Oklahoma City Thunder

2011 NBA Playoffs: Could James Harden Replace Russell Westbrook at Point Guard?

DALLAS, TX - MAY 25:  James Harden #13 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the second half while taking on the Dallas Mavericks in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at American Airlines Center on May 25, 2011 in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Andy BaileyFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2011

The Oklahoma City Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks last night.  

Getting to the Western Conference Finals is a great achievement for a team with players whose average age is under 25.

Considering that youth, it would be easy to say that this team is fine and that the simple exercising of patience is all the organization needs.

Maybe they'll just grow out of the problems they displayed during this postseason. Then again, maybe they won't. Oklahoma City's issues are very real and need to be attacked head-on.

Priority No. 1?  The Russell Westbrook question: Is he really a point guard?

Westbrook led the Thunder in points during Game 5, but once again looked entirely out of control for significant portions of the game.

His erratic play has been a hot topic for the last month. Again, it's easy to point to youth, but there's more to it than that.

Right now, it just doesn't look like he has the mental and emotional disposition required to be a great point guard, floor general or leader.

He's only 22 years old, so I won't say developing into a point guard is out of the question for Westbrook. However, the way his peers carry themselves suggests he'll never be in their league at that position.

Derrick Rose, John Wall, Stephen Curry and others are all young as well. And yet, they seem to be grasping the role of point guard quite well.

None of those players, not even Rose, hunts their own shot anywhere near as much as Westbrook has during this postseason.

He averaged 20 field goal attempts a game during the playoffs, and he didn't make too many of those shots (over 12 misses a game).

Last night he took as many shots as the rest of Oklahoma City's starters combined.  

Not exactly what you're looking for in a point guard, especially when your small forward is Kevin Durant—the best scorer in the world.

I know Westbrook averaged over eight assists a game during the regular season, but that's more a product of how much he had the ball in his hands.

His assist number doesn't hold as much water when you consider how many turnovers and missed shots he had each game (13.3 a contest when you combine the numbers).

I'm not saying all of this to suggest that Westbrook is a bad player. I'm just pointing out that he's not a point guard. It's not his game, and it never has been.

He was a shooting guard at UCLA, and could be a great Dwyane Wade-type slasher for Oklahoma City.

Last night, we all got a bit of a preview of what the Thunder might look like with Westbrook playing off the ball.

For a significant stretch of the third quarter, Scott Brooks put the ball in James Harden's hands and had him run the offense. He played with a lot more control than Westbrook does when he's at the point.  

With Harden running the offense, Mavericks defenders looked helpless. He made one good decision after another, finding open teammates and scoring when opportunities to do so arose.

The team that's known for scoring on the break and struggling in half-court settings looked great in the latter with Westbrook playing off the ball.

Harden didn't play the position in college either, but proved last night that he may be closer to the mental makeup required of an NBA point guard than Westbrook is.

I'd be willing to make my case based on the eye test alone, but Harden's numbers from Game 5 help seal the deal.

In a game in which both played point guard, Harden logged 10 fewer minutes than Westbrook and had more assists, less turnovers and shot nearly 25 percent better from the field.

A one game sample is small, but considering Westbrook's struggles throughout the postseason, Oklahoma City should at least consider tinkering with their lineup.

I feel like Harden, with his high basketball IQ and 6'5" frame, could develop into a great point guard. Perhaps a safer route would be to start backup point guard Eric Maynor.

Either way, Russell Westbrook is a shooting guard (at least mentally), and it looks like he always will be.

The sooner he moves off the ball, the sooner the Thunder will be able to take the step from exciting, young team to legitimate contender.

 

You can follow Andy Bailey on Twitter @_Andy_Bailey

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