Properly Rating Russell Westbrook
Up until he tore his knee in Game 2 vs. the Houston Rockets in the 1st round, Russell Westbrook has been one of the most frustrating NBA superstars in recent memory. His athleticism affords him the ability to do things on a basketball court that only very few people can. Between him and LeBron James is their a more scary person leading the charge on a fastbreak? What other point guard besides Chris Paul and a healthy Derrick Rose can get to any spot they want on the floor, no matter what the defense is throwing at them? Hell, what other guy can do this? He’s a 3 time NBA All-Star, has made the All-NBA Second team twice and is a pretty snazzy dresser. What more can you ask for from 24 year old player whose best years are clearly in front him?
Unfortunately for Russell Westbrook he plays in Oklahoma City. Now obviously I don’t mean that the Thunder are a bad team or that OKC is a terrible city, but if you had no idea who Russell was and you just read the paragraph above you would think that he would be the star of the team right? No, because he plays with Kevin Durant. Because of that simple fact everything that Russell does on the court is criticized. “He doesn’t pass the ball to KD enough”, “Westbrook is out of control”, “OKC can’t win with him playing like that”, “He needs to be more mature”.
You heard those things about Westbrook every time the Thunder lost a game (and even sometimes when they won). But with the injury that has all changed. Now Durant is the #1 option ALL the time. Now it’s up to him to not only score himself, but set up his teammates to score as well. It takes a truly special player to not only be the superstar, but also the guy who had to set up everything for the other guys. Think LeBron in Cleveland, Kobe in those 2 years after Shaq left, or MJ before he started trusting Scottie Pippen. The thing about those teams is that they all only are able to get to a certain point before they falter. Now Durant is that guy.
Since the injury he has definitely upped his game to another level. In his last 10 playoff games he’s averaging 27 points, 5 assists and 7 rebounds. In 3 games against the Grizzlies he’s averaging 32 points, 6 assists, 12 rebounds and shooting 50% from the floor (according to ESPN.com). His usage percentage (the % of team plays used by a player while he is on the floor) has shot up to 32% since the Westbrook injury (his regular season rate was 29%) and he’s clocked over 40 minutes in every game against the Grizzlies. This all adds up to the Thunder offense (which wasn’t spectacular before Russell went down) looking stagnant. Now instead of running the pick-and-roll game with Westbrook (basically the entire Thunder offense was based off of this) he has to run it with Reggie Jackson (who has a similar game to Russ, just without the freakish athletic ability that makes him so effective) and pass to Serge Ibaka (who is now the 2nd best player on OKC and against Memphis is averaging 9 points and 6 rebounds), Kevin Martin (how is that trade for James Harden working out?)
Kendrick Perkins,and some form of Derek Fisher, Thabo Sefolosha, and Deandre Liggins. They just don’t look that good without the starting point guard.
Which brings us back to Mr. Westbrook. Once the injury happened, everyone was looking forward to see how Durant would do now that he finally had control of the team. No more Westbrook not passing him the ball or crashing into the lane out of control. It was finally time for Durant to become the aggressive machine we’ve always wanted him to be. But it has now been 7 games since the knee tear and the Thunder are clearly worse without him.
So what does this all mean in the long run? It means that we need to reassess how we look at Westbrook. Without him, the Thunder clearly aren’t as good of a team. NBA teams don’t win championships relying solely on a single player. Thinking that this injury would allow Durant to finally take over was wrong. Durant needs Westbrook to be successful and vice-versa. So during Game 4 tonight when the Thunder take the floor, let’s take the time to appreciate the player that Russell Westbrook is…Flaws and all.