BY CHRIS LEWIS
The 2016-2017 NBA regular season was all about Russell Westbrook. He was given the MVP largely because he was the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double. The narrative also matched, with it being the first season after Kevin Durant left. Westbrook followed it up this season by averaging another triple-double. There’s no denying Westbrook’s talent. However, the opening-round playoff series against the Jazz is another example of why this version of him is not a player that can win at the highest level.
This is tough for me to write, because I believe he is this generation’s Allen Iverson. And Iverson is the reason I became a sports fan. I’m also typing this article after one of Westbrook’s best playoff games of his career. That 25-point comeback against Utah in Game 5 with 44 points was peak Russ. The problem is, Westbrook is a one-man, all-encompassing, force of nature. If he’s on your team, he can’t be part of the team, he becomes the team.
The Thunder had the lowest assist-percentage among all playoff teams this regular-season. That is a reflection on a style of play that is not inclusive. It’s the same style of play when he and Durant were teammates. It was the same style of play last year, when Victor Oladipo’s growth was stifled. And, it’s the same style of play this year with Paul George, Steven Adams and (old) Carmelo Anthony. From Scott Brooks, to Billy Donovan, the offense has looked the same.
Despite having high-end talent around him, Westbrook’s undisciplined style of play put a ceiling on those teams that was much lower than there should have been. Durant left OKC in part because he was envious of the way the Warriors played offensively. It’s based on ball movement, spacing, sets that used the strengths of every player to maximize the talent. Durant realized that Golden State’s style of basketball was more efficient, and efficiency is the goal for an offense.
When you watch the Thunder play Game 6 against the Jazz, watch how many possessions are simply Westbrook dribbling the ball with three guys standing around, while Steven Adams sets the high ball-screen. It’s a team habit that’s been built over the 82-game season. If Westbrook catches fire again, the Thunder might win. But, we have a large enough sample size to know that Russ is an average-at-best mid-range shooter and a poor 3-point shooter.
Westbrook can’t beat the best teams in basketball by himself. Unfortunately, his lack of self-awareness will cause himself to try.
Chris Lewis, the play-by-play voice of Boise State women’s basketball and Olympic Sports, co-hosts Idaho Sports Talk with Bob & Chris weekdays from 1-3 p.m. on KTIK 93.1 FM The Ticket. He can be found @ChrisLewisTweet (Twitter).