Victor Oladipo’s success means just as much to The Oklahoma City Thunder as Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles; Dipo is the team’s most important player
Erik Spoelstra used to call Chris Bosh the Heat’s “most important player” during the Big Three era. Opposing teams game-planned more for former scoring champions LeBron James and Dwyane Wade more than Bosh, but Bosh’s often overlooked success was most important to their key wins.
Ray Allen’s miracle three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals would not have happened if not for Bosh securing the clutchest offensive rebound of the year. Like a true most important player, he flew under the radar.
Victor Oladipo is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Chris Bosh. Oladipo was brought in to be the Thunder’s most important player last summer, even before Kevin Durant left for windier pastures. The scouting reports have long been out on Durant and Westbrook.
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Opposing teams have recognized their basketball gravity. The Thunder needed a less celebrated star to break opponents’ will by making late-game shots, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks when the team was focused on just stopping Durant and Westbrook.
With Durant gone, and Westbrook averaging a monster triple-double, Oladipo has flown under the radar this year, but his finger prints have been all over the team’s wins and losses.
In losses, he averages a measly 15.1 points per game on 40.8 percent shooting, and only 2.2 assists per game. In wins, those numbers jump to 16.9 points per game (on 0.9 fewer shots per game), 47.8 percent, and 2.8 assists per game.
This is not a “Westbrook needs to shoot less” rant. It is a “Victor Oladipo needs to shoot more” plea. The Thunder need a clutch player who can create shots for himself and his teammates to bail Westbrook out of tight situations, especially in the playoffs.
Enes Kanter’s defensive liabilities make it impossible to play him more minutes than he is already receiving. Steven Adams has become an elite, versatile defender and rebounder, and a decent offensive option. But he can not create his own shot, and probably has never made a shot from outside of the paint.
When the Oklahoma City Thunder need a late-game bucket, Westbrook is their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd option. But their most important player needs to be the best 4th option in the league.
Oladipo averaged 17.9 points and 4.1 assists per game his second year in the league with the Orlando Magic. He has since become a much better shooter, and joined a much better team. There is no reason he shouldn’t beat both of those career highs in the seasons to come with the Thunder.
After trading Cameron Payne, the Thunder need a real backup point guard, and it has to be Oladipo. Semaj Christon’s disgusting Player Efficiency Rating of 5.44 is just not good enough for a good NBA team. And, no, Norris Cole isn’t the answer.
Usually, the Thunder has opted for its second best guard to come off the bench, a baton James Harden passed on to Kevin Martin, who passed it on to Reggie Jackson, and finally Dion Waiters. But in starting Oladipo, and staggering his minutes with Westbrook’s, they have given him more responsibility than any of their short-tenured 6th Men, the responsibility to help the starting, and second units.
Oladipo’s importance is also tied into the team’s hope of him replacing other seriously flawed wings. Andre Roberson, one of the league’s best wing defenders, is also one of its worst offensive players. Sam Presti and Thunder management have long worked to stay under the salary cap.
With four players on near-max contracts next year, it is unlikely the Thunder will be willing to renew Roberson’s contract. That’s where Oladipo comes in. The defensive tenacity – and 6-foot-9 wingspan – he displayed in Orlando make him the perfect compliment to Westbrook on the wing, and the type of sidekick that opposing teams can see no upside in playing against.
Oladipo’s ascent to stardom has seemingly been put on pause, but once he becomes the Bosh-like player he can be, he will make life easier on Westbrook as well as the team’s young role players. Alongside Durant, Westbrook exhibited good cutting skills and post ups that should continue improving when Oladipo begins drawing double teams again.
I don’t like to obsess over stats, as they can also be used to exaggerate or distort player performances. But they can also provide the basis of a solid analysis. Oladipo’s stat line of 16-3-4 provides the basis for the assumption that he is a decent role player, and the eye test backs that up.
But Oladipo has a 20-5-6 player with All-Defensive honors in him, somewhere, and realizing it might be more important to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s success than even Westbrook’s triple-doubles.