The dominant, domineering Russell Westbrook
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
Is it possible that a player can do too much or try too hard to the point where it negatively affects the team? Should a player who averages over 26 points, eight assists and six rebounds really shoulder most of the blame when his team loses?
That's the Russell Westbrook paradox.
Now, it's common for the star player to be singled out when the team loses and, make no mistake, with Kevin Durant having only played 27 games, the Thunder have been Westbrook's team this season. But what makes this apply to Westbrook more than perhaps any player in the league is that he's a point guard who's leading the league in shot attempts per game. Whenever the Thunder start losing, the gripe is often that Westbrook isn't playing like a true point guard.
With the way the NBA has evolved and how scoring-machine point guards like Westbrook and Stephen Curry are two of the top four MVP candidates so far this season, that argument may sound archaic, but there's a point. Since the days of Jo Jo White, Walt Frazier and Jerry West in the '70s, no point guard has taken over 17 shots per game and won a title in the same season. Westbrook takes over 20 a night. That type of point guard hasn't won a championship in nearly 40 years (the last time a point guard has attempted over 18 shots a game and won a championship in the same year is when White won a title with the '75-'76 Celtics on 18.2 FGAs).
It's also an unfair argument. As much as could be said about score-first point guards' lack of success in the playoffs can be said about the pass-happy point guards everyone wants their floor general to be. John Stockton, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, the top three assists leaders of all-time, have 56 seasons and only one ring between them.
Westbrook is a high-volume shooter but he shouldn't be mistaken as an inefficient chucker. He's shooting a respectable 43.2 percent on field goals this season, and a lot of those shots are drives to the basket which usually result in Westbrook taking a trip to the free-throw line. His three-point shot has taken a nosedive, shooting south of 28 percent from deep, but he's also taken fewer per game than he had the past two seasons.
Although he's not seen as a distributor, Westbrook has notched at least 10 assists in each of his last six games (as of Feb. 28). A lot of those assists come by way of Westbrook rocketing into the lane then kicking out when help arrives to an open shooter, but therein lies another problem. That help defense will always be there not only because Westbrook is just about impossible to stop with one defender once he's at full speed, but because they know that Westbrook will try to finish the play himself just about every time.
Against Phoenix on February 26, Westbrook shot 12-for-a-whopping-38 in a loss. After the game, Westbrook said that he thought he shot too much and that he has to trust his teammates more. In the very next game against Portland he attempted 32 shots in another loss, 13 of which were in the fourth quarter alone.
A tiger can't change his stripes, and Westbrook is just about the blood-thirstiest tiger in the jungle. He gets to the rim like no other player in the league can and finishes through contact like a compact LeBron James. He's blossoming into one of the greatest triple-double threats at the point guard position ever, and his demeanor towards the game even has Kobe Bryant impressed.
Westbrook plays like a maniac on both ends of the court, and you can't really blame him for not believing that Kyle Singler or Dion Waiters could get a better shot off than he could. Westbrook uses up the largest percentage of his team's possessions of any player in the league, per NBA.com. That sounds like a point guard stat, given how they have the ball in their hands in every play, but it's not. The next five down the usage percentage list are Kobe, DeMarcus Cousins, Dwyane Wade, LeBron, and Carmelo Anthony.
It can be disconcerting to see your point guard hijack possessions as Westbrook often does, but you can't argue with the results. The Thunder scored over 100 points in every game in the month of February, even with Durant sitting out over half of them.
Now it's time to bring Durant into the discussion, because Westbrook and Durant is the most interesting pairing in the NBA and the Thunder aren't going anywhere in the playoffs if either goes down.
As you might expect, Westbrook takes a lot more shots when Durant is sidelined. In the 27 games they've shared the court together this season, Westbrook averaged 19 shot attempts. In the 18 games Westbrook goes without the reigning MVP, his shot attempts skyrocket up to almost 24 a game.
It's a classic case of picking up the slack when a big piece of the offense goes down, but when Westbrook comes back from facial surgery and Durant from his foot injury, Westbrook needs to be able to re-adjust back to not dominating every OKC possession.
Hopefully the Westbrook-Durant dynamic will work out in Oklahoma City, but if it doesn't it will be because they both needed to be the undisputed go-to guy on their team. They could both benefit from having full reign of an offense without the worry of someone else on their team who wants to take at least 20 shots every game.
Having two alpha dogs on the same team can be a very successful, if volatile partnership (see: Kobe-Shaq Lakers). The most recent counterpoint is the Miami Heat with Wade and LeBron, but by their second year together it was clear Miami was LeBron's team. This season, the distinction between who "the guy" is on the Thunder is blurrier than it has ever been.
Picture this. It's Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals. The Thunder are down by two playing on the road against the Golden State Warriors. There are 12 seconds left, and the Thunder just used their last timeout to bring the ball to half-court. Serge Ibaka inbounds the ball to Westbrook, who stands a foot behind the three-point line at the top of the key with Durant on the wing to his left. Andre Iguodala was brought in to guard Durant. Curry stands just inside the three-point line on Westbrook with Andrew Bogut behind him, in the paint.
Does Westbrook take the game in his hands or defer to Durant? The past six seasons you'd say he passes it up. But now? Not so sure, are you?
Whatever would happen in that hypothetical situation, it's absolutely certain that Westbrook would receive more condemnation from the media and fans if he took and missed the shot than if Durant did. If Durant misses the shot, we'll say "oh well, we'd trust him with that shot seven days a week." If Westbrook, the current second-leading scorer in the league, misses that shot it becomes "why didn't he pass to Durant? How selfish! Doesn't he know he's a point guard?"
That dynamic is what makes Oklahoma City such an interesting team. On no other team would the leading scorer be derided for taking the game-deciding shot instead of passing it off to the second-leading scorer. Having two players so incredibly talented is a nice problem to have, but the Thunder ought to make sure to win now while they still have the both of them.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo