Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Andre Roberson, Perry Jones

From left, Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Andre Roberson and Perry Jones watch from the bench in the fourth quarter of an NBA basketball pre-season game against the Memphis Grizzlies in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. Oklahoma City won 117-107. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

The Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant emerged as an MVP candidate last year, earning votes with his performance while running mate and point guard Russell Westbrook was sidelined with a knee injury. The 6-foot, 9-inch swingman took turns operating as a lead guard and a scoring machine while Westbrook was on the mend. Now, Westbrook gets to return the favor with Durant sidelined for six to eight weeks with a broken foot.

But after years of trying to force his way into the role of the team’s best player, is the injury-prone and sometimes hot-headed Westbrook ready to match Durant’s performance last year and carry the show? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley debate of the AFRO Sports Desk debate the question.

Riley: Russell Westbrook might be the best all-around player in the NBA. He’s a fierce rebounder, an active defender, an effective passer and scoring presence. At just 6-foot, 3-inches, he can take over a game—evidenced by a huge postseason performance where he averaged 26.7 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and just over two steals a game. He was dominant, versatile and reliable. Now, he’ll step into a role suited for him, one in which he can be the all-around menace that he naturally is, direct traffic and head the team’s defense. Westbrook can carry the team while Durant’s down, as long as it’s only for a short period of time.

Green: We all know the skills are already there for Westbrook; the man can flat out DO IT, whether scoring or playing defense. He’s a true superstar in the making. But that’s not the issue here. The reality of the situation is that OKC plays in the Western Conference, where every team is stacked and loaded with great talent. It’s the same conference in which Carmelo Anthony and former star Tracy McGrady spent most of their careers enduring early playoff exits. The point is; no matter how great a player Westbrook is, he will need help, and without KD, this team will run into problems when they face the other juggernauts of the West. Two stars are always better than one.


Riley:
You’re right, but KD held the team together when Westbrook was injured for an extended period of time last season, and I think Westbrook will do the same this season. The only question is if Westbrook is mature enough to lead the same way KD did? I think so. Pundits give Westbrook a hard time because of how passionate he can be on the floor. Personally, I can’t see how a fiery leader is a bad thing. For all of Durant’s humbleness and gentle giant approach, critics have begun to criticize the reigning MVP for his perceived lack of a killer instinct. I don’t agree wholeheartedly, but one thing nobody will ever question is Westbrook’s aggressiveness and assertiveness. He wants to win, he thrives to win and he’ll take over the shooting and scoring load at times regardless of who he’s playing with. We’ve seen him go on shooting binges despite the presence of capable scorers like Durant or even James Harden, which just further proves that despite the personnel or the situation, you can rely on Westbrook to not shy away from any situation. And for a guy that will be looked upon for his scoring and intensity, there isn’t a better role for the super-athletic Westbrook.

Green: Oklahoma City isn’t going to be the same without Durant, plain and simple. You can’t replace a player of Durant’s caliber, and the mismatches that he gives you as an oversized shooting guard is something that only LeBron James can provide. And don’t forget that Westbrook has had three knee surgeries over the last two seasons. Asking him to carry the load mentally is one thing, but is he physically capable of shouldering a larger workload when he could barely handle shared duties with Durant without getting injured? I was prepared to see the Thunder try to limit Westbrook’s minutes going into the year, because Westbrook’s knees have been tricky. But Durant’s latest injury is perhaps the worst thing that could have happened for both of Oklahoma City’s star players. Westbrook is finally going to get what he wants—a chance to be the go-to-guy—but Durant’s shadow is too big and Westbrook is too injury-prone for that to work.