A subject that became fairly heated as the 2011 NBA playoffs wore on with the Oklahoma City Thunder was that of the future and development of point guard Russell Westbrook. There were times when he could be the ultimate complement to the “Durantula,” Kevin Durant, with his tremendous driving and finishing ability.
During Westbrook’s best games (once or twice in each of their three series) he played like a young Jason Kidd coming close to triple-doubles. Also, whenever Westbrook is successful, the option to double-team Durant goes out the window, as Russell is nearly impossible to guard with one perimeter defender. However, despite Westbrook’s nearly infinite potential that comes as a result of his tremendous athletic ability, he has some mental flaws that have gone so far as to cost the Thunder games.
The reason Westbrook has so much control over the success of his team is because he is responsible for facilitating and getting the ball to his teammates, in the spots which they are most effective. It appears to me that Westbrook has little to no basketball IQ. After watching Chris Paul in the first round will his team to two wins against the team that was, at the time, favored to win the championship, it was hard for me to imagine Westbrook ever developing into half of the game manager Paul is.
Westbrook averaged 4.6 turnovers per game, 39 percent from two and 29 percent from three-point range. If Westbrook wasn’t the epitome of inefficiency, then I really don’t know what is.
The best part of Westbrook’s game that didn’t seem to wane in any of the Thunder series was his ability to get to the free-throw line, as he averaged 8.4 trips, behind which he shot 85 percent. As of right now, Westbrook’s game is not suited to the point guard position. I think he is more like Dwyane Wade than Chris Paul. Although, if Westbrook can cut down on his jump shots and become more of an impact defender (like he can with his tremendous athleticism), slasher and passer (since others will be open as a result of the defensive attention he commands) he can be the player that the Thunder need to become NBA champions.
If he continues his development, he could continue the revolutionary role changes that have been made at the point guard position over the past few years from the traditional passing/facilitating point guards like Paul and Kidd to the athletic scorers of the present in Derrick Rose and Deron Williams. The greatest challenge for Westbrook will be improving his passing game, as it requires more mental training than physical. He can’t just go to a gym somewhere and improve his passing ability in the way that Derrick Rose last summer went to Santa Monica and improved his jump shot.
Instincts, trust in teammates and awareness—these are all characteristics of a great “point guard” a la Chris Paul who can lead his team to victory, but not necessarily win the game by himself.
We have all witnessed that it is nearly impossible to win an NBA championship with one star. LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony have all been victims to fantastical expectations from fans and also front offices who have built teams around these players that involve role players, but no legitimate "second bananas," as Bill Simmons would say.
Westbrook showed in both the Memphis and the Dallas series that he has a hero complex, which can sometimes get the best of him. He would dribble-dribble-dribble, then shoot; all this occurring without any recognition of the fact that he has a top-five player in Kevin Durant on the floor with him, who could claim that his best assets are his jump shot and closing ability. Both of Durant’s greatest abilities are perhaps Westbrook’s worst. On the flip side Westbrook is already a better finisher at the basket, and he has the tools to be the perimeter defender that Durant is not.
If you have not noticed, the recurring theme is what Westbrook could be, or should be, but things don’t always go the way they are expected. Westbrook is lucky enough to have such a tight-knit community of friends around him that will push him, and give him constructive criticism he is more likely to listen too than if it were to come from, say, Vince Carter (a basketball failure if you consider what he could have been).
He still has another two years on his contract, so I don’t think Thunder fans will have to worry about Westbrook being traded this season. Thunder GM Sam Presti and rising star at the coaching position, Scott Brooks, will give Westbrook another chance next season to prove that he can be a point guard with the knowledge that he will provide them with their best chance to challenge the Heat both for championships and for the “most talented team in the NBA” award.
Westbrook should feel blessed with the tremendous situation that he is in at Oklahoma City, where he is surrounded by his best friends in Durant and James Harden, who are also very good players. Oklahoma City also has the best fans in the NBA—just watch a Thunder home game and you’ll see what I mean. Westbrook also has the athletic ability to augment any improvements to his game that he may make, which will hopefully be his passing ability.
Still, I am worried that Sam Presti may wait too long before he realizes that Westbrook and Durant do not belong together.