Can we all agree that Russell Westbrook is one of the ten, if not five, best players in the NBA? Can we also agree that the idea that the Oklahoma City Thunder are a better team without him on the floor is completely insane? Ok, great. Now that we have that out the way, I would like to take a few minutes to examine the player that many (including myself) believe is the key to the Thunder’s title hopes this season.
The first things that come to mind when thinking about Russell Westbrook are thunderous slam dunks and pull up three pointers to trigger a two-for-one at the end of a quarter. As great as those things are, they are only a blip on the radar in terms of what he does on the court. What sets Russell apart from the other point guards in the league is his elite athleticism. Not only is he a world class athlete, but he plays with an energy that is unmatched, allowing him to use his athleticism to impact the game in many ways. He is able to wreak havoc defensively (as seen in game four of last year’s Western Conference Finals) by jumping passing lanes to get steals that lead to the aforementioned transition scores. Westbrook is also one of the best rebounders in the league at the point guard position. During the regular season he was second only to 76ers rookie Michael Carter-Williams in rebounds per game among point guards and he was the leading rebounder among point guards in the postseason with 7.3 per game.
As great as Russell Westbrook can be, there are some issues with his game that have been cause for major debate as to whether he is truly a good fit for the Thunder. His aggressive play style that leads to all the positives mentioned in the previous paragraph can also be a problem. He often gets himself in trouble by trying to force things. There have been many situations throughout his career, especially when the team is losing, when Westbrook tries to take matters in to his own hands. Although this can lead to some of the most amazing performances we have seen, it has resulted in numerous bad shots and turnovers in key situations. With a typical NBA superstar, this wouldn’t be a problem. Most NBA teams live and die with their star player and it can’t be expected that they come through every time. The problem with the Thunder is that Westbrook isn’t even their best player. It just so happens that the reigning NBA most valuable player Kevin Durant is also on the team. Many Thunder fans have wanted to pull their hair out when Westbrook takes a bad shot or turns the ball over and Durant is standing on the other side of the court, wide open.
The dynamic between Westbrook and Durant has been one of the more interesting storylines of the last few seasons. Both players clearly have the ability to carry a team by themselves, but are unable to do so because of the other. Although the clear choice for late game shots is Durant because of his ability to seemingly score at will, the ball seems to end up in Westbrook’s hands more often than not. What makes it even more frustrating is that Durant and Westbrook have almost opposite personalities. While Westbrook seems to thrive off of the pressure and want the ball in his hands late in games, Durant sometimes seems content to sit back and watch. Maybe this is a good thing, as having two players who want to take the last shot could lead to some major problems, but I speak for many Thunder fans when I say that we wish Russell would take a step back every once in a while and let the MVP take over.
The last thing I want to do is recommend that Russell Westbrook change his game. The ferocity he plays with is what makes him so special and quite frankly, so much fun to watch. If he were to take his foot off the gas it would change him so much as a player that it would take away some of the great things that he does. Instead, Westbrook needs learn to pick his spots better. Some of his worst turnovers occur when he puts his head down to drive to the basket without properly reading the defense. This is an example of him picking a bad spot to make something happen. These drives often lead to him running in to a wall of defenders before turning and firing the ball back to the perimeter. This passing angle from the middle of the lane back to the top of the key is often deceiving to the passer. Although he thinks he can get the ball back to the three point line, his forward momentum takes away from the power of the pass and usually leads to a steal and an easy transition bucket. Another issue is when he takes a pull up three pointer early in the shot clock. This is acceptable when he is trying to trigger a two-for-one, but when he does it early in the quarter it takes away an opportunity to find a better shot later in the shot clock. In today’s fast paced, high scoring NBA, every possession could be a major factor in the team’s chances to win the game and these turnovers and bad shots are simply unacceptable.
Russell Westbrook is a great player and there is no debating that. He has the ability to ignite his team and lead them to victory on any given night. However, as most fans are, I am greedy. I want more from Westbrook. Heading in to this season, the Thunder are at a crossroads. With only two years remaining on Kevin Durant’s contract, it is now or never for this team. With a full offseason for the first time in two years, Russell Westbrook has a chance to work on his decision making as well as continue to improve his jump shot, and possibly take the next step towards being not only one of the best players in the NBA, but a champion as well.