Today, the two stars have become one of the best pairings in the NBA, and as a result, the team is a perennial contender.
What makes Durant and Westbrook special is their ability to improve on both an individual and cohesive level. Their numbers have increased year after year, and they’ve found a way to coexist despite their individual needs to score.
But as good as these two are on a league-wide basis, there’s another one-two punch that deserves consideration as the best in the game.
When LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined forces in 2010, the league found its newest two-man attack. The NBA has always been driven by stars, and judging by the Miami Heat’s recent success, that notion remains valid.
But as much as Heat fans would like to make this discussion about team accomplishments, that’s only part of the equation. You must also consider which tandem is tougher to guard on a nightly basis.
Throughout the 2012-13 season, Durant and Westbrook assisted on each other’s field goals 294 times, according to Stats.NBA.com. James and Wade assisted to one another 216 times, and while the discrepancy is partly because of missed games, that brings up a reasonable concern for the Heat.
Wade’s health has become a problem. He played in just 69 contests during 2012-13 (he also missed 17 the year before), and his game is no longer as consistent as it once was.
In the games Wade missed last season, the Heat went 11-2. The year before, they went 14-3 without him, proving that a deep team with James leading the way can win when Wade is out.
The Thunder, on the other hand, verified how valuable Westbrook is in the 2013 postseason. The point guard went down with an injury for the first time in his career, and the team went just 3-6 in the succeeding games, including an 0-4 showing against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The sample size is small, and the caliber of opponent was strong, but the Thunder just aren’t the same when Westbrook is off the floor.
When it comes to OKC, pick your poison. Durant has proven he can score from anywhere, and he constantly sets himself up with isolation mastery. His jumper makes you defend him closely, yet his ability to attack the rim makes you back away.
Those two skills put defenders in quite a pickle, and that’s without talking about his vastly underrated mid-range game.
When it comes to defending Westbrook, teams know what to expect—and they still can’t stop it. His long-range shot is slowly improving, and his ability to rack up assists makes up for his occasional poor decision making.
Defensively, Durant has never been known as a lock-down presence, but the numbers say otherwise. According to 82games.com, he held his opponents at the small forward position to a PER of just 10.5 per 48 minutes.
Also per 82games.com, Westbrook held his opponents at the 1 to a PER of 14.5 per 48 minutes. That’s a combined opponent PER of 25 for the two Thunder, which is 4.2 better than James and Wade at their primary positions.
Wade’s health and consistency have made him a wild card moving forward. James is far and away the best player on the planet, but it’s Pat Riley’s willingness to surround him (and Wade) with talent that has put him in a position to win big.
Durant and Westbrook are each 24 years old, which means their best days are still ahead. They’re continuing to improve year after year, and while James is still adding to his game, the duo in OKC has a higher ceiling than the duo out East.
When it comes down to it, Durant and Westbrook can’t touch the success that James and Wade have found. The stars in South Beach have two championships together, and they’re going to be the favorites to land a third entering 2013-14.
If you believe that championships define the most dynamic duo, James and Wade deserve the title (or possibly another group belonging to either the Los Angeles Lakers or San Antonio Spurs). However, if you’re willing to look beyond the rings and accept greatness in other places, Durant and Westbrook earn the edge.
This is a subjective debate without a single right answer, but the versatility that the two Thunder bring makes them nearly impossible to defend. When one is on, the other is assisting. When both are on…well, good luck.
That’s something OKC can hang its hat on for the foreseeable future, and no other duo around the league should prove to be as reliable moving forward.