We’re all well acquainted with the events that unfolded on Thursday night in a game between the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell Westbrook went the complete wrong way while guarding Tony Parker, who got wide open and made a 20 footer as time expired to lift the Spurs to a victory. Echoes of last year’s playoffs, when Westbrook turned his head and lost Steve Blake – only Westbrook wasn’t forced to learn from that mistake as Blake’s potential game winning 3 bounded off the rim.
What we’ve been saying here for the past two seasons still holds true: Russell Westbrook simply isn’t a point guard. He is one of the most explosively athletic players in the league, and is able to create something from nothing in often sublime ways. But the anger that simmers just under the surface tends to influence his decisions, and the pattern has been disturbing. Time and again, he is willing to dribble the ball into the double digits, in place, not initiating the offense, until there is only time for him to fling up a last second on the shot clock heave. He delivers the ball late to cutter coming off of screens, and settles for outside jump shots when the lane is open. Defensively, he is a superior on ball defender, but when his focus dissolves once his man cuts away to the weakside.
These things aren’t even an issue when the Thunder play the bottom 26 teams in the league. The Thunder so overwhelm their opponents with physical talent, there is little need for actual coaching by Scott Brooks. Which is precisely why they couldn’t beat the Heat in last year’s finals. They had no idea how to play up to an opponent that could match them physically. Once LeBron James started posting up early and often, the Thunder could not figure out how to double down on James and rotate back out to the shooters. It was like Scott Brooks had never learned how to coach to win, since it came so easily as his players developed on their own.
The question Thunder fans need to ask themselves is: Is this enough? Is it good enough to be able to beat all but 3 teams in the league in a 7 game series? You don’t want to overlook the phenomenal success they’ve enjoyed over the past 3 seasons, yet I can’t help but think that the maturation process has eluded them and held them back from getting over this hump. In America, we expect a better version of our favorite team each year, and we want to see tangible signs of that improvement – in wins.
Russell Westbrook can get in the gym in the offseason and work on his ball handling, his jump shot, his defensive stance. But what he hasn’t worked on is his understanding of the game. The point guard position is filled with subtleties and nuance about how and when to get the ball to teammates, how to manage the game clock and get the best shot for each situation, how to lead on the court and be the steady hand that steers the ship. These are things Westbrook does not excel it, and may never. Which is precisely why we have been calling for the Thunder to play him at shooting guard and let him do what he does best: attack from the wing after some ball movement. With an ego-less point guard like Eric Maynor running the show, he can see that the shot distribution is on the right track – with Kevin Durant getting more shots than Russ.