Russell Westbrook will go home now that the Thunder have been eliminated from the playoffs, falling to the Rockets in five games. Before we see him back on the floor in six months, it’s up to the OKC brass to reconfigure the roster in a way that takes advantage of everything that Westbrook has shown that he is — and is not.
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It must be accepted that Westbrook will not allow the ball to be pried from his hands. He will not, in the next few months, turn himself into a model of efficiency. There will be no sunny morning this summer on which Westbrook will wake up and declare to himself, “Y’know, 19-foot 2-pointers with 17 seconds on the shot clock might not be our best offensive option.”
And that’s fine. The Westbrook-centric Thunder can still build a competitive team, perhaps even a contending team. They just have to look to Allen Iverson and the Sixers of 2000-01 for guidance.
Those Sixers won 56 games. Iverson averaged a league-high 31.1 points, won the MVP award and shot a measly 42 percent from the field. It was not a smooth road (there were two Game 7s involved), but those Sixers managed to win the East and play in the Finals that year. They were trounced by the Lakers, but for a team constructed the way those Sixers were constructed, getting there was a pretty major feat.
Westbrook’s Thunder have the potential to be a 2001 Sixers redux in the coming years. Task No. 1 is ensuring that Westbrook stays put. When he made his commitment to the Thunder last summer with a three-year contract extension following the departure of Kevin Durant, the city celebrated his loyalty. He has the ability, though, to opt out of the deal and hit free agency next summer, and all this discussion will be futile.
But front office executives around the league are not expecting Westbrook be a trade-talk subject in the coming months. Westbrook has given the Thunder no indication he wants to leave, not even last summer when rumors were floating that OKC would trade Westbrook after losing Durant.
“He was never really available,” one general manager told Sporting News. “They never gave the impression that they were looking for a deal for him. That is not going to change, I don’t think. They’ll try to get better around him and give him the big money next year.”
That big money should be in the neighborhood of $220 million over five years. Alas, Iverson made just about $150 million for his entire career.
Assuming Westbrook goes nowhere, the Thunder already have the makings of a roster that can compete at that the level of Iverson’s old Sixers teams. Steven Adams is no Dikembe Mutombo, but Mutombo was 34 when he went to Philadelphia, and Adams is only 23. He provides a rough-and-tumble defensive presence and has figured out how to contribute offensively playing alongside Westbrook.
One key for the future of the Thunder is Victor Oladipo. Point guard Eric Snow was a vital for making those old Sixers work on both ends of the floor, and Oladipo has the potential to be a more athletic version of Snow. But that is up to Westbrook. He would have to play off the ball and allow Oladipo to be more of a point guard — that is, give up the ball to Oladipo more, as Iverson did with Snow — to make the backcourt work.
The Thunder will have a decision to make on forward Taj Gibson, who is a nice equivalent of Sixers power forward Tyrone Hill. They probably can’t afford to pay Gibson, and with the way the game has changed, OKC would be better off with a stretch-4 on board. It’s possible that rookie Domantas Sabonis (who shot just 32.1 percent from the 3-point line this year) can develop along that line, but he needs much work on the defensive end.
That’s an important distinction between Westbrook’s Thunder and Iverson’s Sixers. The league was defense-oriented back then, and the Sixers constructed a group that was among the best defense-and-rebounding teams in the NBA. The Thunder are a good defensive team, but that’s not where the league is now.
The NBA has become a shooter’s league, and Oklahoma City is well behind in that regard. They made 8.4 3-pointers per game this season, 26th in the league. (The 2000-01 Sixers, by way of comparison, ranked 28th in 3-pointers made per game, at 3.2). The Thunder shot a league-worst 32.7 percent from the arc this year, well below the 35.8 percent NBA average and easily the worst among playoff teams (Chicago shot 34.0 percent from the 3-point line). The Sixers won with Iverson and defense. The Thunder can win with Westbrook, shooting and defense.
What gets lost in the hand-wringing over Westbrook and his supporting cast — and it's a major difference from Iverson’s one season as a contender — is that this group is very young. The Thunder have an average age of 24.7 years, third-youngest in the NBA. It is not easy to bring in players to fit around a ball-dominant superstar, as Iverson’s Sixers (at 28.2 years, they were ninth-oldest in the league) had to do, but it might be easier to develop a Westbrook supporting cast from within.
Oladipo and Enes Kanter (who could be on the move) turn 25 next month. Adams, promising shooter Alex Abrines and forward Jerami Grant are 23. Sabonis will be 21 next month. The Thunder need to square away the small forward spot, where Andre Roberson is a free agent, but all the potential candidates — Roberson, Doug McDermott, Josh Huestis — are 25. Westbrook’s most important teammates are still developing.
That will be the key for the Thunder. It’s not impossible to win with a player like Westbrook, as Iverson’s Sixers showed, but the roster needs to be tailored to him. The Thunder need tweaks and need shooters, but they have the potential to build around Westbrook with the players on hand.