Russell Westbrook is in a tough spot.
After a brilliant regular season that earned him All-NBA Second-Team honors, one of the game's brightest young stars has been dramatically exposed in the playoffs. Westbrook was sensational in Game 7 against Memphis and has clearly been a key to the Thunder's success this season, but the problems are bountiful.
The entire postseason thus far has been an onslaught of Westbrook turnovers and errant shots. His selfish play -- as seen by his playoff high usage rate -- has cost Oklahoma City in all three losses to Dallas, and, if it weren’t for the stellar performance by backup Eric Maynor in Game 2, the Thunder's season would be over.
The problem with Westbrook is that he's a "mistake player." He's at his best when he's attacking but as a result, is prone to make mistakes. Common knowledge with him in the past has been to accept the bad because there is so much good.
The argument can of course be made that at 22, he is still learning the intricacies of the game's most vexing position. That argument, on many levels, is valid.
No other position requires such a blend of skill and thought than the point guard position. Like a young quarterback in the NFL, playing point guard takes time to learn. There is a fine balance -- especially on this stage -- between when to look for your own offense and when to create offense for others. Westbrook crossed this line long ago.
"He can become a point guard," one NBA front office rep told The Huffington Post, "but [he] needs to have those growing pains, he needs to have those losses, if [OKC] does run him at point."
Game 3 against Dallas is a prime example of "growing pains" and taking the good with the bad. He led the Thunder in scoring with 30 points. But for this team, that is not necessarily the formula for success. His selfishness bordered on despicable, and his decision-making was brutal. Seven turnovers contrasted to four assists from your point guard is almost an automatic loss, even with the 30 points.
Despite being benched for the entire fourth quarter of Game 2 for just the same thing, Westbrook once again came down the floor in launch mode. Game 4 last night was no different. His incessant over-dribbling and head-down drives destroyed any flow the Thunder offense may have had and helped prevent Oklahoma City from a crucial victory.
He refused to initiate the offense. He refused to make plays for teammates. And worst of all, he rarely looked for Kevin Durant, the two-time scoring champ. The only form of team ball he has displayed is the pick-and-roll, where, instead of hitting open rollers or driving to kick, he drove uncontrollably to the basket with mindless shot attempts.
Sure, Westbrook does convert some of these plays. He's just too talented not to. But even then, many are plays without anybody else even touching the basketball, which is simply bad offense.
The growing pains of any young player -- especially one who has the ball so much -- are undoubtedly challenging. Michael Jordan struggled with this at the beginning of his career before learning to trust his teammates. Carmelo Anthony is a lethal scorer, but one who still hasn’t figured out how to consistently play within an offense, and thus, hasn’t won anything.
Many people has said Westbrook and league MVP Derrick Rose mirror each other in many ways: They are both dynamic athletes who are explosive, strong, physical players who are at their best when attacking the basket.
The main difference is Rose shows the willingness to conform to his team's needs. He passes and screens away; he spreads the floor; he runs the offense and allows the Bulls to set up Carlos Boozer or Joakim Noah in the post or go back to Rose for a side screen-and-roll. Both are tremendous playmakers, but Rose is far better at making plays for others. And Rose does all of this despite being nowhere near flanked by a vast talent like Durant.
In this series, Westbrook is averaging 21.8 points per game on a mere 35 percent shooting, to go along with just 4.8 assists per game and 5.3 turnovers, and, he's still been a net negative in the plus/minus department. A key reason why is the savvy veteran play of Jason Kidd, who at 38, cannot contain Westbrook laterally, but has essentially used his athleticism against him by forcing him to shoot from distance and funneling him into the middle where, he has to shoot over Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood.
"Westbrook doesn’t really have the threat of making a pass," the NBA source said. "He's very determined to attack: case in point you can see him dribble out the 24-second shot clock. [That's his] mentality."
ESPN NBA analyst Ric Bucher shared the same opinion. "Westbrook's decision-making has to improve," he wrote in an email.
Bucher however, also offered that much of the problems either don’t fall on him or are merely a product of his basketball upbringing.
