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Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook Shine While Second Unit Struggles

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With the return of Kevin Durant from injury, some of Billy Donovan’s preferred lineups are starting to emerge. The Thunder are supposedly deeper this season, but the bench unit is struggling to consistently sustain itself through games. Although Donovan is still trying to solve the second unit’s woes, he seems to have moved past the experimentation stage with the small-ball lineup, as he has gone to it more frequently the past few games. And rightfully so, because the smaller lineups are having some success.

Kevin Durant

Kevin Durant is on an outrageous shooting stretch since returning from his left hamstring strain against the Washington Wizards. For his play last week, Durant received the honors for Western Conference Player of the Week. In his four games since returning, Durant is averaging 29 points, 4.3 assists, and 7.8 rebounds on 56.3/51.9/95.7. But it wasn’t just his offense. Durant is averaging 2.8 blocks per game and recorded four blocks in the most recent game against Atlanta.

With Durant on the court this season, the Thunder are giving up 98.2 points per 100 possessions. With Durant off the court, they are giving up 102.5 points per 100 possessions. So without Durant, OKC is a bottom-10 level defense and jumps to a top-10 level defense with him in. That’s no coincidence.

Durant can guard every position with his length. Two of Durant’s blocks against the Hawks came on back-to-back fourth quarter possessions. The first on an isolation post move by Al Horford, and the second on a drive by Dennis Schroder. Within a minute, he took on a center and a point guard in one-on-one situations and blocked both shots.

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While Durant gets a lot of credit for being one of the best offensive players in the game, his defense has improved every year, which is scary for the other 29 teams.

Russell Westbrook

Since Durant’s return, Russell Westbrook is averaging 23.8 points, 8.3 assists, seven rebounds on 48.4/15.4/91.2. Now before we get into Westbrooks negatives (three-point percentage and turnovers), let’s talk about his positives, thus far.

He’s dishing out  9.9 assists per game, which is second in the league only behind Rajon Rondo (10.7). He also leads all point guards in assist-to-pass ratio (17.8), which shows that he isn’t just passing the ball, but he’s setting up teammates for easy baskets.

Westbrook is asserting himself as one of those so-called “true” point guards, except, he can score the ball pretty well, too. He’s become one of the best distributors in the league.

However, Westbrook has also turned the ball over a lot this season. He’s averaging 5.2 turnovers per game, which is the worst in the league (James Harden is second at 4.8). Westbrook had a career-high 11 turnovers against the Pistons last Friday and is averaging 7.5 turnovers per 100 possessions.

Turnovers are going to happen when you have the ball as much as Westbrook does as he’s leading the league in usage. More importantly, for someone who’s shooting 30 percent from three-point range, Westbrook doesn’t need to shoot five threes a game, which is what he’s averaged this season.

Bottom line Westbrook is best when he drives the ball to the basket, pulls up from mid-range or drives and kicks it out to an open teammate.

Multiple Lineup Options

18 November 2015: Oklahoma City Thunder Kyle Singler (5) and Enes Kanter (11) help D.J. Augustin (14) up as the Thunder take on the New Orleans Pelicans at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. (Photo by  JP Wilson/Icon Sportswire)

18 November 2015: Oklahoma City Thunder Kyle Singler (5) and Enes Kanter (11) help D.J. Augustin (14) up as the Thunder take on the New Orleans Pelicans at the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, OK. (Photo by
JP Wilson/Icon Sportswire)

There’s been some criticism with the second unit, and most of it’s been about DJ Augustin because he’s in charge of running the second unit. The biggest issues for Augustin are turnovers and defense where anyone he’s guarding seems to overpower him.

The second unit has struggled regardless of Augustin’s play, however. The all-bench lineup of Augustin-Anthony Morrow-Dion Waiters-Nick Collison-Enes Kanter posted an offensive rating of 86.5 and a defensive rating of 108.4, which is a net rating of -21.9. This lineup has played 35 minutes together in six games and has been awful. One of the issues with this lineup is that Kanter isn’t able to carry the offense as anticipated, and he’s not helping defensively either. So why not try Kanter in the starting lineup?

The lineup with Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Durant, Ibaka and Kanter has an offensive rating of 152.4, a defensive rating of 88.3, which is a net rating of +64.1.

Kanter with the starters has only played 17 minutes in four games, but it does seem to confirm that the Thunder may be more effective overall with Kanter starting. Playing Kanter with better perimeter defenders along with Ibaka’s weakside help protection covers him.

Plus, it puts Steven Adams to the defensively dreadful second unit, which desperately needs a rim protector. Adams with the second unit hasn’t played much, with three minutes in two games. It has been good in that time, though, with a 116.7 offensive rating, an 82.0 defensive rating, with a net of plus-34.7.

Then the first substitution you make is Waiters for Roberson, which makes the lineup Westbrook, Waiters, Durant, Ibaka and Kanter. This lineup has an offensive rating of 153.4 a defensive rating of 102.9, which is a net rating of +50.5. This group has played 33 minutes together in 10 games. That’s not a lot, but it’s been a dominant offensive group. Defensively, it would rank 24th in the league, which is far from No. 1, but it’s still better than the Warriors as an offensive unit, somehow.

Small-ball Lineup

The Thunder have recently started playing more small-ball lineups. The most preferred one has been Westbrook, Morrow, Waiters, Durant and Ibaka. This lineup has an offensive rating of 141.8, a defensive rating of 91.4, which is a net rating of +50.4. This unit has played 20 minutes together in five games. Against the Hawks on Monday, this unit bombarded Atlanta late in the first half, slicing a 16-point deficit to one in the final 2:54 with an 18-3 run before the half.

This lineup is most effective offensively but isn’t too bad defensively. Defensively, it’s solid because the Thunder can switch 1-through-5. Ibaka’s one of the league’s best post players at covering smaller guards and Durant has proven he can do the same. Most teams, however, are going to either go small themselves or, if they stay big, they will try to switch Morrow on a big. If you want to stick with a similar small lineup down the stretch but want to be better defensively because of Morrow’s lack of athleticism on defense, then why not take him out for Roberson to add more size and length?

However, if you don’t end games with a small lineup, then the Thunder could closeout with its current starting lineup of Westbrook, Roberson, Durant, Ibaka and Adams, which has an offensive rating of 102.4, a defensive rating of 92.9, and a net rating of +9.5. This is by far the most used lineup with 159 minutes in 12 games played together.

The big trend with all of these lineups is that anything that includes Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka tends to be pretty good. When the trio is on the floor, the Thunder have a net rating of plus-14.7 in 322 minutes.

The Thunder have played 22 percent of its season, so coach Billy Donovan has plenty of time to try these lineups. So as Westbrook would say, Why not?

All stats via NBA.com/stats

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