The Oklahoma City Thunder emerged in the 2010 NBA playoffs when they took the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to six games in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Even in defeat, the Thunder were the darlings of the NBA coming into this season.
Hopes were high thanks to their great core led by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Durant is arguably the best young player in the NBA today—he has averaged 25.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game throughout his career—and the fact that he is 6-foot-9 and has the ability to score from anywhere on the court makes him a dynamic force. He is shooting 46 percent from the field for his career and 36 percent from beyond the arc.
Westbrook has been very good throughout his career as well—averaging 17.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game—but he has always been a shoot-first point guard in the Thunder's offense. That would be fine if he were a good shooter, but he's not. For his career he is only shooting 42 percent from the field, including 27 percent from three-point range.
Westbrook has been killing the team this season with his shot selection. He falls in love with his own shot and doesn't want to get anyone else involved, including Durant. This selfish style has resulted in the Thunder losing some games that they might have been competitive in if the offense was run the way that it should be run.
Take for instance the two games that the Thunder have lost to the Grizzlies in the Western Conference semi-finals to this point. Westbrook is shooting 16-for-45, which is far too many shots for a point guard to be taking in an offense that has as much talent as this one does.
Westbrook wants so badly to be in control of this team that it consumes him. He wants to be the star and seems to resent the fact that Durant is the star with all the endorsement deals, and this really comes out in the way that he plays. Scott Brooks, Westbrook's own coach, got on him earlier this season because he wanted to pad his stats in a game against Atlanta in order to get a triple-double.
"When you've got the game won, you run the clock out," Scott Brooks said after that December game. "Russell knows how I feel about situations like that, and it was a mistake..."
The Thunder are going to go as far as Durant is able to take them. He does need to improve some parts of his game—he doesn't look like he wants to create his own shot—but he is by far the most important player for this team.
Westbrook is a key piece for this team, but he is not the focal point of the team. He needs to be a pass first, shoot later point guard for this team to reach its full potential. If he has aspirations of getting a max contract, which some reports have suggested, he will have to learn how to properly utilize the skills that he has and not the ones that he wishes he had.
The dynamic between these two is similar to the dynamic that the Dallas Mavericks had in 1994-95 with Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn. Those three players helped the Mavs improve their record by 23 games from 1993-94 when they won 13 games. But the styles didn't mesh well (and there was a rumor of a love triangle between Kidd, Jackson and singer Toni Braxton) and the team never matched the potential that they had before all three players were traded.
The Thunder have had more success than those Mavs teams, but this team has yet to fulfill all the potential that they have. It can still work out for them this year, but there is no reason for this team to be tied 2-2 in a series with the Grizzlies. They are because Westbrook has to score his points in addition to getting his assists and rebounds.
Westbrook would make a very nice piece to any franchise, but Durant needs to be the focal point of what the Thunder do if they want to win an NBA championship. Unfortunately with Westbrook at the point, he may never be as good and dominant as he should be.
In the end, Durant—and the entire Thunder franchise for that matter—should be angry with the way that Westbrook has run this offense because it's made a number of games for this team far more interesting than they should be.