Russell Westbrook personifies the story of his generation in the NBA. He is probably the most polarizing player in the league.
Here we will try to layout the arguments of his loyal supporters, who believe he is one of the top 10 players in the NBA, as well as the reasoning of his naysayers, who believe he is far too out of control to play point guard.
Once we do that, we will debunk both. Then, with a clean slate, we will dive in once again to the Westbrook enigma.
The new-agers – the open-minded and those who try to see the big picture – will make the 95 percent case, meaning Westbrook is so good, his bad 5 percent sticks out like a sore thumb. His athletic ability is unmatched, as his competitive flair. His energy is contagious.
Without Russ, the Thunder had an early second-round exit in the 2013 playoffs. Kevin Durant talks of him as his brother. Westbrook is a top 10 player in this league, and is the beating heart of OKC. Asking him to play more cautiously is like telling the Hulk to chill out. Westbrook brings it every night, plays angry, at full speed, and that’s that. Russ fills your cup all the way up, and every once in a while it spills. You can’t have it both ways.
The former coaches, the idealists and the old-school purists all look at Westbrook and gently tilt their heads sideways. They see the talent and athleticism and feel the frustration building. They want a point guard to be a point guard. It’s a team game. Hybrid combo guards aren’t their cup of tea.
Westbrook freezes out his teammates, most notably Durant, who inexplicably takes fewer shots per game than his point guard. When Westbrook was out last season, Durant terrorized the NBA, securing the MVP before his wing man was even back. Westbrook is a bad decision-maker, and if you don’t make the right choices, it doesn’t matter how fast you run or how high you jump. Too often he is out of control, and his mental lapses hurt the team. Westbrook simply cannot be trusted manning the position that requires stability before all else.
Basically, after a while, the argument is taken over by the extremes on both sides.
With Westbrook, the pros are always entangled with the cons. This isn’t to say that the debate is pointless, but it’s a hard job; you must go in with a fine-toothed comb and evaluate what part of his game is a necessary evil, and what negative he can eventually delete from his game.
Not many current or former players can say they scored 43 points in an NBA Finals game. Reality, of course, is always more layered than those big headlines. The Thunder lost that game, for the record.
At his best, Westbrook is everywhere. At his worst, he’s all over the place. The difference is so often only a matter of perception, and that is why Westbrook is such a fascinating case to crack.
If you’re a starting point guard, Westbrook is the most terrifying player to go up against. With his superb physical gifts, ruthlessness, and never-ending motor, Westbrook will leave both your body and ego aching with bruises.
He loves contact, with an impressive array of finishing moves at the rim. In transition, when he goes into downhill mode, the only one player who can prevent him from getting two points is himself – which he sometimes does. Funny as it may be, at times Westbrook is too fast for his own good. Layups at 100 mph are tough to make.
Not quite as advanced of a ballhandler as other elite point guards, Westbrook has remarkable body control and an intuitive knack for pace and rhythm. These aspects of the game are difficult to explain, let alone teach, but Westbrook just has them as a natural part of his game.
Westbrook’s outside shot is a good example of where the conflict resides. He puts the “jump” in jump shot, seemingly launching from a trampoline when he pulls up. Most of his shots, even off the bounce, are virtually wide-open, with smaller defenders hopelessly extending their hand toward his chin.
But this much lift also costs him in stability, as fatigue takes its toll. With a career mark of 30.5 percent from three, Westbrook could stand to be more selective. The ball is in his hands a huge portion of the possessions. In the playoffs, Westbrook led all qualified players in usage rate with a whopping 34.3 percent of his team’s plays, according to Basketball-Reference.com. At times, when the clock runs out, hoisting one up is the only real option. Still, Westbrook often falls in love with very low-efficiency pull-ups. Good can turn bad – it’s a matter of dosage and context.
On defense, Westbrook’s fantastic athleticism is only rivaled by his recklessness. His explosiveness makes him is prone to gambling and over-helping. Playoff teams make you pay for a lack of discipline, and Westbrook exposes his team too often.
Nevertheless, Westbrook has the defensive tools to affect every play, lurking around the ball, racking up rebounds and steals, and making his presence felt on the court as much as in the box score.
It is established that Westbrook is one of the very best players in the NBA. But can he be the point guard of a championship team?
The Thunder’s injuries in recent playoff runs may have been masking a bigger issue in their hunt for a title. Their offensive system is built upon two great scorers but is predictable and lacks sophistication. In the regular season, the Thunder can rely on their superior talent and defense to cruise to 55-60 wins. However, thinking that X amount of regular season wins makes for a title contender is a gross oversimplification.
We know playoff teams play better defense, but it’s the specific way in which they are better that really hurts the Thunder. When attacking a good, zeroed-in defense over the course of a series, actions have to lead to reactions, and then flow to counters once you are cut off. The Thunder only have actions. Their playbook must become thicker, and wondering whether Westbrook is a point guard that can lead that type of change is justified.
When you look at it with fresh eyes, the simplest answer just smacks you on the nose. Westbrook is not a point guard in a shooting guard’s body, but a shooting guard in a shooting guard’s body. I’m not of the school of thought that is in love with the “pure point guard” concept, and Westbrook does need the ball in his hands.
However, after six years as a pro, it is clear that Westbrook’s decision-making is not good enough. It’s not even where it should be for a shooting guard, but it will be more acceptable and far less damaging. Westbrook is an emotional spark, not the intellectual link between coach and players. When you ask him to initiate the offense and maintain floor balance, you are setting him up for failure.
While not the ideal fit along Westbrook, I believe starting Reggie Jackson at point guard is worth a look by coach Scott Brooks and the Thunder. This summer, Jackson was talking about wanting to become a starter and lead a team. And while not a pure point guard, his size and skills fit the position more than does Westbrook.
After the James Harden trade, the Thunder can’t just close their eyes and hope Jackson will give them a discount so he can keep coming off the bench. Starting Jackson would feature him and make him a better trade chip if he were leaving.
And lastly, it might actually work.
Through the years, there have plenty of amazing players that could only thrive on bad teams because of their personality and style of play. Russell Westbrook is too competitive to be OK with that route, and it means he has a lot of work to do, regardless of the position he ends up playing.
Oren Levi is an amateur scout, a professional writer and a diehard NBA fan. Follow him on Twitter.
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