Oklahoma City Thunder: Next Step in the Russell Westbrook Project

Eric PennellCorrespondent IIDecember 31, 2011

DALLAS, TX - MAY 25:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the fourth quarter 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)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It was well known that when the Oklahoma City Thunder (then Seattle SuperSonics) took Russell Westbrook No. 4 overall in the 2008 draft, general manager Sam Presti had taken on a project.

Despite not having played point guard in college at UCLA, Presti envisioned the super athlete as a hybrid scorer/distributor that, paired with Kevin Durant, could form a dynamic scoring duo. His perimeter defending, earning him Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, was the icing on the cake. 

After three full seasons, Presti has been mostly correct. Westbrook and Durant both averaged 20-plus PPG last season and were one of the most exciting tandems in basketball, perhaps only behind LeBron James and Dwyane Wade of the Miami Heat.

His freakish athletic ability allows him to make plays that literally no one else in the league can make, giving him the potential to be one of the most lethal scorers in the game, especially driving to the basket. His developing jump shot makes him even harder to guard.

The only remaining question looming over Westbrook's head, however, is whether or not he can be a good point guard. There is no question he is one of the 20 best players in the league, but being a point guard isn't just about getting to the rim.

It's about decision-making. It's about tempo. It's about getting the ball to the hot hand. It's about getting others involved. It's about protecting the ball. It's about winning the game, not your stat line.

Running the point requires the most basketball IQ of any other position on the court. You are the guy who touches the ball on every play. You are the pitcher. The quarterback. The holding midfielder.

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 08:  Russell Westbrook dunks during the South Florida All Star Classic at Florida International University on October 8, 2011 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

With a few games under his belt in his fourth NBA season, it is apparent that Westbrook still does not possess the decision-making abilities to effectively run the point. He led the league in turnovers his first two seasons and finished fourth last year. One of the Thunder's most well-known shortcomings is their half-court offense that consistently drags, routinely settling for long-range, low-percentage jump shots.

High turnovers and ineffective half-court play are symptoms of a team without a good point guard. This fact has become very clear, especially when Eric Maynor subs in for Westbrook and runs a wildly efficient second unit.

This is no coincidence. Eric Maynor is a better point guard than Westbrook.

Maynor is not a better basketball player than Westbrook, he is only better at running the point. Westbrook was an All-Star last year, and deservedly so. However, he doesn't have what it takes to run an offense.

Luckily for the Thunder, "where do we fit a top-20 guy next to our top-five guy" is pretty good problem to have. It is a problem that the 4-0 Thunder are more than just "getting by" with. It is also a problem with solutions.

If the Thunder want to live up to their Western Conference champion hype, it is a problem they are going to have to address.

The solution requires, in part, an increased level of fluidity in backcourt roles depending on the personnel on the floor. Fluidity isn't something head coach Scott Brooks is known for, but we have seen signs in this young season.

DALLAS, TX - MAY 25:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder goes up for a shot against Brendan Haywood #33 of the Dallas Mavericks in the second half in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2011 NBA Playoffs at American Airlin
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

During the back-and-forth second halves against Dallas and Memphis, we saw Durant set up the half-court offense during long stretches. This was surprisingly effective against Dallas with shut-down specialist Shawn Marion guarding KD.

Durant's increased strength and ball-handling allowed him to work tremendously well with a high pick-and-roll. After a successful screen from Nick Collison or Kendrick Perkins, Durant's drives to the hoop were flanked by Westbrook on one side and James Harden on the other.

Is there are scarier situation for a defense than that? If so, there aren't many.

In this new set, Russell seems much more at home playing a wide winger/slasher role. Imagine him curling to the basket off a screen or making a back-cut down the baseline. He would still be the point man for fast break opportunities, but if the defense (somehow) gets back in time the team would benefit from Russell deferring to Durant or Harden to set up a play.

Another option we saw during the Western Conference Finals last season, albeit for only a few minutes, was having Maynor and Westbrook on the floor at the same time at point guard and shooting guard, respectively. Combining Maynor's textbook point play with Russell's ability off the ball is something Thunder fans would love to see.

In conclusion, I don't think the problem constitutes a major shakeup. Westbrook does not need to be traded/benched and Maynor does not need to start. If Westbrook continues to struggle, what is needed is some combination of 1) blend the backcourt roles; 2) experiment with different personnel packages and; 3) give Russell more work off the ball to take advantage of his physical gifts.  

The other option is just stick it out and hope the kid develops the necessary mental skills to run a team. The compressed schedule takes away from the practice time of an ordinary season, making development of this magnitude very difficult (but not impossible) this year.