Imagine if Russell Westbrook locked in on defense for a full 48

OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 6: Russell Westbrook
OAKLAND, CA - FEBRUARY 6: Russell Westbrook /

With Andre Roberson out for the season, here is a wild thought experiment – what if Russell Westbrook actually starting locking down on defense?

Younger fans might find this strange. But, back in college, Russell Westbrook was known as a defensive shooting guard who could not be trusted to initiate the offense. Oh, how times have changed.

Today, the reigning league MVP almost seems to relish taking on entire opposing defenses by himself. But, conversely, opposing coaches enjoy exploiting Westbrook’s defensive lapses.

The two issues here are linked. Oftentimes, Westbrook intentionally conserves energy on defense to maximise his offensive output. But, this dichotomy does not have to exist. Stars like Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry have shown under the right scheme, offensive stalwarts can still thrive on defense.

So, the questiom is, what can the Thunder do?

Ingredients are there

The debate about Westbrook’s defense is so frustrating because there is no doubt Westbrook has the potential to be an elite defender. For one, Westbrook has all the physical tools required. At the point guard position, players need to have quick hands and sharp reaction times. Westbrook has all that and more.

Back in UCLA, Russell Westbrook was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. In terms of defensive instincts and court awareness, Westbrook’s potential is undoubted.

The Thunder also play a defensive scheme that should, on paper, allow Westbrook to thrive. Under normal circumstances, Andre Roberson earns his paycheck picking up Westbrook’s defensive assignments.

Moreover, because the team is so switchy on defense, Westbrook does not even have to expend much energy chasing around picks. The truth is, the Thunder do not even need Westbrook to do more than he is already doing. As long as he maintains vigilant switching and survives his mismatches, Russell Westbrook should be an elite defender.

Time to play the blame game

If Russell Westbrook has all the tools to lead the defensive charge, then why does he not do that? The clue lies back with Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving. Particularly, Kyrie Irving’s defense since moving to the Celtics has left Cleveland fans dumbfounded. Where did all this defensive energy come from?

Just based on pure offensive role alone, Irving does not seem to be in a drastically different place. The man affectionately known as Uncle Drew still draws on a generous helping of isolations to prop his team’s offense up.

The key is Boston’s overall offensive philosophy. Kyrie Irving still attacks defenses the same way. But, now, he does so in specially curated dosages, so he is not constantly in charge of shouldering team responsibility.

Kyrie Irving is the tip of Boston’s offensive spear. But, in OKC, Russell Westbrook acts as the entire shoulder that is expected to hoist up the team’s offense. That makes a monumental difference in Westbrook’s energy level.

Even with his fellow stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, Westbrook is still alone is setting the table for others to feast upon. With that sort of offensive workload, there is no wonder Westbrook has to seek ways to catch his breath.

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Shaking things up

Depspite the offense looking sprightly, there is still one last detail to discuss.

Going back to the Kyrie Irving example – some think Brad Stevens’ charisma is the reason why Irving is now playing solid defense in a way even LeBron James could not instigate.

More from Thunderous Intentions

In the NBA, old habits will always die hard, and more so with the notoriously stubborn Russell Westbrook. But, if there is a time for change, the time is now. More than ever, the OKC Thunder need all the help it can get on defense.

The prospect of Russell Westbrook properly engaging on defense is tantalizing. Whether that idea is out of grasp, comes down to Billy Donovan as a coach and as a mentor. Reinventing the offensive wheel will certainly bridge whatever impossibilities are floating around. But, if Donovan finds that doing so is too drastic for a midseason adjustment, perhaps a softer, more personal approach should be in the cards.

Imagine if Billy Donovan could somehow coax Westbrook into staying fully switched on defense. The rest of the league might have to start figuring out how to deal with the multi-headed beast that is the Thunder’s defense. Unfortunately, it seems questionable whether Billy Donovan has the requisite charisma to really connect with Russell Westbrook on that level. As Thunder fans, we can still at least imagine, right?