Westbrook Is A Work In Progress

Kevin Durant wasn’t the only Thunder player to put up great numbers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Russell Westbrook’s 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 11 assists didn’t look too shabby in the box score either.

Not everyone agreed that Westbrook had a good game, however.

After the ESPN crew was done analyzing the game, Mike Wilbon cut to Stephen A. Smith who immediately dispelled any notion that Westbrook had a good game. To paraphrase, Smith claimed that OKC would’ve won by a blowout if Westbrook had made better decisions on the court.

In other words, if Westbrook would have deferred to Durant more often.

Instead, Westbrook shot the ball 24 times — taking four more shots than Durant. He did indeed make some head-scratching decisions, shooting out-of-rhythm jump shots when the pass seemed like the better option. One bricked 3-point shot, after he’d worked his tail off to force a turnover, was particularly infuriating.

What Smith didn’t focus on, however, were the 11 assists that Westbrook dished out. Westbrook’s been roundly criticized for the times he’s failed to pass the ball, but it’s only fair to also focus on the times in which he’s been a willing facilitator.

Game 1 wasn’t an anomaly. Westbrook has slowly grown into the role of a willing passer. In the San Antonio series he was more than happy to defer to the likes of Durant, James Harden, and even Serge Ibaka. Westbrook’s post-season assist average is 5.9 per game—up from 4.6 during the regular season.

Combine that with his low turnover numbers, and there’s been a marked improvement in the weaker facets of his game during these playoffs.

For the Thunder, it’s a fine balance with Westbrook. OKC is built in such a way that they need Westbrook to be aggressive and look to score. Generally they don’t get much offensive production from their front two, so realistically, Westbrook needs to be averaging over 20 points a game.

Westbrook can’t simply play the role of a pass-first point guard. Scott Brooks knows this and is Westbrook’s biggest fan, publicly at least — constantly encouraging him to stick to his strengths, and stay aggressive. In private, of course, the Thunder’s coaching staff would like their point guard to temper his more self-destructive tendencies—to look for the easier scoring option at times.

But you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, as the saying goes. OKC can’t afford to lose all the many positive aspects of Westbrook’s game, by trying to mold him into something he’s not.

It’s easy to forget that Westbrook was a two-guard in college and is still developing at the point guard position. It isn’t an easy transition. Other than LeBron James and Blake Griffin, no other player in the NBA has had their game analyzed and picked apart more than Westbrook. He’s 23-years-old, supremely talented, and could be an NBA champion in a couple weeks. It doesn’t seem fair. Derrick Rose takes his fair share of wild shots as a point guard, and isn’t scrutinized in anywhere near the same manner.

There’s room for improvement, but right now, I’m sure Scott Brooks will be more than happy with near triple-double numbers, and 2 turnovers a game, from his young point guard. And just for the record, the Thunder are 25-5 when Westbrook takes more shots than Durant this year.

Just something to mull over, Stephen A. Smith.

About the Author

Zach Salzmann Zach Salzmann was born in London, England, but moved to Canada in 2004. He is an avid fan of the NBA, and you can check out some of his other basketball musings at ballnroll.com. Follow Zach on Twitter at @ZSalzmann.

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