In 11 NBA seasons, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook has become a household name. Westbrook is an eight-time NBA All-Star, one-time league MVP, and in each of the last three seasons, he has averaged a triple-double which is unprecedented. In 2012, Westbrook, along with small forward Kevin Durant and guard James Harden helped the Thunder reach the NBA Finals, but they would come up short versus the Miami Heat. Over the next few seasons the Thunder would lose both Harden and Durant which left Westbrook as the main guy in Oklahoma City. In nine of the last ten seasons the Thunder have made the NBA Playoffs, but following three consecutive first-round exits including one this year where Westbrook was outplayed by Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, the question as to whether or not that he will ever be able to lead Oklahoma City to an NBA Title is front and center.
In the Thunder’s playoff loss to the Blazers, Lillard averaged 33 points per game as compared to the 22.8 of Westbrook. Included in Lillard’s big series was him going for 50 points in the series-clinching win this past Tuesday which was highlighted by hitting the game-winning three-pointer as time expired. For the series Westbrook also averaged 10.6 assists, and 9 rebounds, but just like his regular season numbers over the last few seasons, those stats were deceptive.
Yes, Westbrook is a triple-double waiting to happen, but the main issues about his game are that he is not a traditional point guard, and more importantly that he does not make the players around him better.
When the Thunder were at their height in 2012, it was clearly Durant’s team with Westbrook as the sidekick, while Harden came off of the bench. But whereas the Thunder appeared to have their core in place for the next decade, Harden was traded to the Houston Rockets at the start of the following NBA season due to the fact that the Thunder could not afford him as they were set to be in salary cap purgatory after giving center Serge Ibaka a big contract. It would now be the Durant and Westbrook show, and the duo would help the Thunder reach the Western Conference Finals in 2016 where they had the Golden State Warriors on the ropes before blowing a 3-1 series lead. The loss to the Warriors would mark the end of Durant’s run in Oklahoma City as he would join Golden State in a surprising move in free agency.
Durant has taken his fair share of flack for leaving the Thunder to join the Warriors, but he wanted to win an NBA Championship that he knew that he would not get in Oklahoma City as long as Westbrook was there.
Westbrook wants to be “the guy”, but that is not a winning formula; especially in the postseason when the chips are pushed to the center of the table. An example of this has come in each of the last two years where small forward Paul George was the guy to play off of Westbrook, but the Thunder would have quick exits from the postseason.
At the end of the day Westbrook is a bigger, stronger version of Basketball Hall of Famer Allen Iverson. Iverson was a global icon for his basketball exploits, but he was never able to claim an NBA Title due to the fact that he could not fall into the realm of a team’s offense. The teams that Iverson played on always had to adjust to him which meant getting out of his way as he was going to take 30-35 shots per game, and the same can be said about Westbrook.
In the Thunder’s last game of this season, Westbrook scored 29 points, but it took him 31 shots from the field to get those points which is not efficient, or winning basketball. For Westbrook’s career he is a career 43.5% shooter from the field, while he has only made nearly 31% of his attempts beyond the three-point line. And this season Westbrook fell slightly below that mark as he only connected on 29% of his three-point shots. Westbrook has 11 years under his belt in the NBA, and anyone who thinks that his perimeter game on offense is going to improve at this point of his career needs think again.
In the NBA, Westbrook has had two head coaches in Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan. Neither Brooks or Donovan have been able to make Westbrook a better team basketball player and since he casts such a huge shadow within the organization, the Thunder will never be able to find themselves a head coach that is going to challenge the former NBA MVP to become a better “team” player that’ll help this franchise win it all. And just like it was for Durant, George will eventually get tired of Westbrook’s act as he’ll realize that the Western Conference Semifinals will be the furthest that he’ll be able to advance in Oklahoma City.
Westbrook will continue to be a flashy player that will sell merchandise, but the if the Thunder organization are seeking to put hardware such as the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the team’s display case anytime soon, then they must realize that they have the wrong man leading their team on the basketball court. And if Westbrook doesn’t grasp the situation soon, his career is destined to end like that of Iverson who went out with a whimper as he could never conform to a team, while never being able to accept the fact that he was no longer “the man”.