Russell Westbrook Returns, NBA's Western Conference Shudders

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 4, 2013

Russell Westbrook's comeback came far sooner than expected, and it put the other top teams in the West on notice that the Oklahoma City Thunder are ready to reclaim their position as the conference's scariest squad.

Maybe it seems like we're getting a little carried away. After all, OKC only managed to notch a 103-96 win over the respectable but still lottery-bound Phoenix Suns.

But that unremarkable win—in isolation—isn't what's important.

Without Skipping a Beat

What matters is that Westbrook looked very much like himself in his first game back, which is to say he took some bad shots and turned the ball over a bit too often. But he shared the offensive load with Kevin Durant in a way that turned OKC back into the league's most dangerous two-pronged attack.

He shot 5-of-16 from the field, but he flung himself into traffic often enough to shoot 14 free throws in just 33 minutes. He also showed the explosion that made him so dangerous before his injury.

Critically, Westbrook forced the Suns defense to cover Durant a bit more honestly. And as everyone knows, when defenses have to cover KD honestly, he's liable to go off for 33 points on 10-of-19 shooting (as he did against Phoenix).

In last year's playoffs—and in this season's early going—we watched opposing defenses bury KD with extra help and overloaded schemes designed to stop him and him alone. Every opponent essentially piled onto Durant while saying to the rest of OKC's Westbrook-less lineup: "Go ahead, fellas. Try to beat us. We dare you."

The Memphis Grizzlies knocked the Thunder out of the postseason by smothering Durant, holding him to 42 percent shooting and harassing KD into 4.4 turnovers per game.

Any doubt about Westbrook's ability to take pressure off of Durant should go by the wayside with a glance at KD's uncharacteristically pedestrian shot chart from last year's conference semifinals.

So you can imagine the relief Durant must have felt when he watched this take place for the first time since April 24, 2013:

And what relieves Durant should terrify the rest of the Western Conference.

Waiting on an Alpha Dog

Last year's playoff demise has somehow obscured the fact that Oklahoma City posted the best regular-season point differential in the league, per ESPN. Even the Miami Heat and their 66 wins didn't measure up to OKC's massive average margin of victory.

Let's also not forget that the Thunder finished just a hair behind the Heat in offensive rating, posting an elite mark of 110.2 points per 100 possessions to Miami's 110.3, per Everyone knows the Thunder score at an absurd rate when they're fully healthy, but what so many have forgotten is that they were also the league's third-best defensive team in 2012-13.

Westbrook's presence should make both of those rankings possible again this year.

Oct 31, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA;  Golden State Warriors center Andrew Bogut (12) and Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul (3) go for a loose ball in the second half of the game at Staples Center. Clippers won 125-115. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kam
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

The other powers in the West haven't looked like world-beaters just yet, with only the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves boasting unblemished records. The San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors have all dropped contests in the season's opening week.

The conference is still looking for an alpha dog to distinguish itself.

The common knock on OKC is that the loss of guard Kevin Martin would have a substantial impact on the team's offense. But let's all take a second to note that Martin, while a capable generator of points, was a detriment on defense. The Thunder couldn't always count on him because he was such a liability on D, and it's entirely possible that some combination of Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson will replace Martin's scoring.

Losing him wasn't nearly as big of a deal as some have suggested.

Opportunity Seized

Plus, Durant seems to have spent the summer preparing for life without his star point guard. The results are impressive. KD remains a deadly scorer, but he now poses a major threat as a facilitator as well. Coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high 4.6 assists, Durant is now primed to blow that number away.

Head coach Scott Brooks also used the offseason to equip his team for a prolonged period of Westbrook-lessness (a term I've just invented). He implemented a slightly less predictable, more motion-based offense that was designed to keep the ball moving with one star on the court.

What happens if the Thunder feature a more sophisticated offense that involves both of their best players?

The Heat should be very concerned about retaining their No. 1 offensive rating, that's what.

Individually, there's also potential for Serge Ibaka to get better, and Steven Adams' mix of aggression and activity should make the young seven-footer a dark-horse candidate for Rookie of the Year.

The key, though, is that Westbrook's return puts everything back in order for OKC. There's less pressure on Durant to do absolutely everything on offense, Ibaka re-assumes his position as the third option, and Jackson goes from being a potentially overmatched starter to a more suitable role as a bench assassin.

Plus, Brooks gets a little room to breathe.

 A New Perspective

Nov 3, 2013; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) and Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) react to a play in action against the Phoenix Suns during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Cre
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It's still incredibly early, and maybe Westbrook will suffer some kind of setback in the coming weeks. But we know from recent history that Oklahoma City is the best of the bunch by a wide margin when healthy.

Here's the thing, though: The Thunder might be more than just "healthy" now.

OKC has had a taste of mortality in the months without Westbrook. Durant used that time to get better, and everyone on the roster had an opportunity to appreciate just how tenuous their position as an elite team truly was.

That kind of reality check is going to inspire a new hunger throughout the roster. 

Russell Westbrook's return was a surprise. What the Thunder are about to do to the Western Conference shouldn't be.


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