You know what the best part about good, young, exciting teams is?
Sounds simple enough, right?
Take a trip back in time with me. From 1996 to 1999, the Minnesota Timberwolves were probably the most exciting young team this league had ever seen. Sounds hyperbolic, but itâ€™s hard to say it wasnâ€™t true for the time. Kevin Garnett was re-breaking the age barrier in the NBA, Tom Gugliotta was flourishing with his third team in five years, and Stephon Marbury was bringing his New York City legend to the Twin Cities.
While Googs was the solid rock of the trio, KG and Marbury were setting the league ablaze. They were the new era of the NBA. They embodied the direction of where the league was headed. They were dubbed the Hip Hop version of Stockton and Malone. They were supposed to take over the world together.
Then something happened. The Minnesota Timberwolves gave Kevin Garnett a 6-year, $126 million contract extension right before the NBA lockout in 1998 (and by right before I mean it totally caused the lockout). And after the lockout hit, Stephon Marbury was forever destined to make less money than KG. Thatâ€™s where the cookie crumbled. Marburyâ€™s ego would continue to spiral out of control. He had to be the man and he had to do it his way.
Soon after, the Wolves traded Marbury to the New Jersey Nets and destroyed the future in Minnesota. It left KG cold (literally) and alone (figuratively but almost literally) while Steph went on to make the playoffs just three times past the age of 20.
Fast-forward 12 years later, and Iâ€™m afraid that this young and exciting Oklahoma City Thunder team is in position to suffer the same fate. Playing the role of Stephon Marbury would be Russell Westbrook, and his stellar play has officially become a potential problem.
Itâ€™s not that Westbrook has been bad as an individual player. Heâ€™s had a career year across the board. In roughly the same amount of minutes compared to last season, Russ scored 471 more points this year while slightly increasing his assist numbers, shooting better from all over the floor, and becoming remarkably more efficient than he was his previous two seasons.
However, if you ask me, the rise of Westbrookâ€™s individual game is a potential detriment to the Thunder organization and their franchise player Kevin Durant. I see a much bigger problem with the execution of Russell Westbrook rather than the theory of him. My biggest issue with his play and the future of the Thunder comes with his decision-making.
I would imagine there arenâ€™t many players in the NBA as confident as Russ. In fact, you can just see the way heâ€™s played this season that he believes he belongs amongst the elite in this league. With his athleticism, talent and confidence, youâ€™ve got a very dangerous combination for opposing teams to deal with. The problem is that his team also has to deal with it.
Westbrook wants to be the man and show just what he can do on the court. He can dominate. He can put up highlights that will fill your Top 10 reels. He can win you basketball games. But it comes with a price and that price is the production of Kevin Durant.
Kevin Durant is the best player on the Thunder. Nobody should quibble with this fact. Itâ€™s unquibbable (made it up). And yet, you have people wondering if Westbrook might be the Thunderâ€™s best player. The reason people are thinking this is because they fail to see how Westbrook negatively impacts what Kevin Durant does on the court.
Kevin Durantâ€™s usage this season is down. Itâ€™s not a huge drop-off but falling from 32% to 30.6% is significant enough to show his lowered per game averages. However, whatâ€™s puzzling is how his efficiency has also suffered so much.
The reason Durant is less efficient seems to be that Russell Westbrook might be the most erratic star point guard since the fabled Stephon Marbury-Steve Francis era. You never know what heâ€™s going to do on the court. Is he going to run the offense or is he going to awkwardly pull up on his jumper and show you what it would look like if Andre Miller actually elevated while shooting?
This is where Durant suffers. Yes, KD has issues with getting separation from his defenders, but the bigger problem is that the way he gets the ball is so inconsistent. Some guys, no matter how great they are, just need to be in a rhythm on the court. Carmelo Anthony is so inefficient and considered a volume scorer because the flow in which he tries to score is so idiosyncratic (by his own volition of course). The reason Durant gets the ball so inconsistently is because Westbrook is still trying to toe the line between point guard and â€œholy shnikes, I think I can get by everyone and get my own shot.â€
By looking at their on/off court numbers (thanks to Stats Cube), you can see Westbrook is the same no matter what but Durant is MUCH better when he has Eric Maynor in the game.
The fact that Durantâ€™s numbers are SO dramatically different with Westbrook on the bench, rather than with them side-by-side, is pretty staggering. Normally, you could just point to the fact that without a second dominant scorer on the court Durantâ€™s numbers should skyrocket like they do.
Of course, heâ€™s going to score more points, get more shots and probably get to the free throw line more without Russ by his side. Seeing that Westbrookâ€™s scoring numbers are virtually the same when Durant is on the court while KDâ€™s PER, free throw attempts and plus/minus dramatically improve when heâ€™s sans his starting point guard seems like an issue.
Checking out his stats when Eric Maynor is on the court, you see that he works much better with the backup, pass-first point guard.
The loss to Denver in Game 4 Monday night was a perfect example of the rollercoaster that is Russell Westbrook. He varied from pernicious to imposing and back from dribble to dribble. He carried them in the third quarter of that game and kept things from getting out of hand in Denverâ€™s favor. Then the fourth quarter came and he was â€œfeeling itâ€ so much that he took 11 shots while Durant only got five attempts, and the Thunder couldnâ€™t get any consistency to their fourth quarter.
In the Daily Dime Live chat, you had Thunder fans caps locking for Maynor to be subbed in and you had Denver fans caps locking in ecstasy over his decisions on the court. It was like Westbrook was grabbing the wheel of the Titanic because he felt he was the only one who could drive that ship through the fatal iceberg.
So what does all of this mean? Are the Thunder doomed? Do they need to get rid of Westbrook in the name of Durantâ€™s fire-breathing ways? Should Eric Maynor be the future point guard of this team? Will Russell Westbrook add Vaseline to his daily caloric intake?
My overall point is this. The Oklahoma City Thunder are a more dangerous bunch when theyâ€™re utilizing Kevin Durant as the consistent focus of the attack. If there is that clichÃ©d ideal of there needing to be an alpha dog, Durant has to be it. Westbrook could eventually find the right mixture of point guarding and getting his to make them an unstoppable force.
However, there could come a day when they have to make a decision of whether or not Russell Westbrook is the right running mate for Kevin Durant, and it probably wonâ€™t come down to anything having to do with how good of a basketball player he is. His selfishness isnâ€™t suffocating right now, but the potential is there. When he believes heâ€™s the best option, itâ€™s the riskiest game plan OKC can employ.
Heâ€™ll win them plenty of games, but will his defensive decline and confidence to win ball games be the proper team basketball for this young team? More than likely, he comes out tonight and is a big part of closing out the Nuggets. But there could come a time in which Sam Presti has to decide between keeping a young star happy or jettisoning his ego for the greater good of this young and exciting Thunder team.
Hopefully 12 years from now, weâ€™re not left wondering what could have been. The future of this team is too exciting to ruin.