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Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Russell Westbrook in hero mode

By Henry Abbott

Russell Westbrook
Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images
The Thunder point guard calls his own number even when Kevin Durant is wide open.

Maybe you have heard about Kobe Bryant's past habit of ball hogging late in games, passing up wide open looks for his teammates, dragging down his team's offensive efficiency.

Something like that applies to Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, too.

That conclusion about Bryant's crunch-time game was drawn from clear statistical evidence. The early going of this season has been an exception, but in his career, when Bryant dominates the ball late in close games, the Lakers simply don't perform nearly as well as you'd expect. The "just get it to Kobe" offense results in advantages for the defense and tons of misses.

The stats paint a more complex picture about Westbrook. He dominates the ball pretty much all of the time, while the Thunder's offense is generally excellent.

But that's an offense with plenty of room to grow -- if he'll let it. You don't need statistics; you could see the evidence on your TV, for instance, on Nov. 14 in the nationally televised loss to the Grizzlies.

All you had to do was watch Kevin Durant.

He's the three-time reigning scoring champion, one of the toughest covers in history and precisely the guy opponents pray won't end up with the ball. He's almost never open, and if he is, some defender has made a mistake. If you see Durant solo in scoring position while Westbrook -- long a scorer of middling efficiency -- is hoisting shots over multiple defenders, that's a crime against basketball. And yet, late in the Grizzlies game, there was Durant waving his arms over his head -- either to call for the ball, or to usher the gods of basketball to the scene of a crime.

The Thunder, who recently starred in a New York Times magazine cover story called "A Basketball Fairy Tale in Middle America," might be the most team-centric squad in NBA history. But if this squad appears devoid of the drama that claws at most pro franchises, it's because these players see a bigger picture and stay on message, not because they don't have basketball riddles yet to solve.

Chief among them is Westbrook's apparent conviction that the best thing he can do for his team is way too much.

It's a more complex case than Bryant's. The Thunder don't really underperform expectations in any alarming way. But for big man Kendrick Perkins reportedly once telling Westbrook he was "no Rajon Rondo," there's scant evidence of the kind of fractiousness that has dogged Lakers seasons of late.

Instead, the issue is one of lost opportunity. Many teams have no shot at running an indefensible and selfless offense where the ball pings around the perimeter to the open man -- people like Bryant and Carmelo Anthony are paid to take the big shots, and they will. The Thunder -- delightfully convincing in their profound commitment to the collective good -- have the mindset, rhetoric, personnel and organization to share the ball like crazy, but instead feature one of the more selfish and passing-light offenses in the NBA, with unimpressive assist rates and high turnovers borne of attempts to make difficult plays.

The Thunder offense frequently devolves into two very talented players, Westbrook and Durant, vacillating between finding the open man and their own deep-seated convictions that the cure to what ails the team is their own heroism. One of the hardest things for an alpha dog to do is nothing, but sometimes it's just what is needed.

The battle against his inner Hero Baller is one Westbrook loses routinely, most notably in moments like crunch time, on national TV or when the Thunder really need a bucket. He gives up the ball willingly if there's a showy assist in it for him. But just moving the ball around the perimeter so somebody else can solve the team's problems isn't something he does as often as the league's other elite point guards.

In that regard, Perkins was right. Westbrook truly is no Rondo.

But Durant isn't always part of the solution to this particular problem. Once Westbrook leaves the supernova scorer hanging a few times, Durant tends to get itchy to shoot himself, evidently eager to satisfy the chorus of experts who have long exhorted the NBA's most efficient scorer to shoot more.

That creates stretches of play when opposing coaches can comfortably tell their players not to worry much about covering the likes of Perkins, Kevin Martin, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison or Thabo Sefolosha. When Westbrook and Durant are playing out their high-stakes psychodrama, those other Thunder players don't get the ball much.

Stop the clock with 2:30 left in the Nov. 14 loss at home to the Grizzlies. Durant is open at the top of the key with arms raised in exasperation. Westbrook is plowing into the lane with fully four Grizzlies defenders all around him. Westbrook is the only Thunder player who isn't open, and the only one who shot. Miss.

If you stop the video 36 seconds earlier -- the Thunder's prior possession -- you'd see something similar. Westbrook gets a screen from Ibaka at the 3-point line. Ibaka slips away to the free throw line, where he is wide open, incredibly tall and a capable jump-shooter. Meanwhile, Memphis defenders Marc Gasol and Jerryd Bayless are in the paint waiting for Westbrook or his rebound.

Important: Their backs are turned to Martin, long one of the league's most efficient and deadly NBA shooters despite almost never having been this open at previous stops, where he was the go-to scorer.

Westbrook? He had Zach Randolph and Mike Conley in his face, and 14 seconds on the shot clock. Naturally, he fired away ... a tortured 3 off the dribble that clanged badly. Martin glanced to the heavens.

The pattern played itself out in the final minute, as the trailing Thunder grew desperate. With 58 seconds left and the home loss virtually assured, the Thunder needed 3s. Fortunately two of the league's best pure shooters, Durant and Martin, were both entirely unguarded. Naturally, a well-covered Westbrook jacked the shot over a defender. Durant's arms were still skyward as Westbrook's shot bounced away.

The obvious question is: Where's the coach in all this?

And the answer is: Loving it.

At least, that's the public answer, and maybe even the right one. Scott Brooks has been deflecting this line of questioning about Westbrook since the day he got his job with warm quips about how Westbrook is one of the best athletes in the history of the game and the team needs him aggressive.

Privately, sources say two things: That Westbrook is genuinely well-meaning and trying to do right, and nobody wants to crush his spirit. Sources also say that behind closed doors, Brooks coaches Westbrook hard, and Westbrook is amenable. Indeed, since the Memphis loss, the Thunder have had back-to-back 31-assist games, a huge number for them. The reality of the team's "other" weapons -- Sefolosha is shooting better than ever, Ibaka is averaging 15 points a game, Martin has some of the best scoring efficiency in the league -- is sinking in.

And although poor decisions are a routine problem, they prove only that Westbrook is not perfect. He is an awesome player, to be sure -- these moments are cherry-picked to expose a flaw. Those moments could be better, but the player is fine.

And it's not as simple as getting him to pass to Durant more. Last year, as the Thunder were in the Finals and one pundit after another howled about Westbrook's ball hoggery, ESPN Stats & Information’s Dean Oliver and Alok Pattani dug deep and found surprising results: When Westbrook's usage rate was high and Durant's was low, the Thunder offense was good. When the roles were reversed, and Durant made all of the plays, the offense, surprisingly, was at its worst. Several other findings of note:
The key takeaway, though, is that the Thunder's offense was at its very best when both stars had lower usage rates, and the ball found its way more easily to the non-All-Stars. That's the challenge to this team moving forward. The Thunder have excellent players flying solo on offense, when -- thanks to this team's special mindset -- they have the potential to have excellent players sharing the ball like Red Holzman's Knicks or Jack Ramsay's Blazers. Figure that out, and the Thunder wouldn't just have the best offense in the NBA, but some new jewelry, too.