder are steel. Westbrook is carbon, versatile and hard-working, but too much of him makes the team brittle. Durant is iron, incredibly strong and consistent, but with a tendency to bend when not properly supported. When together, they form an incomparable duo.
They are so titanic, they barely fit on the same team.
So, any trade talk misses the point. You don't trade two of the best five players in the league while they are in the middle of their primes; you make it work. Any other destination for either player would come with its host of challenges.
All these years the blame that has been foisted upon Westbrook belongs on the shoulders of Scott Brooks, who repeatedly puts Westbrook in situations where he had to do so much.
Long ago, Brooks should have drawn up a system to harness his stars' complementary styles.
Instead, he lets them take turns. We are in a bizarre universe where two MVP-caliber players have had their entire careers mishandled by an uncreative coach.
Put Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle or Erik Spoelstra at the helm of OKC and the frequent isolation plays would become rare.
But, Brooks hasn't been fired yet, and a canning this late in the season would mean the team's combustion, so the Thunder will have to succeed in spite of their milquetoast strategist.
When Durant comes back, the Thunder will be one of the most frightening seventh or eighth seeds in the league's history. When both stars turn it on, the Thunder are unstoppable.
They are rhinos in an open field. The tandem fills foes with a helplessness usually reserved for injured wildebeests in alligator-infested rivers.
Supreme play from both is the only way the Thunder can make the uphill climb out of the vicious West.
Their success depends on chemistry.