Hindsight is a pretty potent tool in reshaping arguments, isn’t it?
Two weeks ago, Russell Westbrook was the toast of the NBA. He was (and still is) a tornado that just completed arguably the most incredible individual season in NBA history, leaving behind a wake of triple double destruction on the league.
Today, Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder are out of the playoffs, handily eliminated in five games by MVP co-protagonist James Harden and his own band of three point bombers in Clutch City, Houston. Just like that, the narrative surrounding Westbrook and the Thunder has flipped. The success they enjoyed in the regular season on the shoulders of Brodie’s improbable triple double rampage has now been replaced with questions and uncertainty about their future.
Hindsight, ladies and gentlemen.
Houston’s 4-1 waxing of Oklahoma City in their first-round match up once again reminded all of us of the singular most important thing about basketball. This sport, individual dominance notwithstanding, is still about a team.
It’s funny though that today’s concept of team basketball carries it with multiple meanings. It could be about having four legitimate superstars sharing equal burn on the court like the Golden State Warriors. It could be about having a superstar imposing his will on both ends of the court while still giving his teammates enough room to shine on their own like Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs. It could even be about having another superstar orchestrate his whole team’s offense while still maximizing the potential of those around him like Harden and the Rockets.
The Thunder, on the other hand, are the exact opposite. Unless you have a Thunder player on your fantasy roster not named “Westbrook,” you’d be hard-pressed to find any of his teammates enjoying sustained runs of good basketball. Victor Oladipo was supposed to play Robin to Westbrook’s Batman, except that he never even got close to sniffing the Boy Wonder’s jockstrap. Steven Adams broke into the conversation as one of the best young centers in the league last season while Enes Kanter was supposed to be the post presence that the team could rely on when Russell was on the bench.
Guess what? Our fondest memories of Adams and Kanter this season was when they started referring to themselves as the “Stache Bros.” It was cute and funny for a while, but cute and funny were never ingredients to winning basketball.
To his undying credit, Westbrook managed to hide the Thunder’s perceived weaknesses long enough for him to register one of the singlemost dominant individual seasons in NBA history. But at some point, those weaknesses would rise up to the surface and expose the Thunder for what they really are: a one-man team whose superstar couldn’t integrate his full complement of skills on his teammates.
Think I’m crazy? Remember Game 2 when Russ went 4/18 in the fourth quarter? He took seven more than the 11 shots every other Thunder player took in that same period. For better or worse, the Thunder go as Westbrook goes and no matter what his assists tell us, there is an element of ball hog to Westbrook that not a lot of people point out because they’re so mesmerized by his nightly exploits.
The Houston Rockets exposed all of that in the first round of their matchup against the Thunder, forcing a lot of us to finally come to grips with the question that’s been dogging the Thunder throughout the season: Are we sure the OKC is really as good as their 47-35 record indicates, and if they’re not, what can they do to be better?
Fortunately, we don’t have to go stats-crazy or dive deep into analytics to find the answers we’re looking for. No, they’re not as good as their record and Westbrook has to involve his teammates more. There. That’s the whole gist of the Thunder’s to-do list, although it would also help if they got more shooters to spread the defense around.
Here’s the good news: the NBA is in the middle of an unprecedented talent boom the likes of which we haven’t seen since the mid-'80s when there were only 24 teams. There’s enough players in the league that Oklahoma City can get to reshape its roster that can really accentuate Westbrooks’ skills.
Here’s the bad news: the Thunder are already over the cap as it is, and that’s even before they think about re-signing Taj Gibson, Andre Roberson, and Nick Collison. Gibson is an obvious candidate to be re-signed because the Thunder need his toughness, rebounding, and overall leadership. Roberson is expendable, putting the real crux on whether they should resign Collison, considered the Thunder’s heart and soul. He’s also the longest-tenured player on the team and is the only one who has been with the team since their days in Seattle.
Regardless of what they do to him, the Thunder still have a lot of salary cap gymnastics to work on to make sure that they can compete next season when the KD-Steph-Klay-Dray Warriors team is in Year 2 of their NBA dominance, Houston gets to build on its own successful season, and LeBron James exits his, thus creating even more urgency to build on his Jordanesque legacy. Gulp.
It’s not going to be easy for Oklahoma City to be as good as they were this season unless Westbrook goes completely nuclear and posts the league’s first 35-15-15 season. That’s not happening and it shouldn’t because the simplest and easiest way for the Thunder to improve next year starts and ends with the Brodie himself.
Share the ball more, Russ. Get your teammates more involved. You want Oladipo and Adams to live up to their $20 million contracts? Lean on them as much as they lean on you because they’re actually pretty good players themselves. That’s it. You’re not chasing history anymore so give the others their own opportunities to shine.
You may have been right when you said you dropped 40-something on Patrick Beverley in Game 5, but he’s as just as right when he pointed out that you took 34 shots to get there.
See you next season, Brodie.