Russell Westbrook has received a lot of flak from fans and media for his postseason performances this year, most notably in the Western Conference finals. Westbrook is not without his flaws, but much like LeBron James, he has emerged as an object of scorn and criticism for many this year.
While he certainly has a ways to go in terms of maturity, these are the five reasons that he was not the only one responsible for the downfall of the Thunder.
The Thunder are Kevin Durant's team, everyone knows that. But for all the talk about what he's carrying in that backpack of his, he didn't seem to bring the tools necessary to extricate himself from defenses this postseason. He lacks the strength to separate from aggressive defenders and often times ends up standing around watching the play.
Westbrook often spends the first four to five seconds of a possession waiting for Durant to get open. His critics say he shoots far too much for a guy wearing the same jersey as KD. But the Oklahoma offense tends to break down when they spread the floor, stand in place, and watch as Durant futilely tries to free himself from his mark.
If Durant cannot get open consistently, then Westbrook will have to continue to look for a way to make things happen deep into the shot clock. We all know how unsuccessful that has been.
The majority of the time, Westbrook is on the court with two of the four guys above. If Chris Paul brought his dazzling passing ability to Oklahoma, who would you have him dish it to?
Ibaka has developed a steady mid-range game. But he only shoots well when he has time to set himself, and his confidence wanes as the fourth quarter rolls around.
As for Collison, Sefolosha and Perkins, they are all on the floor for one reason: defense.
Perkins is, by all accounts, one of the 10 worst offensive basketball players in the NBA. He can't catch, he can't shoot, and his lift has been adversely affected by his bad knee. Collison avails himself to an extent because he can get putbacks and offensive rebounds. However, he looks for his shot but once in a blue moon and is another player that doesn't effectively run a pick-and-roll.
Thabo Sefolosha is tall and defends well, but his shot is dreadfullly inconsistent and he rarely takes open looks anyway.
While this may seem tangential or even irrelevant, it's not. James Harden is one of the best playmakers in the NBA. Repeat, he is one of the best playmakers in the entire league.
When Harden is on the floor, the Thunder offense hums—it is a beautiful thing to watch. He breaks down defenses, he has great ball-handling skills, he's crafty and smooth. He's the 50-year-old at your gym that can't jump and can't run but always seems to make plays (except, well, James Harden can really throw down).
So why does that matter?
Well, James Harden has more to do with the success of the Thunder offense than Russell Westbrook, that's why. Harden has to carry the second unit, then he has to lift the first unit. He doesn't have a lot of defensive responsibilities and he doesn't have to rebound, so he HAS to perform offensively to do his job.
If Harden doesn't assert himself when he's on the court, then the pressure again falls to Westbrook. Simply put, when Durant goes missing for stretches and James Harden checks out (mentally or physically), then it's very difficult to blame Westbrook for what he tries to do to compensate.
Yes, Scottie, it's the fourth quarter. Where are you?
I bet you thought that was a joke, didn't you?
Well, I'm giving Brooks the benefit of the doubt and saying that he really DOES have a game plan in the fourth quarter; I just don't know what it is.
Crunch time against the Mavericks proved time and again to be the Thunder's undoing.
Is it fair to put that entirely on Westbrook?
As a contender, you have to have plays that work. The Thunder don't have a good pick-and-roll (although Westbrook and Durant work a pick-and-pop quite effectively). They don't have forty plays to get Durant open like the Celtics and Ray Allen. They don't have a guy like Dirk that you can give the ball to and say, "Hey, I know there's three seconds left and you're 25 feet from the basket, but can you score this real quick?" (Although, in all fairness, Durant is pretty close.)
Oklahoma's fourth quarter woes have as much to do with coaching as they do with the players on the court. And until Scott Brooks can put Westbrook and the OKC offense in positions where they can excel, there will always be an offensive stagnation as the fourth quarter clock ticks down.
Russ could really use a lift
Don't forget that Russell Westbrook is still just 22. I know that this argument comes up a lot, and people probably tire of it quickly. But it's true!
Russell Westbrook has been playing point guard for all of two years. It's time to cut the kid some slack. His PER last year was a rather pedestrian 23.63. Oops, sorry, did I say pedestrian? I meant that it was eighth in the league and the best of any point guard not named Chris Paul.
Clearly, he had a tough time of it during the playoffs. His turnovers went up, he lost control at times, and his decision-making could be suspect. But he's getting there.
His improvement over the past two years has been nothing short of phenomenal, and while he's not as good as Derrick Rose, he's pretty close. I didn't hear any complaining when the league MVP never passed the ball. (I know, I know, he didn't have Durant on his team, I get it.)
The point is, Westbrook is getting better. He's getting better at an astounding rate, actually, and the hate against him is largely unwarranted. This year was this Thunder team's first playoff appearance (with Perk) and second playoff appearance with Durant leading the way. As shown by Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks, the second time isn't always the charm. After all, Jordan's Bulls lost in the playoffs six times before they won six times.
So lay off of Westbrook and give him a chance to put the critics to rest—if we're having the same conversation in two years, then the dissenters will have a leg to stand on.