By Joshua M Hicks (@jhicks042)
Russell Westbrook is revered in today’s NBA as one of the most dynamic players to ever put on a uniform.
With tenacity, aggression, and a endless athleticism applied endlessly, no matter the game’s importance, Westbrook’s focus on winning can never be questioned But you can argue that when it comes to winning games, Westbrook has not been the most efficient superstar.
The Oklahoma City Thunder just experienced another early postseason exit — a recurring theme in the franchises’ post-Kevin Durant era — after losing a 4-1 series to the Portland Trailblazers and as its most high profile player Westbrook is taking a lot of heat for OKC’s seemingly stuck position as not-quite ready competitors in the Western Conference.
It can be argued that different factors played into this turn of events for a franchise that at one point featured the last three MVPs in the league playing together and with that group, including James Harden, made a surprising run to the 2012 NBA Finals.
But with Westbrook the only remaining star from that promising young nucleus, so much of the weight of the Thunder not ever taking control of the West has fallen on him. Many people are wondering is Westbrook the problem for the Thunder’s lack of postseason success? Part of the blame should rest with Russ, but he is not the sole virus exacerbating the Thunder’s contagious struggles.
Since deciding to stay with the team that drafted him, and signing the 5-year/$205 million super-max extension in 2016, Westbrook has been on a tear, becoming a league MVP and averaged a triple-double over three straight seasons, crowing himself as the league’s King of the Triple-Double and extending a legacy previously only held by Hall of Fame legend Oscar Robertson.
Yet, besides re-establishing the triple-double standard and his MVP accolades, Westbrook has not done much on the team success side, especially without Durant, who himself may end up with 3 straight titles since ejecting himself from OKC.
In the three postseasons where Westbrook has played without Durant — 2017 to 2019 — he has a record of 5-12 and has not won more than two games in any of the three series his teams have played in. While never seen as a pure shooter, the Brodie’s shooting efficiency has still declined dramatically — from 85 percent from the free throw line and 35% from the three-point line in his MVP season to 66% from the free throw line and 29% from behind the arc this season.
During this span of postseason woes, Westbrook has played with tremendous talent as his go-to players in the backcourt (Victor Oladipo, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony among them) and yet despite averaging 48 wins a season, no combinations of recent Thunder talent has proven itself worthy of moving past the first round.
As the main leader of this franchise, Westbrook has managed to prove that no matter who he plays with he cannot win as the team’s head and he has a lot more to do to learn how to play his game while also diverting to his teammates, more specifically his right hand man when it matters most/when games are on the line. Its likely the only way he can learn to adjust is if he has the right coaching staff to direct him, which is a problem the team has had for years and still has not solved.
OKC’s coaches throughout Westbrook’s career, both with and without Durant, have not lived up to their expectations either, mostly due to their lack of willingness to adjust their game plans. Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan have not been able to find different ways offensively to get all of their players on the same page in a half-court setting. The offense is basically the Brodie Show and if he is not on point, especially from an efficiency standpoint, the offensive flow becomes stagnant and disruptive.
Without backup options from a play-calling perspective, the offense’s success becomes limited. It is the coaching staff’s job to create a disciplined culture for players to respect and follow on and off the court, and that is something that failed Westbrook and others like Anthony, who was basically driven out of the league for his questionable tenure in OKC.
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After learning the departure of Durant, the Thunder’s front office did everything they could to recover and keep the team viable, re-signing Russ to the biggest contract extension in league history at the time, trading for Oladipo and turning that into the PG-13 trade that kept George in town long term. The team also made a blockbuster trade to bring Melo to town and turned that trade into the coming of current backup point guard Dennis Schroder.
Having those players on your roster year after year should have at least guarantee you access to the semi-finals, even in the loaded Western Conference, but unfortunately those wishes were not granted. Their mistake was not in the players brought in, but bringing in the right coach to direct them. Very similar to what’s needed with any LeBron James team, you need a coach and culture from the top down that is disciplined and respected or chaos will arise.
Chaos arose when Oladipo was not developing into the sidekick that they expected him to be for Westbrook, which led to his departure and it lingered into the following season when Melo refused to come off the bench for the Thunder. The team never did what they were suppose to do to combat those issues, but instead let the players do what they wanted to do and just disposed of them as soon as they became challenges.
Many people questioned the Thunder’s overall choice to keep Westbrook over Harden and Durant, and more questions continue to arise as the team’s path to success stalls at a crossroad with Westbrook as their leader.
If this franchise wants to go deeper in the playoffs, changes need to be made from all across the board, including a potential coaching change and a honest sit down with the franchise’s superstar.
Joshua M. Hicks is a Senior Writer for WARR Media