Let’s start this with a disclaimer. I watch every Oklahoma City Thunder game. I want them to win the NBA championship. I think I am more optimistic than pessimistic about their chances for winning a title. Kevin Durant has been my favorite player in the NBA the last two seasons and James Harden has become my second favorite player this year.
It’s time for me as a Thunder apologist to address the Russell Westbrook hate and criticism that he seems to get from everyone. I just watched this video from bballbreakdown.com picking apart Westbrook in the Thunder’s loss to the Spurs from a few nights ago. I don’t really have anything wrong with the breakdown but I’d rather shed a different perspective on the whole Westbrook situation.
The premise of the breakdown is how Westbrook isn’t a true point guard and doesn’t do what a point guard is supposed to do. He also adds research about high-volume shooting point guards in NBA history and how that doesn’t result in championships.
I agree with this. Westbrook isn’t a true point guard. He makes decisions that “good basketball” says a point guard shouldn’t. I also agree and have always said that having a point guard as your best player or best scorer does not help you win a title.
But how can Westbrook be a bad point guard but not really be a point guard either at the same time?
He’s not a point guard
Westbrook brings the ball up on offense for the Thunder. He doesn’t really play point guard because the Thunder don’t really ask him to, in the traditional sense. He needs to shoot 20 times a game for the Thunder to win with the team they have. That’s a fact. The starting lineup for the Thunder involves only one other player that can even remotely create his own shot (Durant) and basically just one other player that is a reliable spot-up shooter (Ibaka). As a Thunder fan, I have to be happier with Westbrook attacking out of control than him trying to be something that is not in his DNA (a point guard) and setting up Thabo Sefolosha for threes.
The real problem here is probably how the Thunder use Westbrook. I think this is only a problem in crunch time. It probably isn’t the best idea to have Westbrook bringing the ball up in crunch time because of his decision-making history. The Thunder also have James Harden on the roster who plays in crunch time and is becoming one of the best playmakers in the entire NBA. There aren’t many Thunder fans out there that aren’t calling for Harden to be the primary ball-handler down the stretch.
And I don’t think that this is something Westbrook would be opposed to. The Thunder team is a very close-knit group and Westbrook knows as well as anyone how good Harden is. Any kind of ego that the media thinks Westbrook possesses is a myth.
Taking and making bad shots is important for winning a championship
Somehow this seems to be very true. Just about every NBA championship team has had their best player be someone who is capable at taking “bad” shots and occasionally making them. Westbrook’s ability to simply get off bad shots is practically an asset for the Thunder when it comes to winning a championship.
People are always hating on the Thunder for their low assists totals and how they don’t run great offense. They have the best trio of isolation scorers in the NBA and scoring in isolation situations is what teams see the most when NBA basketball changes during the playoffs. Would it be nice if the Thunder ran better offense and got more easy baskets? Of course. But they basically never run offense and score in ways that they will have to score in when the playoffs come around and lead the league in true shooting percentage as a team. Don’t tell me this isn’t a good sign for them to win a title.
Westbrook’s mistakes appear worse than they are
A turnover is a turnover. A missed shot is a missed shot. When Westbrook does these things they tend to appear much worse than other players in the league. He takes off-balance 18-footers with 16 seconds left on the shot clock and the Thunder don’t get a rebound. Yes, that is a bad shot. The Thunder would have a 5-10 percent better chance of getting an offensive rebound if he was more patient and looked for a better shot.
But that’s who Westbrook is. His current playing style is, if nothing else, authentic to who he is as a person and that has to be a good thing for now. If Scott Brooks tried to hold a tighter leash on Westbrook it could possibly mess with the other things he does great and makes him such a special talent. Sure, it would be nice if you could have both worlds with Westbrook but he is only 23. Asking Westbrook to make better decisions is very close to asking why he isn’t the best player in the league right now. Because that’s what he would become if he was the best decision-maker in the NBA.
Playing alongside Durant and Harden doesn’t help Westbrook in this sense either. They are both very forgivable with anything they do wrong or any shot they miss. Westbrook is totally the opposite so his mistakes are even that much more amplified.
How hard would it be to change his personality?
I like that Brooks and the Thunder seem to embrace Westbrook and who he is. They win with him and they lose with him. They aren’t trying to totally change him, just mold him some.
Like I said earlier, other parts of his game would suffer if he played like a true point guard. It’s better that he is true to himself.
In the video, Westbrook was criticized for going after a steal in the backcourt. I’ve watched every Thunder game this year and Westbrook sometimes makes those low percentage steals and turns them into baskets. Those are big momentum changers and demoralizing to the opponent when they work. Those are plays that only Westbrook makes and when he does, it kills that Thunder opponent.
Westbrook sometimes has a bad habit of jogging back on defense after a steal attempt like that or jawing at the referees. But he doesn’t do that every possession and overall it’s safe to say that Westbrook plays as hard as any player in the NBA. He never gives up on a game. He has numerous times this year kept the Thunder afloat while they were losing a game allowing for them to eventually comeback. A fan has to be obsessed with this about Westbrook.
And we know that there might not be a harder worker on his game than Westbrook. He’s 23-years old and never played point guard before he was drafted into the NBA. No one thought he’d be averaging 23 points per game by this point in his career. Nothing lends to the thought that he is leveling out. He’s going to keep improving along with Durant and Harden and it is insane to think about the potential of this team if he does.
He’s the best athlete in the world
I know everyone likes to say how LeBron James is the best athlete in the world but I think Westbrook is an even better one. Obviously the fact that LeBron is 6-foot-8 makes it more impressive at times but in terms of athleticism I don’t think anyone can touch Westbrook. LeBron may have moments where he appears the greatest athlete but Westbrook is consistently that athlete the entire time he is on the floor.
So if he’s the best athlete in the league let’s leave him alone a little and give him some time to grow. It’s the Thunder’s success’ fault that he is under any kind of a microscope. Their four best players are 23 or 22 and they already have made it to the Western Conference Finals and the favorite in the West this season. They really weren’t supposed to get this good quite this soon. They definitely aren’t going to be perfect and Westbrook won’t either.
I’ll end with this: at the beginning of the season and during the playoffs last year I felt like Westbrook was the most destructive player in the NBA basically because he was holding Durant back and shooting more than him from time to time when it seemed like he shouldn’t be. After watching every minute of every Thunder game I can’t help but appreciate the value of Westbrook to this team. They need him as much as Durant. Sometimes they are even going to need him to shoot more than Durant or take over late.
Do I have some doubts about the Thunder ever winning a title with Westbrook as their point guard? Sure. But when they do win a title it won’t be despite Westbrook as much as it will be because of him.