You know I’m a Coach, right? Says so right before my name: Coach Nick. I ceased being a fan a long time ago, and I can’t watch basketball without my coke bottle thick coach’s rec specs wrapped tight around my head, so my man can’t knock them off while battling for a rebound. While I’m not that old, I’m firmly grounded in the old school, where you better fight through every screen, never get beat backdoor, and jump balls after every basket. Wait – I’m not that old school (that rule was changed in 1938, thank goodness).
One thing I won’t budge on is point guard play – specifically the mindset the point guard must have to be part of a championship team. The point guard of your team is really like your local bartender. He has to serve up the drinks, cut people off when they’ve had too many, know which patrons he can do a shot with, listen to everyone’s sad stories, and brighten their day with a wink and a smile. We’re not talking the intense Tom Cruise’s Tom Flanagan character in Cocktail (great name for a bartender, though), we’re talking something along the lines of Ted Danson’s Sam Malone in Cheers. Sometimes you can get away with the slightly batty but wise old bartender like Coach Ernie Pantusso, but you’re never sure if he’s aware of the wisdom he’s dispensing, and you don’t want him too old where he might pass away before the season is over (see: Derek Fisher).
I’m trying to picture the Sam Malone of point guards, that guy who is the perfect mix of skills, who knows how to set his teammates up, get his shots when the team needs them, keeps everyone on the same page. Magic Johnson had all these qualities, but at 6’9″ was less accessible to most of us muggles. The one guy who still has it amazingly is Steve Nash – perfect shot selection, gets his teammates involved, keeps everyone focused. He doesn’t set the best example on defense, but bartenders tend to give in to excess from time to time. In other words, he’s as close to perfection as they come.
If Rajon Rondo didn’t shoot so poorly from the line, he’d be just as perfect. Chris Paul mixes in a tenacity Nash and Rondo lack – he’d only make shaken martinis – not stirred. Deron Williams is almost there, but the mistakes he makes at times are as batty as the loveable Coach Pantusso. Derrick Rose, at 22% of his team’s shots, comes close to Westbrook’s volume, but with a career high 8 assists/game, he is constantly improving. Oh, and did I mention he’s just plain better?
Problem is, the discussion of the top PGs in the league always leads back to Russell Westbrook. Somehow, he’s shoved himself into the conversation, and the Thunder, like your cool uncle who only serves to enable your binge drinking, has encouraged this perception. And let’s get this straight – Russell Westbrook as a point guard is exactly that: a perception.
“What do you call a point guard that takes 19 shots a game, scores 24 points per game, and averages 5.5 assists?”
“A shooting guard.”
I’ve been saying this for well over a year, and I’m going to say it again louder. RUSSELL WESTBROOK IS THE 3RD BEST SHOOTING GUARD IN THE LEAGUE. We must stop pretending that he has any of the qualities a championship point guard must have. He is hot headed, lets referees bad calls bother him, complains to the refs when he misses shots that aren’t fouls, yells at his teammates, takes some of the worst shots at the worst times, and competes on the verge of being out of control at all times. Does this sound like the kind of guy you’d want to spend a couple of hours with talking about your problems? If Russell Westbrook was a bartender, you’d get half a sentence about how you and your wife had an argument before he’d throw a beer in your face and scream at you to get over it already. He’d try and mix 3 drinks at once, sweat from his brow adding to the mixture, and then yell at you when you winced at the taste.
If you want to remove my coaching bias from this conversation, go ahead. Suppose you like Westbrook, love the Thunder, and have high hopes for this team to go all the way this year. OK, fine, I won’t get in the way of your passion. I will simply point to the following table:
In the last 30 years, there has NEVER been a team that has won a title where the point guard has taken more than 19% of his team’s total shots, adjusted for any games he didn’t play in. “But Coach,” you’ll say, “the Triangle offense was the reason the numbers are like that.” Fine, take out those Bulls and Lakers teams and it still doesn’t matter. When you have a player whose responsibility is to be in charge of the ball, and he tilts the shot distribution too far in his favor, it hurts the team. That team might win a lot of games, they might get through a round or two of the playoffs, but sooner or later, after enough of his teammates hustle down court to their spots only to get whiplash watching Westbrook’s shots go up so fast, they’ll stop playing hard. It might be imperceptible, just barely noticeable, but it’s there. Enough trips down the court where Ibaka doesn’t get to at least touch the ball, he might not soar as high as he needs to get that next block, Durant might not fight around a weakside screen as hard (“What’s the point, he might ask himself, Russ is gonna toss it up anyway?), and the Thunder stop making winning plays.
Watch the breakdown, see for yourself, but let’s not keep deluding ourselves. With Maynor out, the Thunder have talented rookie Reggie Jackson who can be a distributor, tenacious defender, and a restorer of balance. They could also start James Harden and let him bring the ball up more. But Harden does his best work coming off the bench, exploiting the opposing team’s bench, and would only weaken the team’s chemistry even more. So come on, Scott Brooks and Sam Presti – you are 2 of the smartest guys in the NBA, I know the stats back me up, make a move so we can all celebrate a small market team championing over the Goliaths from New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. This is the same moment in Cheers where Sam pours himself a beer, is about to break years of sobriety, and just before picking the mug up, slides it artfully around the bend in the bar to Diane. That, my friends, is a perfect assist.