“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” – Abraham Lincoln
At this point, we have become accustomed to superstar injuries in sports. For every Cal Ripken, Jr., there are dozens of Paul Georges, each shining intensely before falling at a most inopportune time. In the cases of players like George, who can be the only contributor in specific areas most of the time, the team surrounding the star can only do its best to plug the gap and hope for a miraculous turnaround time. For those teams, season-altering injuries often spell disaster, leaving bloated pundits and defeated fans to point fingers.
What’s happened to the Oklahoma City Thunder should by no means be largely season-altering, nor should the loss of reigning NBA MVP and scoring champion Kevin Durant cause immense concern for the long-term prospects of the team. The operative word in that sentence is “should,” twice over, because what we may witness is an opportunity seized on the parts of both head coach Scott Brooks and the man who will dictate the Thunder’s fortunes for at least the next six to eight weeks, point guard Russell Westbrook. How Oklahoma City responds to the temporary loss of its hero may unlock the door to the Western Conference and reveal the true potential of one of the league’s most talented and divisive players.
This won’t be Scott Brooks’ first time trying to complete a 1,000-piece puzzle with ill-fitting spare cardboard. Last season, of course, Westbrook himself went down with an injury which sidelined him for significant time and subsequently unleashed Kevin Durant’s remix of headbandless LeBron, an angry, spiteful basketball demigod who plays with a chip on his shoulder the size of the national debt. From January to the All-Star Break, without Westbrook, Durant averaged 35 points and 6.3 assists while leading the Thunder to a 20-7 record, inviting questions of what fields of gold might arise in Oklahoma City without the volatile guard as a second scoring option.
Any speculation on what Oklahoma City might be able to achieve without Westbrook is misguided and as insane as some of Westbrook’s shots. The Thunder are a much better and far more exciting team with Russell Westbrook, whose willingness to charge into the line of enemy fire without ammunition is only matched by his tendency to come out on the other side of it unscathed. Yes, some of his shots are definitively absurd, and he has his Leeroy Jenkins moments, but his worth far outweighs his risk at this point.
His courage is what keeps us coming back, anyway. Other players scoring 40 points are not like Westbrook scoring 40 because of how he manages to do it. His jumper is not quite at a level to be his go-to, and his drives can end with him hurling a wild shot at the backboard with no expressed intent other than for it to maybe, possibly find the net. In short, watching Russell Westbrook is the kind of activity for which you carve out time because his fun is your fun.
As Zach Lowe, among others, has already noted, Durant’s injury provides Westbrook with the unique opportunity to run the Thunder offense entirely as he sees fit. If you want a better idea of how Westbrook-as-heroballer may unfold, check out Lowe’s piece. Russell Westbrook is a gunslinger of the highest order, the kind of player who combines freakish athleticism with skill and an increasingly outstanding degree of court awareness. For the Thunder, he’ll be the one breaking bottles on the bar and shooting bullets at the ceiling (hopefully not, but maybe, literally) until Durant returns.
The greater opportunity here seems to be the chance for Scott Brooks to prove that his playbook does not simply consist of Westbrook’s drives, pick-and-pops with Serge Ibaka and ALL @KDTREY5 ALL THE TIME. How Brooks deals with the Durant-sized shadow may give fans a window into his true coaching philosophy. More importantly, it may allow Brooks to toy with a lineup ahead of the playoffs.
As with the Westbrook injury last season, Serge Ibaka becomes ever more important, but he will pick his spots and contribute as usual. The space surrounding Durant’s injury really becomes a question of confidence for Westbrook and Brooks, more so than for anyone else in the Thunder stable. Following the 2014 playoffs, which included a tougher-than-expected victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, a tightly contested series win against the Clippers and a disappointing exit to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs without Ibaka, Brooks came under fire for appearing to have run out of ideas in crunch time. Fans blamed his lack of creativity in Ibaka’s absence for the Thunder’s loss to the meticulous Spurs, who outcoached and outhustled Oklahoma City.
A Facebook page has arisen calling for Scott Brooks’ job. Though that may be an extreme now, particularly for the long view-geared front office of Oklahoma City, the period without Kevin Durant may be the most important time for a true test of Brooks’ meddle. The Thunder sank without Ibaka, eventually and in a limited sample size, and it rose to the occasion without Westbrook. In both of those situations, it was Kevin Durant manning the cannon, allowing for Westbrook to score 26 and 40 points in the Thunder’s two series victories in the Western Conference Finals. Now, it’s up to Westbrook to pull defenders and create mismatches without flaunting his recklessness.
Teams in every sport have opportunities to prove themselves under dire circumstances. Adversity can carry a player to a different plane, as it did with Kevin Durant last season, just as easily as it can crush hope. Russell Westbrook is about to have his chance at showing the world what a Thunder team in his image would look like. For all the #LETWESTBROOKBEWESTBROOK truthers, you are about to get a full-sized view of what happens when that is the reality. Scott Brooks is the sculptor, responsible for placing Westbrook in the right circumstances for him, and by extension, us, to succeed.