Much is being made of the two tough home losses the Oklahoma City Thunder have suffered since getting Russell Westbrook back from injury, and the blogosphere has exploded with talk about disrupted chemistry and chaos in the wake of Westbrook’s return. While Westbrook has shot a dismal 28% on 7-of-25 shooting in his 2 games back, most of the concern and criticism levied on him has been another case of overreaction and a continuation of a narrative that unfairly places Westbrook as a victim of circumstance.
First, the answer to the most over-asked question in the last year or so is “No”. Without hesitation, a resounding “No” to whether the Thunder would be better off without arguably the best combo guard on the planet – a bonafide superstar who has yet to enter the prime of his career. The fact that this is even a question to some shows the absurdity of the situation, and shows the dark side of a media that is trying hard to create a narrative out of something that really isn’t there.
The most used criticism regarding Westbrook’s game is the fact that his fairly high shooting volume takes possessions away from Kevin Durant, who happens to be the most efficient scoring threat in the league. Most of this is a reflection on Durant’s prowess as a generational talent, as when it comes down to it, anyone who plays alongside Durant could be accused of taking away shots from him. The fallacy here is that aside from last season, Westbrook and Durant’s shooting numbers are in line with other teams possessing two superstars. Comparatively, Durant averages about 19.4 field goal attempts per game in the 4 years prior to this one, which is higher than the 18.2 LeBron James has averaged since jumping ship to the Heat. On the other hand, Westbrook has averaged 17.2 over that same stretch, compared to Dwyane Wade’s 17.7 in the two seasons before he was slowed due to injuries. The luxury of having a second star on a team means that you can have two high volume shooters and allocate possessions to each of them, and the Thunder have done that in a way that is not too out of line compared to other teams possessing that same luxury. Advanced statistics paint a picture that shows that just like the Heat are better with Wade healthy and on the court, the Thunder are also superior with Westbrook, having better efficiency numbers and better points per possession over the past few years.
Here’s a thought experiment: What if Westbrook and pre-injury Derrick Rose switched places. Both possess similar games – they’re both athletic combo guards with the ability to get to the basket, a solid midrange game, a below average but not disastrous 3-point range and solidly above average passing. Yet Rose was lauded for his leadership and voted MVP and generally hailed as a hero because he was playing on a team without a second true star and rightfully had to take a huge load on his own shoulders, while Westbrook is seen as a villain for playing the same game alongside Durant. If Westbrook and Rose switched places, their legacies and public perception would flip as well, and that’s something that a lot of us fail to realize, that the way we see things can be shaped entirely by the environment we’re placed in. It’s the curse of expectations.
This fabricated perception is the reason why we watch Sunday’s Clippers-Thunder game and overanalyze the couple plays where Westbrook failed to make the correct read and chucked up a low percentage three, while completely ignoring plays like the driving dish to Fisher with 6:32 left in the 4th for a game tying open three, and the 2 or 3 times he drew the defense away and fed Durant wide open looks down the stretch. We also forget that this is a player coming off of 3 knee surgeries in a year, and it’s expected that he would be rusty being thrown into the fire against two of the league’s best teams in his first two games back.
Yes, Westbrook will make 2 or 3 plays a game that make us scratch our heads and question what he was thinking. But he will also make 6-7+ plays a game that will make you say “Wow” and realize that the Thunder need this guy to win a title. Point guard is a very hard position to play from a mental point of view, and it isn’t possible to be perfect when your job is to control the flow of the offense. Mental mistakes will be made and it comes down to how much the positives outweigh the negatives, and Westbrook’s positives certainly do on a night to night basis.
The fact of the matter is, the Thunder absolutely need those positives in order to win a title. In the playoffs, when defenses will be keying in even harder on Durant, and the game slows down to a more gradual pace, even the threat of extra scoring that Westbrook can provide will open things up for Durant and help the OKC offense generate points against stout defensive teams. Westbrook’s strengths are what enables Durant to get the looks he needs when the pace slows down, and last season’s loss to Memphis after Westbrook’s injury was a stark example of what happens when teams are allowed to double and triple team Durant on every possession.
In the end, the media expects Russell Westbrook to defer from his game and be a pure point guard in the mold of Rajon Rondo or Jason Kidd. Westbrook will never be a pure point guard, and doesn’t have the skillset to excel in that role. In order for the Thunder to win multiple titles and not waste Kevin Durant’s prime, they don’t need Westbrook to try to be something he’s not. They need him to be Russell Westbrook.
Kent Shen is a University of Waterloo alumnus and an aspiring investor with an insightful knowledge of sports and pop culture. You can follow him on Twitter at @_kblitz.