Despite not making the 2011 NBA Finals, most will consider this season a success for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The young guns from the southern plains won the Northwest Division, made the Western Conference Finals and gained invaluable playoff experience that will help them in years to come. The team learned how to play together, and got huge help off the bench from players like James Harden, Eric Maynor and Nick Collison. The team will use this year's experience to move onto bigger and better things in years to come.
That being said, the Thunder also had many growing pains that are usual with such a young and up-and-coming team. Its execution down the stretch, especially in the playoffs, proved to be its major downfall (especially in Game 4 of the WCF in Oklahoma City).
Perhaps the biggest growing pain of all though, would have to be that of a single player: Russell Westbrook.
By now, we all know of the criticism and complaints that came from analysts and NBA fans everywhere regarding the young point guard. Questions were endless regarding his performance in this year's playoffs. Why does he shoot so much? Why is he a ball hog? Why does he go through spurts where it seems like he forgets that he is a PG and not a SG? Does he not realize that he plays next to the most prolific scorer in the NBA today?
While the criticism was deserved at times, let's not forget that Westbrook is still young and has made huge strides since getting drafted into the league. Since entering the league in 2008, Westbrook has seen his PPG average increase from 15.3 to 21.9. He has seen his APG average increase from 5.3 to 8.3. He has even seen a slight increase in steals, from 1.3 SPG in the 08-09 season to 1.9 this past season.
He is now widely considered a top PG talent in the league at the young age of 22, and made his first All-Star game appearance this past season. There are many that compare him to another All-Star point guard in Derrick Rose.
Despite the accolades and improvement, Westbrook did show signs of trouble with his performance in the 2011 NBA playoffs. He would go through stages where he simply forgot that basketball was a team game and would start hacking up threes. He would, at times, forget the role of a PG, playmaking, and not even look to get the offense flowing.
He would even sometimes forget that the league's leading scorer was right next to him in Kevin Durant, a player who should touch the ball at least once on every offensive possession. While he is not the sole reason why the Thunder was defeated by the Dallas Mavericks, he certainly played a large part in its downfall.
While many believe that Westbrook is a crucial part of the core of this team for years to come, others believe that the Thunder would be better off in trading its young, All-Star PG for a pass-first playmaker.
Those in favor of the trade argue that a playmaker would ensure Durant was the leading man on the team. A true PG would also allow James Harden to continue the transformation into a premier SG. A pass-first PG would get all players involved to guarantee that the offense was fluent and players were not standing idle.
Many names have been mentioned as potential replacements for RW. Deron Williams would give the Thunder a 26-year-old proven playmaker that is All-Star caliber and not afraid to dish the ball. Chris Paul has the ability to score but also looks to get teammates involved and has great passing ability. Even names like unproven Ricky Rubio and veteran Steve Nash (too old) have been tossed around as potential replacements for the often volatile Westbrook.
Whatever happens, the Thunder can take comfort in knowing that it has one of the best general managers in the league in Sam Presti. Presti has built this team from the ground up and has proven himself to be a winner. He is known for being very smart and patient with his teams and will not make a move without doing a lot of research.
So the question, could Westbrook get traded? Yes, a blockbuster deal could come along that even Sam Presti cannot resist that would see Westbrook shipped off in exchange for a true pass-first PG.
However, the real question is, should Westbrook get traded? That answer is no. The Oklahoma City Thunder has made HUGE strides over the past three seasons. It has gone from a cellar-dweller to a Western Conference favorite. The current group gets along great on and off the court and is filled with youth and potential.
The future of the Western Conference is the Oklahoma City Thunder and Presti knows this. He knows that to mess with the current core group of players could spell upset teammates and unnecessary change. Westbrook heard and felt the criticism during the 2011 playoffs and realizes that he must continue his development and drop his (sometimes) shoot-first mentality.
Look for the Oklahoma CIty Thunder to re-sign Westbrook to a long term deal this offseason. He will improve in the offseason and will, once again, be an All-Star in 2012. He is too crucial to this team to consider trading him.
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