Thunder missing the point
I chuckle painfully every time I see the commercial.
Analyst Jeff Van Gundy is reading in his bunk bed aboard ESPN's NBA bus when he realizes he has picked up the wrong glasses, which have no lenses.
Cut to Russell Westbrook, who has been driving the bus wearing Van Gundy's thick-lensed glasses. Wham! Westbrook, with the glasses now pushed up on his forehead, runs over a scarecrow as the bus plows through a corn field.
"What was THAT?" says Van Gundy.
"Oh, nothing," Westbrook says. "Just missed the exit."
That, for me, perfectly illustrates Westbrook running Oklahoma City's offense, missing the Kevin Durant exit, barreling down the lane through a mine field of out-of-control, egomaniacal decisions. No player in NBA history has driven me crazier, night after night after NIGHT, than the Thunder storm that can be Russell Westbrook, No. 0.
I do not dispute his ability. Inch for inch, the 6-foot-3 Westbrook is the NBA's most sensationally talented player, a relentlessly explosive basket-attacker with a deadly pull-up jumper -- a top-10 NBA player by any big-picture statistical measure from Player Efficiency Rating to Win Shares.
Yet unfortunately, Westbrook is the "point guard" -- the primary decision-maker -- for a much taller and longer and even more talented player, the 6-9 Durant, a scorer so unguardable he can be stopped by only one man, Westbrook. Instead of consistently chauffeuring Durant to his most unstoppable spots, Westbrook too often chooses to NASCAR his way to where HE can be the biggest star.
Obviously, Westbrook wants to be The Man in OKC. Incredibly, THE Man (Durant) defends and encourages and enables Westbrook to be just that.
As an Oklahoma City native and a Durant fan dating back to his days at Texas, I have bad dreams about this stat: The Thunder's "point guard" has attempted 64 more shots this season than the teammate who has led the league in scoring the past three seasons. The fact Durant is again leading the league is the ultimate tribute to his 90/50/40 efficiency. He continues to do more with even less because he's making 91 percent of his free throws, 50 percent of his shots and even 41 percent of his 3s. Because Durant has made 54 more field goals and 207 more free throws than Westbrook, Durant averages 28.2 points per game to Westbrook's 23.2.
And the Thunder continue to have the NBA's third-best record, often winning because of Westbrook and sometimes in spite of him.
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Last season the Thunder were favored to beat the Heat in the Finals, in part because they had a low-ego third star who consistently helped stabilize and settle down the offense in the second and fourth quarters: sixth man James Harden, a slicker ball handler and more clever passer than Westbrook. Harden could run the point and allow Westbrook to rest or play his natural position, shooting guard. Little-known fact: Harden led the NBA in fourth-quarter free throws made last season with 112. He is about to be missed.
Harden is turning into a superstar in Houston (with PER and Win Shares superior to Westbrook's). Shockingly and indefensibly, Thunder ownership chose not to pay the luxury tax required to re-sign Harden, investing instead in Serge Ibaka, who does lead the league in blocks, who has developed a dependable jump shot out to the 3-point line -- but whose focus comes and goes from night to night. With Harden, I believe the Thunder would've won this year's NBA title. What's more, I'd like their chances more now and in the future if they'd have kept Harden and traded Westbrook.
Harden and Durant were a better pick-and-roll fit than Westbrook and Durant, whose alliance remains uneasy. Too often, the OKC offense now consists of Westbrook dribbling the ball up the floor and deciding to drive it or shoot it ... or lobbing a pass to Durant on the wing that says, "OK, I'll let you have a turn." Too often, Westbrook and Durant take turns going 1-on-1 (or 1-on-2), usually at Westbrook's discretion.
This drives me NUTS. But so did what Durant said about me a year ago.
When Durant was in college, I predicted on "First Take" he would lead the NBA in scoring and began calling him my favorite player. So, naturally, two seasons ago I began to criticize Westbrook for "stealing too many of Durant's shots." Two playoffs ago, in a closeout game in Denver, Durant got into it with Westbrook during a timeout for doing just that -- a highly publicized incident.
Yet one year ago Durant blasted me in the Oklahoman (the newspaper I grew up reading and worked for in college), saying I knew nothing about basketball, that I must never watch Thunder games (I watch nearly all of them) and that the Thunder are BETTER when Westbrook takes more shots because Durant prefers to concentrate on "facilitating, rebounding, defending and being more efficient on my shots with less shots."
Durant concluded that he gets sick of watching me criticize Westbrook and that he will always stick up for his point guard.
Who wouldn't applaud Durant for saying all the right things and supporting a teammate? I did not and will not. In this rare case, Durant is playing a dangerous game. By encouraging Westbrook to "be himself," he also encourages the behavior that can be so damaging to Durant and the Thunder. I have no idea what is said to Westbrook behind the team's closed (and guarded) doors. But I find it almost creepy how players and coaches robotically defend Westbrook as if he's the family member they love in spite of scary flaws they want to hide.
