Nearly every time the Oklahoma City Thunder take the floor, Kevin Durant is the best player on the court. He knows it. Fans know it. Coaches know it.
But Russell Westbrook doesn’t know it. And ultimately, this could cost the Thunder a chance at a title.
Westbrook broke out in 2011, earning a spot on what is sure to be his first of many All-Star teams. He showed increased scoring prowess, and the quickness and first step to beat defenders off the dribble at will. He also improved his jump shot, and continued to develop his passing ability. His game improved in almost every way.
But he is still no Kevin Durant.
Durant is a commodity even rarer than Westbrook—a truly dynamic scorer who is long enough shoot over nearly any defender, and athletic enough to drive past them and create shots at the rim. He is one of the best pure scorers the league has seen in years.
Westbrook is an All-Star, but Durant is an MVP candidate.
Having two players of such high caliber on the same roster is rarely a problem. And for much of the season it wasn’t a problem for the Thunder. They cruised through the regular season on the backs of their two superstars. If Durant had an off night, Westbrook would pick up the slack. If Westbrook struggled, Durant had his back. In the regular season the Thunder had found a recipe for success.
But the playoffs are a different animal.
In the postseason the game slows down, leaving each team with fewer possessions. In the regular season, having a point guard take 20+ shots a game is acceptable, especially one as talented as Westbrook. In the playoffs, it is a recipe for disaster.
Traditionally, and in the slowed pace of the NBA playoffs, the job of the point guard is not to score. It is to distribute and get players the ball in a position to succeed. Westbrook shooting the ball at such a high volume might make sense at first glance, until you realize by doing so, he is neglecting his duties as a point guard.
Even players as remarkable as Durant need a team that is dedicated to consistently getting them the ball. When Westbrook shoots, it means Durant doesn't. In this way, the Thunder have been beating themselves.
During the regular season this is fine. But the slowed pace and fewer possessions of the playoffs mean that every offensive set carries greater weight—simply, every possession is crucial. As good as Westbrook is, he is very young, and has nights where he is not a particularly efficient scorer. At least not in the way that Durant is. Westbrook shooting 20 times a game only results in unproductive possessions, which cannot be afforded by a championship contender.
In the regular season a 9-20 shooting night from Westbrook might be good enough to win. In the playoffs it is a recipe for disaster.
Every shot that Westbrook takes and misses is a wasted opportunity to go to Durant. Durant is so much more efficient and, due to his size, has such a unique skill set, that not featuring him as the team’s first offensive option is ludicrous.
Teams generally don’t win in the playoffs with point guards who take over 20 shots per game. They just don’t. Derrick Rose has been doing his best to disprove this, but his Bulls have found themselves struggling against an Atlanta team that frankly was not considered to be in Chicago’s class throughout the regular season, and certainly was not expected to compete in the playoffs. And as good as Westbrook is, he certainly isn't Derrick Rose.
For whatever reason, the formula for playoff success is simple: play great defense, get good production out of point guards, benches and big men, and have a clear-cut alpha dog scorer who wants the ball in his hands in the last 30 seconds. There can only be one of these Chiefs. Everyone else must be comfortable as an Indian.
When there are two players on a team who think of themselves as “the man,” things start to go haywire. Role players don’t know who to get the ball to. Both players want to have the game in their hands, and become concerned with personal roles instead of team success. Durant and Westbrook showed flashes of this troubling dynamic in the regular season. Now it is rearing its ugly head at the worst possible time.
Kevin Durant is undoubtedly the Thunder’s leader on the floor. He is their best player and the face of their franchise. But he isn’t a vocal player in the vein of a Kobe Bryant or a Michael Jordan. He wants the ball, but won’t verbally demand the ball, even if it would benefit his team to do so.
This tiny weakness leaves the door open for Westbrook to carry the Thunder straight out of the playoffs. Westbrook is a true athlete, a natural-born competitor. It is totally natural for him to want to carry his team in big moments. But for the sake of the Thunder, he needs to reign himself in.
Westbrook needs to realize that Durant is the man on this team. In the last two minutes of any playoff game, any possession that goes by without Durant touching the ball is a wasted possession. Championship teams always have that guy, the guy who carries them in big moments, who can do so because his talent transcends those around him.
Russell Westbrook needs to take a step back, and let Kevin Durant be that guy.
If he does, and the Thunder are finally able to correctly balance their talented roster, they can beat any team in basketball. If they cannot, and Westbrook and Durant continue to seesaw as “the man,” the Thunder are headed for an early exit.
Maybe figuring out this balance is part of the growing process for a young team. Maybe Westbrook needs to take 20 shots a game for the entirety of this Memphis series in order to take the next step in his career, and elevate his team to championship level. Both players are so young that it is easy to forget that they haven’t been here before, and haven’t dealt with this scenario in their brief careers.
But though they may be young, the Thunder have the talent to win now. And unless Russell Westbrook augments his game and embraces the modified role he needs to take, 2011 will not only be a learning process, but a wasted opportunity as well.