Russell Westbrook is expected to suit up on Thursday when the Oklahoma City Thunder take on defending NBA champion Miami Heat at Chesapeake Energy Arena. However, despite his much-awaited return, everybody knows by now the Thunder can win games even without him.
The Thunder, who hold the best record in the NBA right now, is a surprise team in the sense that they manage to sustain their elite status despite losing their second best player for roughly two months.
Westbrook was averaging 21.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game before he went down in December. Nevertheless, his absence opened the floodgates of opportunity for Durant to further harness all-around basketball skills as he becomes a more complete player over the next two months.
Durant has been putting up MVP-type of numbers, averaging 31.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game, while shooting 51 per cent from the field and 41 per cent from the free-throw line. The former Rookie of the Year has generally improved every facet of his game, making him a hotter favourite over LeBron James to win the highest individual award for this season.
Westbrook, who missed 2013's playoffs due to a torn MCL, is surely a big boost for the Thunder as they look to secure home-court advantage for the rest of the postseason. Durant even compares Westbrook's upcoming return to a trade deadline deal that involves an All-Star guard.
"It's like trading for an All Star at the trade deadline," said Durant, the NBA's leading scorer. "We're looking forward to it. We're definitely excited for him to get back."
Westbrook - On the Negative Side
There's no doubt that Westbrook would make things easier for Durant. However, his presence could also cost the All-Star forward the chance to bag this season's MVP with James looking to make a strong second half push to retain his title.
Even without Westbrook, Durant proved that he can carry his team even against elite oppositions (Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers and Heat). Reggie Jackson has been a stud as a replacement for Westbrook, while Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha are doing their work on the defensive end.
Overall, the Thunder appears to have perfect components in each position, except at the center spot where Kendrick Perkins is largely ineffective. Though Serge Ibaka is giving them some interior defense, Perkins is totally not the solution to make them a formidable championship contender. What the Thunder needs is an athletic center who can go up and down the court and grab big rebounds.
Apparently, Westbrook trade could fix everything for the Thunder. Trading a superstar-caliber player like Westbrook would be easier than dealing a role player at the trade deadline. Of course, the former UCLA standout won't be moved beyond Thursday, but still there's a chance to play for another team next season (Especially if the Thunder bow out in the postseason).
Westbrook could be dealt to New York Knicks for Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert and maybe some draft picks. Milwaukee Bucks Larry Sanders is also an enticing trade target for the Thunder, while the Magic could offer budding center Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Afflalo or perhaps Victor Oladipo.
Sky is certainly the limit if the Thunder will be bold enough to part ways with Westbrook. Besides, Durant can do it all, and he doesn't need another Westbrook to unleash havoc in the NBA. What he needs is good interior presence and handful of complimentary players to get the job done, as "the Man" of OKC.
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