Surely Westbrook has no idea how blessed he is to be paired with Durant. Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, recently tweeted that Westbrook has some Mamba blood running through his veins. But Kobe wouldn't last a quarter with Westbrook as his point guard before he'd want to strangle Lil' Mamba.
Durant? He WANTS "Russ" to be Kobe Westbrook. Durant has developed a LeBron Complex, sounding like he wants to BE his best buddy LeBron as well as beat him. Durant now seems obsessed with doing all the little things -- the all-around things -- while leaving the big things (shot attempts) mostly to Westbrook. Advantage, "point guard."
Still, I believe I hit a nerve in Durant last year, one that stays raw. I believe that deep down, Durant knows I'm right: Westbrook ultimately will prove to be more burden than benefit.
I found it interesting -- maybe even telling -- that after Durant criticized me last year, his mother readily agreed to join us on a show we did in Oklahoma City before Game 2 of the Finals. On air, she thanked me for always supporting her son. Mother knew best?
This season, her son has been oddly on edge. He has 12 technical fouls, seven more than last year's career-high five. According to Thunder insiders, Durant has sometimes seemed "out of it" the past month or so -- more turnover-prone and quicker to criticize teammates on the court. In fact, for the past month, Westbrook clearly has been the Thunder's best player.
Is this all somehow a product of Nike's new "Kevin Durant is not nice" campaign? Or of the criticism Durant received during and after the Finals (constructively from me) that he's too close to LeBron, that LeBron knows KD's game too well from their offseason workouts and that KD allowed LeBron to play in too much of a friendly comfort zone as the Heat won the last four Finals games?
Or could it be that his "point guard's" childish behavior is finally getting to Durant?
At home on Jan. 31, Westbrook was trying to post up the Grizzlies' Jerryd Bayless when Thabo Sefolosha cut through the lane, momentarily clogging it with another defender. Westbrook was called for a five second violation. He threw a fit -- a "me," not a "we" fit -- was yanked and refused to take a seat on the bench, instead storming all the way back to the locker room. Though coach Scott Brooks and assistant Maurice Cheeks played point guard in the NBA and are highly respected in NBA circles, even they sometimes can't seem to reach Westbrook.
Memphis scored 10 straight points. Yet of course, Westbrook soon returned as if nothing had happened and OKC pulled away in the fourth quarter and won by 17. That's the best and worst thing about Westbrook: Nothing stays with him -- tantrums, turnovers, missed shots. He can be blissfully knuckleheaded. He's always moving on without memory to the next shot. He recently kept firing through an 0-for-18 stretch from 3.
Just the other night at home against Portland, Durant appeared to get miffed at Westbrook for ignoring him when he waved for the ball on the wing. Durant certainly appeared to express his displeasure to Westbrook during the next timeout. No big deal, right, Kevin?
For that matter, maybe Durant's patience began to fray during last year's Finals. Remember what the great Magic Johnson said on ABC about Westbrook's first half of Game 2? Magic: "That was the worst point guard play I've ever seen in a championship game."
Yet Westbrook bounced back in Game 4 by taking 32 shots, hitting 20 and scoring 43 points -- in another loss. In the Game 5 closeout loss, Westbrook jacked up 20 more shots ... but made only four. Westbrook/Westbrick.
Durant/Westbrook: polar opposites of understatement and overstatement.
How many All-Stars would have the nerve to wear such outrageous outfits, topped off by red-frame lensless glasses? Craig Sager would be embarrassed to wear some of Westbrook's mismatched get-ups, which scream LOOK AT ME. While Durant (until this year) has played with emotionless class and dignity, Westbrook will stare down rival fans, beat his chest and blow the smoke off his extended forefingers after making 3s.
Yet here's what really must be eating at Durant: Without Harden, the Thunder now have no backup point guard.
Derek Fisher, back for another last hurrah, is little more than a spot-up shooter at age 38. Reggie Jackson is more two-guard. Two playoffs ago, Brooks replaced Westbrook with Eric Maynor when he wanted a more reliable game-manager, but when Maynor didn't bounce back quickly enough from knee surgery, the Thunder shipped him to Portland.
So now it's Westbrook or bust as bus driver.
No doubt his basketball IQ has improved some. No doubt he and Serge Ibaka have developed some pick-and-roll chemistry. No doubt Westbrook is extraordinarily dependable in effort and durability. The kid loves to play and has never missed an NBA game.
But Kevin, you know and I know Russell Westbrook still can't quite be trusted. I've pleaded with you on air to stand up for yourself and your team and call him out publicly just once, to shake him up and force him to grow up. But you won't, so I've tried, with this column.
I just don't want to see you lost in a corn field some night in June.
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