The former Hawks guard was given the keys to the Atlanta franchise at an early stage in is basketball tenure. His progress as a basketball player and leader did not follow the trajectory that he expected and is now a member of the Thunder; taking over the vacant role that Reggie Jackson once occupied. The dynamic between Jackson and Westbrook was combative to say the least. While Schröder is going to be given full control of the second unit, he is going to have to play alongside Westbrook. Both are ball dominant and have not shown any glimpses of ceding control of the ball. How this duo is meant to work together is certainly fascinating.
Billy Donovan was given the Thunder job with the sole goal of invigorating the fast-paced offense that won him two national titles during his 19 year tenure for the University of Florida. In his three seasons in Oklahoma have not one according to plan. He did a complete 180 and quickly deserted his offense that emphasized ball movement, screening, and sharp cuts for an iso-heavy system around Westbrook and Kevin Durant. This isn’t unprecedented. Coaches have always adapted and changed their tactics to get the best out of their roster. With Durant gone to the Bay Westbrook was handed the keys to the offense and earned the Title, “Mr. Triple Double” in an MVP season. Many were rightly concerned that the Thunder would struggle to make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference. They exceeded expectations in a 47 win season and were subsequently knocked out by Russ’ former teammate in Harden and the Rockets. With Westbrook yet to sign a long-term extension, GM Sam Presti took a gamble in trading for a L.A bound Paul George. A year later both players signed through to at least the 2020-21 season even though the Thunder once again crashed out in the first round of the playoffs. Steven Adams is forever improving and the upsides of young players like Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo have the potential to be role-players in a title contending team. The Thunder have the luxury of time to blossom into a top tier team in the NBA given that their stars are still in their respective primes and the have young players who are yet to fully blossom.
In his fourth year at the helm, Billy Donovan has to change the way his offense his structured. It is not surprising that the Thunder have consistently been ranked near the bottom in assists and total passes. And this is despite Donovan constantly telling the media that he wants a faster offense with more movement. Does it seem unfair for Russel Westbrook to change the way he plays this late into his career? He is not Steph Curry who can move without the ball and consistently knock down catch-and-shoot threes. Both Westbrook and George employ rhythm based styles where their play develops a life of its own with the ball in their hands. What’s best for their individual game it not the best for the Thunder. It’s common knowledge at this point that Westbrook’s dominance of the ball has not translated to winning at the highest level. Teams generally fail to succeed when a player is chucking up an average of 27 shots per game especially with the inefficiency that Westbrook shots at. Never mind his wild shooting during the regular season; his post season numbers are unquestionably abysmal in the past two playoff exits for OKC against the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets.
Since Durant’s departure, Westbrook has been Donovan’s sole option for playmaking. George is an efficient scorer that can play without the ball though he previously has never shown signs of being a playmaker. Let’s not talk about Carmelo Anthony. He’s a touch subject in regards to the Thunder’s offense. In the past three years, Oklahoma has featured the likes of Raymond Felton, D.J. Augustin, and Semaj Christon as their backup point guard. The Thunder went from great to appalling when he left the floor in each of the past two seasons when he’s had the reigns. Numbers and statistics aren’t needed to justify the idea that a team plays better when it’s star player is on the court. Either that or the drop of can be minimized if he is complimented with quality backups.
It may be ludicrous to say this but Schroder can actually help. Schröder is still severely flawed as a point guard though the Thunder traded for him and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot in order to dump Carmelo Anthony’s $29 million salary on the Hawks. This saves them tens of millions of dollars in luxury tax savings. Schröder doesn’t come on a cheap contract. He’s owed $46.5 million over the next three seasons. That’s costly for a guard who is a one-way inefficient player. He scored 19.4 points per game in his last season for the Hawks on 44% from the field and 29% from deep. That’s only 7% better from three than Andre Roberson – a wing player who is visibly afraid to shoot the ball. He looks confused on the defensive end of the floor and let’s player run by him like he’s invisible. On paper, he reminds the world of Reggie Jackson’s tenure when he was paired with Westbrook. Jackson had a contentious rapport with the former MVP and once butted heads with before he was traded to Detroit. Schröder may even be a worse fit alongside Russ though there is one major difference that has to be noted. Jackson was eager for more minutes and a greater role as he yearning for a big payday. Schröder is already being paid well above his paygrade. For all his weaknesses, maybe it’s possible that Billy Donovan can convince the German guard to modify the way he plays on the court and get the best out of his unappreciated facilitating.
He is as fast as a jaguar. Schröder has shown that he can create shots and run an offense against some of the best defenses in the league. He won’t be chucking up 17 shots a game like he did last season on a tanking Hawks. Circumstances do count. He is not going to be a good stats-bad team kind of guy. The 24-year old is going to be encouraged to be a past first guard who’ll have sovereignty over the second unit. This is expected of him. He was compared to the likes of Rajon Rondo before he was drafted in 2013. Like Rondo, he’s known for finding shooters and cutter on accurate passes. Schröder has had the luxury of playing with the likes of Kyle Korver and the current Thunder roster lacks a sharpshooter of Korver’s calibre. George has had stretches when he’s excellent on catch-and-shoot threes. Alex Abrines is another player that will benefit from Schröder’s presence as will Jerami Grant who has improved on corner threes. His passes might even be to Westbrook – if they share the court together – who’ll catch the ball and barrel down the lane for an explosive dunk. Maybe OKC can bring his passing back that made him a touted prospect during the 2013 draft.
Westbrook is still in his prime and will continue to average around 35 minutes on the floor. He’ll have to learn to play alongside Schröder. The future of this iteration of the Thunder could depend on their ability to co-exist. Donovan’s job hinges on finally being able to install a fast-paced offensive with plenty of off ball movement with two point guards with whom the ball sticks. This is a much better alternative than relying on Westbrook to do everything. Donovan’s goal is to limit midrange pull-up jumpers on a team that lacks 3-point shooting. Credit to Russ, he has become a decent spot-up shooter. Running a pick-and-roll with Schröder or learning to come off screens will dramatically improve his numbers and OKC’s. In late-clock or close game situations, they can always revert back to iso-plays for Westbrook. He’s yet to find a suitable backcourt partner with Harden, Oladipo, and Reggie Jackson all leaving the Thunder for one reason or another. Now it’s Schröder’s turn to try and adjust to Russ’ game. Both players need to change the way they approach basketball and start to at least become mediocre defenders. The game will come easier for both players if they both sacrifice.
Should Westbrook be open to playing differently, Donovan will finally be the coach the Thunder first hired. The Thunder have the roster pieces to be contender in the West that is more competitive than ever. Sam Presti has a reputation for drafting well and he’s recently become a bold executive that has assembled a talented – but a very pricey – team. The Thunder have been a stagnant team for the past two seasons. Maybe its third time’s a charm, though treading water for a third consecutive season is simply not an option for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Donovan may run into similar problems that Scott Brooks had when the latter was the head coach of the Thunder. Unlike Brooks, Billy Donovan has showed a willingness to adapt his coaching style to fit his star player and the roster he was handed. They’ve been stuck in the doldrums for the past two years and it’s now time for Westbrook to change.