Russell Westbrook: A Perplexing Scapegoat

As the Oklahoma City Thunder progress through this year’s fantastic postseason, nothing but questions seem to be following the team game after game. Despite a 6-3 record, a 5-game dispatching of the red-hot, media darling Denver Nuggets, and holding their own against a rolling Grizzlies team, the success of the team seems to be a secondary talking point behind the need to question Russell Westbrook’s role and future with the Thunder. Can he coexist with Durant? Is this Marbury/Garnett 2.0? Why is Durant letting this alpha-wannabe take control of the league’s most promising young core?

All these questions have been asked repeatedly since the Game 4 loss vs. Denver, win or lose. Durant is being portrayed as the quiet nice kid while Westbrook is the raging lunatic bully who wants to beat him up and steal his lunch money. Bill Simmons has chosen to force the Avon/Stringer angle from the Wire. Whitlock, Bayless, and Wilbon (when he can break away from praising Derrick Rose and bashing metrics) have all spent TV time and column space questioning Westbrook’s intentions. I can follow Nate Jones’ fretting on Twitter when Westbrook doesn’t get his boy Durant the ball down the stretch. People feel free to tee off on Westbrook the media hasn’t built him up like they have built up Durant (the anti-LeBron and Captain America)┬álast summer.

I’m not sure if these people are watching the same games I’m watching. Or the games Royce Young of the Daily Thunder is watching. Or the games Sebastian Pruiti of NBA Playbook is watching. I’ll leave the more detailed possession-by-possession analysis to them. They know what they’re talking about. And mostly, it confirms what I see when I watch the games. That Russell Westbrook is not the sole culprit in the Oklahoma City Thunder’s late-game woes. It’s a team effort, by both players and coaches.

Russell Westbrook is an easy target for those failures. He’s a flawed scoring point guard, and he has the ball in his hands at the start of most possessions. But the offense often breaks down around him, leaving him to create something out of nothing, which results in an ill-advised jumper, driving into a crowded lane, or a turnover many times. The end result is another dent in Westbrook’s box score, even though there’s often no one to bail him out. Durant has struggled to get open late in games, conjuring memories of Artest physically manhandling him last year in the first round. Tony Allen and Shane Battier have been bullying him off the ball all series. It’s painfully obvious when a play run for Durant breaks down, leaving Westbrook scrambling into what looks like a horrible decision to most watching. As Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus tweeted earlier:

RT @kpelton Here’s the fundamental problem with Durant-Westbrook idiocy: People watching the ball and not anything happening elsewhere

The conundrum with the OKC offense is this: Westbrook can get to an open spot better than Durant can. But Durant is better at finishing at his spots than Westbrook is at his. Thus, Westbrook takes seemingly too many shots relative to Durant’s superior efficiency. On the box score, it looks like he froze him out. But often times passing to Durant is not an option available to Westbrook.

Is he partially to blame? Of course. He’s hasn’t fully developed the ideal point guard sensibilities yet — ironically, 2-guard James Harden may have him beat there for now. Russ tends to get caught up in his own emotion. He’ll hit a three, the crowd will go nuts, and he’ll immediately start shooting some more. He’s reckless and fearless, a ticking time bomb ready to explode to the detriment of either team at times. But he’s 22, still raw, and still finished top 10 in PER this season. In his supposedly horrible playoffs, he has a Player Efficiency Rating (21.29) higher than each of the Kobe/Bynum/Gasol trio, and each of the Celtics’ big four. And he’s got the Thunder with home court in a now best-of-3 series for the right to get to the Western Conference finals? Following a 55-win season where Durant wasn’t himself for a good portion of it? Let him be.

Why make a scapegoat when there doesn’t need to be? The Thunder rise and fall as a team. A young team with a top 4 of ages 21, 21, 22, and 22. So don’t label Russell Westbrook as a cancerous malcontent (Marbury? Really?) because the of overarching, occasional struggles of the Thunder offense.

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