Why emergence of Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant gives Thunder hope, and adds more pressure on Russell Westbrook

Earlier this year, I wrote that this season was going to be something of a referendum on Russell Westbrook. When I wrote this, I was looking at a Thunder team that, free of Carmelo Anthony, featured two superstars and an elite defense, and concluding that if a team like that can't rise above a barely-50-win level, if it can't become something more than a team that squeaks into the playoffs only to be promptly discarded in the first round, at some point, we were all finally going to have to admit that a team with Westbrook as its best player was, or is, going to be inherently limited.

I believe that even more now.

Turns out, the Thunder are even better, at least potentially, than I thought they would be -- a sentiment that can be largely attributed to the emergence of two players in particular: Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant, both of whom have been sensational to start the season. Let's start with Grant, who has been everything Melo wasn't at the four spot in OKC's starting lineup, and that doesn't just apply to the defensive end. Grant is shooting a career-best 36 percent from three, and he's an athletic finisher who Billy Donovan is smartly placing in the dunker spot along the baseline. Watch this play in its entirety, and you'll learn just about everything you need to know about the Thunder:

It all starts with a defensive stop. Oklahoma City is the top-ranked defense in the league. Westbrook grabs the board and throws a full-court pass to Steven Adams, who has sprinted ahead to establish early post position. Some things may be inconsistent about Westbrook and the Thunder, but not their effort. They play hard. They force the action, playing at the eighth-fastest pace in the NBA. From here there are two missed shots, one of which is a three. Indeed, OKC is the worst 3-point shooting team in the league. They make up for it, at least in part, by being the best offensive rebounding team in the league, and sure enough, two offensive boards are what keep this possession alive for Grant to finally finish with a monster slam.

That's how the Thunder do it. It's not pre-diagrammed pearls of offensive wisdom. It's certainly not in line with the way most teams are playing these days, with all their fancy ball movement and 3-point barrages. It's street-ballish. Athletes making plays outside the lines. It's scrappy. Often ugly. Sam Presti doubled down on a roster of grit over glamour, defense over offense, and so far it has the Thunder, after starting the season 0-4, sitting at 13-7 having won 13 of their last 16 games.

"We know ourselves," Grant recently told CBS Sports. "We play a style of basketball that fits our players, regardless of how the NBA is changing. We know what we're good at, and we're good at sticking to it."

You have to kind of love the Thunder for their stubbornness. They mirror Westbrook in that way. They play their way, for better or worse, and in keeping with the consistent theme of this team, the question surrounding it has not changed, either: Will this work in the playoffs? Can a team led by Russell Westbrook, a team that lives -- or dies -- on the individual offense of its two stars and the abundance of tough, contested shots they create, make any kind of real hay in the playoffs? That brings us to Dennis Schroder.

Well, it brings us to Andre Roberson, too.

But let's focus on Schroder for a minute.

When Schroder came to OKC from Atlanta this summer, he wasn't exactly talked about in glowing terms. He was regarded, by many, as an inefficient scorer who can't shoot and doesn't play defense. So far, Schroder has made much of this assessment look stupid. He's still no model of efficiency, but numbers aside, there's just something extra to his game this year. You feel like good things are going to happen when he has the ball, or even when he's just on the court. He's a fixture in some of OKC's most-utilized and most-successful lineups so far. 

Entering Friday, Schroder is shooting a career-high 36 percent from three. He says he's worked on elevating more on his shots from range, and that's helping his consistency. Also, he's simply getting easier looks than he's gotten in the past. The simple truth is this: Schroder has never played with players as good as George and Westbrook, who together draw almost all of the defensive attention. 

"Of course that opens things up for me," Schroder says. 

Indeed, 82 percent of Schroder's 3-pointers have been assisted this year, by far the highest mark since his rookie season. He's using the extra room to convert on catch-and-shoot jumpers at nearly 1.1 points per possession, via Synergy Sports. That's a solid mark for a Thunder team that will take every inch of floor spacing it can get. Schroder's signature performance in a Thunder uniform came in a 123-95 win over the Warriors, who he shredded for 32 points on 12-of-19 shooting, including 5 of 6 from three. Watch him cook from every possible spot on the floor:

Schroder came off the bench in this game. Played 28 minutes. What a weapon to have a legit starting-caliber point guard as your backup. No more falling off the map when Westbrook goes to the bench. When Schroder has it going, he'll play with the starters down the stretch of games, certainly until Roberson gets back and then that becomes a decision. Schroder says Westbrook's early season injury was a blessing in that it gave him an opportunity to play a lot of minutes with the starting unit and get comfortable. For their part, Westbrook and George have welcomed Schroder's playmaking ability from the jump. 