"He's 22 and did not consistently play the point until he reached the NBA -- and even then, he spent much of his rookie year under P.J. Carlesimo's thumb. I see the issues with OKC having three parts: Westbrook's decision-making, Durant's inability to free himself from physical defenders and [coach] Scotty Brooks' offense, which doesn't always integrate Westbrook and KD. The other element that has to be considered with Westbrook is that for most of his career he's been told, 'You're not this' and 'You're not that.' The kid has built up a huge reservoir of I'll-show-you attitude. It is what has made him so great at such a young age, but it's also what sometimes leads him to force things and make everything worse. Once he stops jousting at windmills, he'll be much, much better, and that's just a matter of growing up a little."
Westbrook deserves plenty of credit. Without him, OKC would not be in the Western Conference Finals. But, clearly something is amiss when a backup point guard has a substantially better plus-minus and propels a Game 2 victory in his place.
And Bucher's point about OKC's offense -- or lack thereof -- is well taken.
Essentially, Westbrook jogs the ball up the court, waits ten seconds, and then lets Durant set a screen 25' from the basket. Westbrook is not a threat to shoot from there, which in turn allows Dallas to hedge thick and load up on Durant. In reality, this is no different to the "offense" Mike Brown ran for LeBron in Cleveland: unimaginative, predictable and easy to defend.
Durant clearly struggles against physicality (see Ron Artest last year, Shane Battier, Tony Allen, Shawn Marion, etc), and Brooks -- who I do like a lot -- doesn't seem to run the same types of sets that Dwyane Wade for example has in Miami, i.e. double screens allowing him to curl or fade, misdirection, etc. And, is it simply not in KD's personality to demand the ball and tell Russell to stop gunning?
Scott Brooks finds himself in quite the quandary.
On one hand, he has another young point in Maynor who Kevin Durant and this team thrive with. Durant has insisted publicly that there isn't an issue, but he must know on some level that there is a problem.
If Brooks opts to play Maynor late in Game 5 and the rest of the way, he in turn runs the risk of destroying Westbrook's confidence and losing his trust forever. Truthfully, I'm not sure what is more important. OKC -- as great as this run has been -- is still a year or two away from being a true title threat to both Chicago and Miami in the Eastern Conference. They will be there again, and Westbrook most likely, will too. Bench Westbrook now and you may halt the progression of an All-Star caliber career.
Westbrook is an immense talent; there is no arguing that. The difference though, between him and other elite point guards who can score -- i.e. Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash -- is a distinct feel for the position. It's a feel that enables them to properly balance facilitation duties with scoring. It's a feel that is both taught and innate, and one that is absolutely necessary for any great point guard.
[He] is a great physical specimen but doesn't have a natural position for the league," Sports Illustrated writer Seth Davis told HuffPost. "Has a lot to learn but remember, he's young."
While Bucher agreed, he suggested that being a hybrid-type of player could actually translate to a positive.
"He's not a natural PG," Bucher added, "but the game seems to be changing to where traditional PGs aren't necessary to win, and I would say he's more a 1 than a 2. Tony Parker, to me, never has been a true PG, but he did just fine once he grew up a little bit and the Spurs figured out how to incorporate him with Manu [Ginobili] and Tim [Duncan]."
It's too late now in this season for a position change, but perhaps by moving Westbrook to the role of combo guard, OKC could maximize his talents and minimize his deficiencies. He could still create for others of course, but his main focus would be to score. As it is right now, late in games he reverts back to putting his head down and getting to the basket. If that's who he is than fine, but it means he needs to be shifted off the ball.
"I think you can run Westbrook at the two. I really do," the NBA source said.
In truth, such a move would complement Durant very well. Durant -- not unlike Dirk Nowitzki -- is a perimeter scorer. Having a slasher like Westbrook and a true point guard like Maynor may just serve this team best down the line. Then again, maybe Westbrook can learn the position and overcome the so-called "growing pains." But that's just the question. Are these games growing pains or, are they the byproduct of an incredible talent who simply isn't a point guard? Either way you look at it, something must be done.
Ultimately, this decision is up to GM Sam Presti and Brooks. The Thunder has an infusion of talented young players and its window is just now opening.
The Stephon Marbury and Kevin Garnett comparison is feasible, but also a stretch. Marbury was always a me-first point guard. I'm not sure Westbrook is so much as he just doesn’t understand the game or the position yet. One thing is for sure though: OKC will not win a title with Westbrook playing like he is right now.
You can take that to the bank.