With just five weeks left until the start of the NBA season and people are starting to talk basketball again, I thought it was necessary to touch base on a rather popular topic among the twitterverse and blogosphere.
Russell Westbrook is one of the most discussed players in the league today. After the 2011 playoffs, he was chastised for his play. Criticism usually came in the manner of him “stealing shots from Kevin Durant” and “being selfish”. In those games Westbrook and Durant took nearly the same number of shots (20.2 and 20.3 FGA, respectively), yet Durant outscored Westbrook by nearly five points per game. Most of the critique was warranted though, as Westbrook shot just 39.4% from field and TOV% (estimated # of turnovers per 100 plays) of 16.1.
Coming into this past season, one of the major questions about the Thunder was how would the team get their stars enough shots. With James Harden and Serge Ibaka showing vast improvements, there didn’t seem to be enough basketballs for all of the talent on the Thunder. Even so, Russ managed to increase his shot attempts by 2.2 per game and Durant still won yet another scoring title.
By this time, Westbrook was known as the league’s ultimate “do or die” player. He could take over and win you a game, or he could lose it just as easily. Having a short memory is usually a great trait to have in athletics, but Westbrook was heavily criticized for continuing to take ill advised shots while he was having a bad game. Especially when you have fellow elite scorers like Durant and Harden on your team, you will be under scrutiny as a point guard when you don’t get them the ball.
With the Thunder having a plethora of scorers, and the pending contract extensions of Harden and Ibaka, the idea of trading Westbrook for Rajon Rondo was discussed among fans. The thought is that Rondo, being one of the best distributers in the league, would be able to control the offense and just feed the ball to Durant and crew.
Rondo, only three years older than Westbrook, is another love-hate player. Fans fall in love with his elite passing ability and the way he takes over games as a triple-double machine. Just last season, he managed 10 of the rare feat, including three in the playoffs (all victories). No other player had more than one.
On the other side, his struggles shooting the ball has caused fans to question his ability to be a star on a championship caliber team. Yes, he has already has a ring as a starting point guard, but was not nearly as important to his team as he is today. Throughout his six years in the league, Rondo has never averaged more than 14 points and his True Shooting % has decreased in each of the past four seasons.
While Westbrook struggled at times on the way to an NBA Finals loss, Rondo was the main reason an old Celtics team was able to take the Miami Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. A 44 point explosion by Rondo in Game 2 of the ECF led to an movement to name him the best point guard in the league. With a dangerous jumper, Rondo could become what people want Westbrook to be, a pass-first point guard who can shoot. Unfortunately, that’s not what Rondo has, and that’s not what Westbrook should become.
The thought that point guards should be pass first, shoot second, has caused most of the Westbrook criticism. After averaging over eight assists two seasons in a row, Russ dropped down to just 5.5 in 2011-2012. This is partially fault to James Harden getting much of the fourth quarter point guard duties, but also an increase in the Thunder’s use of isolation on offense.
With the unique collection of athletes in Oklahoma City, they can run a rather basic offense and manage to score at will. With the addition of Rajon Rondo, the whole style of the Thunder would change. You probably see more pick and rolls, spot ups, and fancier passes, while losing much of the isolation game OKC loves so much.
Without a threat to score at point guard, Kevin Durant will get more attention when he has the ball. Assuming Harden stays as the sixth man, the starting lineup will have just Durant, Rondo, and three defensive players in Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, and Kendrick Perkins. While Rondo is still a very good offensive player, he is much less of a threat off the ball as Westbrook.
Although, Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison would be much more involved in the offense with Rondo at the point. A post game has been missing from OKC for years, and that has been a shortcoming for them in the playoffs.
The one player I believe that would be affected the most by a change in point guards, would be James Harden. His main game is being able to drive to the basket at will, and having an array of shots to choose from. Also, he became the primary ball handler for the Thunder late in games.
This was possible because Westbrook is a very capable off-ball guard. Spreading the floor with Durant and Westbrook on the perimeter allowed Harden to navigate his way to the lane, likely drawing a foul and hitting free throws. Rondo would take a majority of the point guard duties when he is in the game, relegated Harden to a more minor role. The Thunder lose the flexibility of having three ball handlers who are elite scorers and have the ability to take over a game individually.
What wins basketball games is scoring. The way it is, Oklahoma City has one of the most high-powered offenses in recent memory. Russell Westbrook is the main reason that can happen. He does cost the team some games, but his upside is way too high to dwell on the misfortunes. With experience he will learn to limit the bad and excel throughout all facets of the game.
The reasons the Thunder loss the Finals were a determined best player in the NBA in LeBron James, a horrible James Harden, and shaky coaching. A change in style is not what the Thunder need to take the next step, they need Russell Westbrook at his best (giving James Harden a new contract would be nice, too).