The Russell Westbrook Quandary

Posted: May 22, 2011 by pappychalmers in Sports in General

Kevin Durant is an amazing player. Outside of any shooting specialists in the NBA, when you watch him shoot, you’re blessed to be watching one of the smoothest jumpers in the League go up. At 22 years old, he is poised to make the League a binary star system, with him dominating the Western Conference and Derrick Rose taking the East.

This dunk is great proof of it: (The different angles make it even better, and Van Gundy is right: when you posterize someone, you have earned the right to free speech as if you were Mel Gibson yelling at your ex’s voicemail.)

And Sam Presti, taking the lessons he learned under the tutelage of R.C. Buford in San Antonio, has crafted an excellent roster around the Durantula in thrifty fashion. Thabo Sefalosha and Kendrick Perkins are great enforcers, Serge Ibaka has shown himself to be, besides a dunker and shotblocker who does it for Africa, a feathery midrange shooter that will eventually make him a pick and roll threat like the Mailman in his prime. Eric Maynor, James Harden (and his beard), and Daequan Cook provide excellent spells for the backcourt.

But one player is the true barometer for this team: Russell Westbrook. The UCLA product is a scary dunker and fast getting the ball up the court. His triple-double in Game 7 of their series with the Grizzlies helped the Thunder to take that series. His Game 4 performance was also marvelous: 40 points on 15-33 shooting and 5 assists and 3 turnovers in a critical win that tied the series. Westbrook’s performance in Game 4  of the Nuggets series was another 30 for 30, but it was much less critically acclaimed than the ESPN documentary series. His coach, Scott Brooks, criticized him as well. It was bad enough that he went 0fer on 7 threes, including the Thunder’s final 3 shots from outside the arc.

But when his jumper is off and he can’t score at the rim, Westbrook gets selfish and affects the Thunder’s performance. It’s interesting to watch him go against Jason Kidd, the quintessential facilitator who never considers taking the shot unless he has a wide open look or there are two seconds left on the shotclock (even then he is prone to whip a pass to someone more capable of scoring).

And then there was Game 2 of this Mavericks series. Westbrook ended his night with this play:

Eric Maynor and James Harden took over the ballhandling for the fourth quarter, with Harden pouring in 10 of his 23 in that period to rally the Thunder to the win. Thunder fans should see this as an enlightening experience, as Westbrook took over in their Game 3 loss because he had to: Durant shot 0-8 on 3’s and 7-22 overall (Westbrook hit the Thunder’s only 3 of the game), and no one else really sparked the offense. His 7 turnovers are disconcerting, but if Westbrook understands that he needs to recognize the hot hand on his team and focus on distributing, don’t expect the Mavs to come upon such huge leads.

Are these Westbrook playoff performances something that the Thunder basketball staff need to worry about for the future? I don’t think so. Westbrook is only 22 and is still learning to play the position, which is different beast from the one he played at UCLA in Howland’s slow-it-down system. However, if he doesn’t start to recognize his role next year, the Thunder may want to think about not giving him a contract extension until he demonstrates that understanding. This year he took 17 shots per game, which is the most taken by someone playing with a scoring champion since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. It is bad enough that he could potentially spoil this window for the Thunder to get a championship, but it isn’t worth it to sacrifice the investment in such a young talent just yet.

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