The Westbrook led Oklahoma City Thunder got sent packing in the first round of the NBA playoffs for the second straight year. It wasn’t a pretty series for the Thunder who lost in 6 games to the Utah Jazz with every member of the big 3 shooting under 41% from the field.
A year ago in the first round of the 2017 NBA playoffs, OKC lost in 5 games to the Houston Rockets despite Russell Westbrook averaging 37 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. It was apparent that the MVP didn’t have enough help in result of Kevin Durant’s departure. OKC sought out help for Westbrook during the offseason and made some moves to require Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The Thunder were now seen as a big threat to the Western Conference with their new big 3.
After a long season full of ups and downs including losing Andre Roberson to injury, the Thunder would finish with a record of 48–34, only 1 win better than last year. It was clear that the big 3 experiment had failed and losing in the first round confirmed it. Many critics believe that Westbrook’s “stat padding” and “selfishness” is a big reason why OKC has yet to win a championship, but this is far from the truth.
Westbrook has posted a triple-double 104 times in his career and the Thunder are 86–18 in such games. This season, Westbrook became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double for consecutive years, while the Thunder were 20–5 when he posted a triple-double and 27–28 when he didn’t. It is obvious that his so-called “stat padding” helps the team tremendously.
Russ has always been accused of being selfish and putting up too many shots. While he did lead the league in shot attempts this season, it has nothing to do with selfishness. Westbrook also averaged 62.3 passes per game this year (7th in the league) and lead the league in assists with 10.3 per game. From the past 3 years combined, he averages 10.4 assist per game which is the highest in the league. He’s been great at sharing the ball effectively for the past few years and he’s done so despite the constant changes of his surrounding cast. So it’s time to put the “Russell Westbrook is selfish” narrative to bed.
Some of Westbrook’s past teammates have found more individual success with their new team which has lead many people to use this against him, saying that he holds his teammates back. Victor Oladipo averaged 15.9 points a game off of 44% shooting in his only year as Westbrook’s teammate in OKC. Now as an Indiana Pacer, Oladipo saw a massive increase in his season averages with 23.1 points off of 48% shooting including more assists, steals, and rebounds. Oladipo finding individual success with the Pacers shouldn’t be put against Westbrook because the Pacers are Oladipo’s team.
Great players usually find more individual success when they’re not playing with other All-Stars because they have a higher usage rate and they know that they have to lead the team. We’ve seen this many times in the NBA, but nobody is criticized like Russell Westbrook. When asked if Westbrook was so dynamic that it could be suffocating to other players, Oklahoma City Thunder analyst Antonio Daniels replied,
“Last year LaMarcus Aldridge averaged 17, this year he averaged 23. Was Kawhi Leonard holding LaMarcus Aldridge back? Or Johnathan Simmons a year ago in San Antonio, averaged 6 points, and now he doubled his scoring averaged to 14 this year. So was Kawhi Leonard holding him back? Or even Harrison Barnes in his last year in Golden State, averaged 11 points a game, and then he went up to 19 points a game (with the Mavericks). So was Steph Curry holding Harrison Barnes back?”
These are great examples of different situations calling for different things. Westbrook is not holding anyone back. He’s been a part of multiple OKC teams that have had the opportunity to win the championship and it’s not all his fault that they didn’t win. Many people would say that James Harden’s poor performance in the 2012 NBA Finals cost OKC a championship. Westbrook did great this series averaging 27 points behind Durant’s 30 points per game. But OKC couldn’t do it without Harden.
The 2012–2013 OKC team finished as the #1 seed in the Western Conference for the first and only time in franchise history. Unfortunately, OKC lost Westbrook to injury during their first-round matchup against the Rockets where OKC eventually won in 6. The Durant led Thunder went on to face the #5 seed Memphis Grizzlies in the second round but couldn’t do much without Westbrook. OKC lost to the Grizzlies in just 5 games.
OKC blowing a 3–1 lead in the 2016 Western Finals to Golden State was the fault of both Durant and Westbrook. They both had some poor performances especially Durant who shot 33% in a chance to close out Game 6 at home… and then he rewarded himself by going to the Warriors.
The Westbrook led Thunder has yet to find much success without Kevin Durant. Westbrook has done his best to keep the team alive but it doesn’t help when co-stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony combine for 12 points in an elimination game. So much for being Westbrook’s help.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant is finding success with Golden State on their way to winning the title for the 2nd straight year. Durant’s success with the Warriors shouldn’t play a factor to the ‘Westbrook holds his teammates back’ narrative but people will still use it against Russ. Of course Durant is more successful with The Warriors, he’s playing with 3 other All-Stars. Durant only had Westbrook in OKC. Durant even admitted this in an accidental tweet from his real twitter account meant to be on his burner account saying,
“he didn’t like the organization or playing for Billy Donovan. His roster wasn’t that good, it was just him and russ.”
Accidental or not, it was low of Kevin Durant to post this on Twitter, but he knew what he was talking about when he said that the coach and roster weren’t good outside of him and Russ. OKC has always had some decent role players like Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, and Serge Ibaka. The problem has always been consistency. The only ones you could ever count on was Durant and Westbrook. It makes sense even more now that we see Russell Westbrook having to carry the team on his back night in and night out. The Thunder’s help isn’t consistent. Paul George went off in a few games this season and completely collapsed in many important games.
A lot of this inconsistency should fall on third-year Thunder coach Billy Donovan and his coaching staff. The majority of OKC’s offense consists of simple pick-and-rolls and isolation plays. Carmelo Anthony is not a great iso player anymore, and there was no way to incorporate Carmelo into the Thunder’s thin offensive schemes that would usually get sniffed out by the defense resulting in a Westbrook, Paul George, or Melo iso play.
This was Carmelo’s first year with the Thunder and it makes sense that he found himself with a career low in points per game playing behind Westbrook and George. He also shot a career- low 40% from the field which is by far his worst shooting percentage in his 15 year career. It’s easy to say that Melo’s shot is just broke but this would be bailing Billy Donovan out.
Melo is just another example of a player who didn’t really succeed in the Thunder’s offensive system. The ball isn’t being passed around enough because there’s rarely a play that requires so. The Thunder have ranked dead last in total passes for the third year in a row, all under Billy Donovan. This is unacceptable considering that Russell Westbrook averages over 62 passes a game. OKC would usually rank near the bottom with Scott Brooks as well but it’s gotten worse with Donovan.
OKC had a 3 headed monster on the court this year, but we would rarely see the big 3 work together in the same possession. There were far too many plays where it was Westbrook to Melo, Westbrook to George, Westbrook to Adams, or a Westbrook iso. It is very clear that Russell Westbrook is OKC’s entire system. Having one player as your whole system is bound for failure against these elite teams.
Sure many of the players need work on being consistent themselves, but the Thunder’s coaching staff has only been setting them up for failure. To win a championship, you need passing and ball flow like the Spurs and Warriors. The Rockets have found success at running a lot of isolation plays this year, but they also have good ball flow. This Thunder team will never win a championship without any offensive rhythm and ball flow.
During his end of the season press conference, Thunder GM Sam Presti confirmed that Billy Donovan will be returning for his 4th season as head coach. OKC can only hope that Donovan will change his coaching strategy and find a way to make this team play like a team. It appears that OKC is stuck with Melo who’s taking a big chunk out of the salary cap. OKC can only hope that these things don’t push free agent Paul George away and he returns for another season. It’s hard to see where the Thunder are going from here, but the light seems fairly dim.