Over the last few years, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been among the NBA's best run franchises. Their metioric rise from the top of the lottery to the Western Conference Finals is a testament to the savvy of Thunder general manager Sam Presti. The team has an incredibly talented young core with plenty of potential for further development.
But after their defeat at the hands of a much more experienced Dallas Mavericks squad, many are calling for the Thunder to trade their explosive young point guard and second-leading scorer Russell Westbrook.
Critics look at Westbrook's high field goal attempt and turnover totals during the playoffs, and conclude that his style contrasts too much with Thunder forward and back-to-back league scoring leader Kevin Durant. They argue that Durant and his teammates would benefit more from a distributing point guard who looks to set up his teammates before getting his own shot.
That logic is not without some merit. But such a move would be unwise and would contradict the strategy that has served them so well during their re-building period: developing their own young talent.
Russell Westbrok is one of the best young point guards in the game. He was named to the All-NBA Second Team this season after averaging 21.9 points and 8.2 assists per game and also made his first All-Star Game appearance. He led his team, along with Durant, to the fourth best record in the Western Conference and a deep playoff run. So if Westbrook and Durant are such a terrible marriage, how did the team have so much success? They had to have been doing something right to have won fifty-five games.
The Oklahoma City team we saw during the playoffs was not the same team we saw during the regular season. Westbrook ran the team well and found a good balance between shooting and passing. He and Durant played very well together, as Durant lead the league in scoring for the second consecutive season and was named to the All-NBA First Team. Westbrook was also among the top ten for assists during the season. So that begs the question: what changed? The simple answer: they ran into a great defense.
Throughout the Western Conference Finals fans were subject to the same mantra being repeated over and over again by nearly every television analyst: "Westbrook is shooting too much. He needs to give the ball to Durant." While this was true to a certain extent, and Westbrook did try to do too much at times, saying "They need to get the ball to Durant more," is over-simplifying the situation.
Dallas came ready with a tremendous defensive game plan to deny Durant the ball and make him work for every shot. Outside of Durant and Westbrook, there is not a single player in the Oklahoma City starting line-up who can get his own shot with any sort of consistency. The ultra-quick Westbrook had a mismatch as he was being defended by the likes of the aged Jason Kidd and the diminutive Jason Terry and J.J. Barea. Thunder coach Scott Brooks elected to take advantage of that mismatch rather than forcing it to Durant.
If anyone deserves blame and criticism, it is Brooks. Dallas won the season series with Oklahoma City two games to one and used the same defensive strategy that they used during the playoffs: shut everyone else down and goad Westbrook into trying to do too much. Brooks is the one who failed to make the necessary schematic adjustments needed to win. He never devised an offense capable of beating the Dallas defense. Oklahoma City collapsed at the end of more than one game because they simply could not put the ball in the basket.
Durant deserves his share of the blame for the loss as well. He was far from the MVP candidate many saw him as during the regular season. The talented scorer was ice-cold from three-point range and struggled to get off quality shots against the pressure defense of the Mavericks.
Westbrook's teammates, his coach, and even his opponents all backed him one hundred percent amidst all the criticism. The questions about Durant and Westbrook seem silly, as the two appear to be great friends and are among the league's most talented young players. The pair made it work for most of the year, and there is no reason to believe they won't continue to do so moving forward. They are still learning how to play together, and both have plenty of room for improvement.
Oklahoma City's five-game series loss to the Dallas Mavericks was not Russell Westbrook's fault. It was a systematic failure by the entire team. Dallas just proved that it was the superior team. But that does not mean the Thunder should make any major roster changes like many believe. It just means they have to get back in the gym, and grow together as a team.