"P.G. and Russ gave me their trust from Day One," Schroder said. "In training camp they were talking to me to be aggressive, and that made it easy for me to just be me and play my game. That's the reason I'm so comfortable right now."

When it's all working, this gives the Thunder three legitimate one-on-one creators, which can give defenses fits. Teams will tell you that come playoff time, the scouting becomes so in-depth, and the knowledge of opponents' offensive actions, over a seven-game series, becomes so second-nature that defenses often know what's coming before it happens. In other words, systems don't create shots as easily. Screening actions are sniffed out. In the end, the more guys you have who can simply create offense out of thin air, who can stare down a set defense and flat-out beat their guy one on one, the better. 

This is where Schroder, as long as he keeps playing like this, makes this Thunder team markedly different than last year's version that relied almost entirely on Westbrook and George to create offense in the half court. Three creators is a whole different thing. 

"With one other scorer out there, it helps," Schroder says. "With two other guys [for a total of three] out there who can score the ball, it opens up a lot more. The defense really can't know where it's coming from. I think that's why Billy [Donovan] and Sam [Presti] brought me here."

As for Schroder's defense, well, that's been perhaps the most pleasant surprise. Entering Friday, Schroder's 100.7 defensive rating is better than the rating of Mike Conley, Draymond Green, Robert Covington, Jrue Holiday and Victor Oladipo, and it's identical to the rating of his teammate Paul George. Every one of those guys is an elite defender. 

Defensive metrics, particularly individual ones, are messy, and it's fair to say Schroder is not an elite defender. But he can look elite on a lot of possessions. Overall, he's doing his job. He's staying in front of the ball and making multiple efforts. A defensive culture like OKC's can rub off on a player, but at the same time, Schroder is quick to point out the naysayers, in his eyes, haven't necessarily done their homework. 

"I have to say, I see it all the time, [people saying] that I wasn't a good defender, but I earned my minutes playing defense when I first got to the league," Schroder told CBS Sports. "I'm a defensive-minded player. I will say [last year] was tough. We were losing a lot [in Atlanta], and people wanted to lose in that organization. It's tough to do certain things, to dig in [defensively] when the organization wants to lose. It was a tough spot for me, but the people who know me, who have followed my journey, they know that I'm a good defender."

For the Thunder, who return to action on Friday against the Hawks (8 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), it always comes back to defense. It's one of two truly consistent things it does, along with own the offensive glass. This is where this team gets very interesting, because for as encouraging as their start to the season has been, there is legitimate reason to believe there is a giant laying in wait when Roberson returns to the lineup -- though that optimism has been dampened with the news that Roberson has suffered a small fracture in his knee and will be re-evaluated in six weeks. 

Whenever he does get back, even if it's only just before the playoffs, understand that last year the Thunder were just starting to take off when Roberson was lost for the season to a ruptured patellar tendon. They were never the same team after. It is imperative they get him back, and assuming they do, he is a difference maker. 

"When [Roberson] does get back, I think the sky's the limit for this team," Grant said. "He shuts down the best offensive player on the other team. It allows us to roam around a little more. We don't have to help as much when we know he's on the ball, and we can pressure our guys more knowing he's got his guy taken care of and is plugging holes on top of it."

It's a scary thought that the best defensive team in the league is, at some point, going to add arguably the best perimeter defensive player in the league. Perhaps Presti finds a way to trade for a shooter or add one on the buyout market. Either way, when you start to add all this up, the elite defense, the emergence of Schroder and Grant, the eventual return of Roberson, the two superstar scorers and the addition of a third, the subtraction of the Melo misfit that weighed them down more and more last season, it's clear this is a far better team than last season, and it's certainly OKC's best chance to make playoff noise since Kevin Durant left. 

If they don't do it, it will be hard to not start drawing some conclusions about Westbrook being a player whose impact is just never quite going to catch up to his talent. Because believe this: If you took any of the players that we know are among the league elite, a LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, James Harden or Kawhi Leonard, and substituted them for Westbrook, you can bet your bottom dollar this OKC team would be talked about as a legit title contender. 

With Westbrook as the lead dog, you won't find many people who are terribly confident this team can even get out of the first round. That says something. It's up to Westbrook to change the narrative. That doesn't mean the Thunder have to win it all. But they have to feel like a threat. The same way the Raptors just feel like a different team with Kawhi instead of DeMar DeRozan. The race to be the No. 2 team out West is wide open. The Thunder have every reason to believe they are the best horse in that race. But in the end, they're going to have to get there by riding Westbrook. It's time to find out how far he can really take a team. 

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