Now that the Spurs are past the Thunder, I thought it'd be a fine time to reflect on them a bit before we look forward to the Finals and Miami. I really think winning Game 6 on the road, especially without the services of Tony Parker for the second half, has to be among the two or three most impressive wins of the Tim Duncan/Gregg Popovich Era. The only other ones that spring to mind are Games 5 and 7 against the Pistons in 2005 and maybe Game 6 at Dallas in 2006. The Heat might be a better basketball team than OKC, but athletically the Thunder were the most daunting challenge the Spurs were going to face, so Miami's guys will seem old and slow by comparison.
OKC is learning you need more than stars to win
OKC has two of the league's brightest stars but their lack of a cohesive team-bulding plan as a franchise is limiting their potential.
There's a lot to like about the Thunder on paper. When they beat the Spurs in four straight in the Western Conference Finals and won Game 1 against the Heat in 2012, I thought they were an unbeatable dynasty in the making. They had everything going for them. Talent, youth, depth, team chemistry. Everyone seemed to be on board and buying in. They even had home court against the Heat.
Then, out of nowhere, it vanished. They lost four straight to Miami, the last in embarrassing fashion, and broke up their dynasty before it started. Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote a long piece detailing how Thunder GM Sam Presti essentially chose Serge Ibaka over James Harden, but I simply refuse to believe that he or owner Clay Bennett would've been so cavalier about letting Harden walk if he hadn't had such a miserable Finals against Miami. If that weirdo shot the ball against the Heat the way he did against the Spurs and won a 'chip, I firmly believe they'd have found a way to keep him, luxury taxes or no, and kept their four guys. Maybe they'd have amnestied Kendrick Perkins and jettisoned a couple other vets, but they would've done it.
Some blame goes to Bennett for not being as financially flexible as some owners, some goes to Presti for not being savvy enough to see the salary cap increase coming and some has to go to Harden and Westbrook, neither of whom wanted to sacrifice a penny of their earning potential the way the stars in Miami, Boston and San Antonio all have to keep their cores together. Maybe Harden just wanted to escape those other guys' shadow and be a number one elsewhere.
All I know is that it's misleading to look at how Harden plays now for Houston, a complete joke defensively, and to think of him as being the same guy with the Thunder, someone who would've done more harm than good. He wasn't that way with OKC. He actually gave more effort defensively and was someone they trusted to guard people. What's happened with Houston is he's playing more minutes and has far more offensive responsibility for them, so he's conserving his energy -- often to an embarrassing degree -- on defense. If he played 32 minutes instead of 40 and had to score just 18 a night instead of 28, he'd be better defensively. Come to think of it, under those circumstances Russell Westbrook would probably be more efficient, too. The quality of shots would've increased for all of them, Westbrook and Durant wouldn't have had to play as many minutes and they've done a better job of developing that "pass up a good shot for a great shot," philosophy the Spurs have.
Plenty of people were talking about how the Thunder made the right choice between Ibaka and Harden after Games 3 and 4, but few remember that in the key game of the 2012 Western Conference Finals, the Game 5 they won on the road, that the Spurs scored 103 points at home. The Thunder won that game with superior offense, with Harden scoring 20 and hitting that dagger three. He led everyone with a plus-24. They needed that third scorer. This time around in Game 5, their third-leading scorer was Reggie Jackson, with 11, and they were starting him. They had no firepower off the bench.
About the 2014 team specifically: intently watching every one of Oklahoma City's playoff games, I came away far more impressed with Westbrook than Durant. He has to be the most polarizing "eye test" vs. numbers guy in the league since Allen Iverson, and I guess that makes sense when you consider that the two of them were so similar in their positions, strengths and weaknesses. Both shot bad percentages, especially from three, but excelled at getting to the rim and drawing free throws. Both have been criticized for not passing it more even though the numbers say they have passed it plenty. Both have been turnover machines. Both snatched plenty of steals but were otherwise poor team and individual defenders. Most of all, both look like they're playing a hundred times harder than their teammates.
I won't name names, but I thought it was extremely unfair that in some corners of the Twitterverse Chris Itz was ripped for writing the "Why Is Russell Westbrook considered elite?" piece. I even made a point of calling out a couple of people who had the "coincidental" timing of challenging the piece right after Westbrook's sensational Game 4, which might have been one of the two or three best games of his career. My one critique of Chris' story is that he didn't factor in usage rate. It's impossible to ask anyone to use as many possessions as Westbrook does and to be that efficient with them.
He led the league with a 33.3 percent usage rate in the regular season and had a 1.80 assist-to-turnover ratio, which given the way he plays, is fine to me. LeBron James' ratio was 1.81. To find someone who had a better ratio and still a very high usage rate, you have to go down to the 12th guy on the list, Stephen Curry, who had a 2.27 ratio and a 28.1 percent usage rate. To find a better assist percentage, you'd have to drop down to the 19th guy on the list, John Wall, who had a 39.2 assist percentage to Westbrook's 38.0, but used only 27.1 percent of possessions.
Westbrook was even better in the playoffs. He upped his usage rate to 33.9 (again, leading everyone), his assist percentage to 38.4 and his assist-to-turnover ratio to 1.84. (Compare that to Tony Parker, who used 29.3 percent of possessions, assisted on just 27.2 percent of those and had a 1.69 assist-to-turnover ratio.) Westbrook increased his assists from 6.9 per game to 8.1 in the playoffs, and his assist rate increased while his turnover rate dropped. I have no issue with his point guard skills. He can make all the passes and he has the requisite vision. He just has a dearth of passing options most of the time, including that skinny dude in the No. 35 jersey.
As Chris illustrated, the main failing of Westbrook's game is as a shooter. He can jump out of the gym and dunk it, but otherwise he's a disaster on the drive. Perhaps the problem is that he's too fast for his own good. He's moving at such an incredible rate that it's just hard for him to slow the ball down enough off the backboard or to calibrate any of his close shots. Westbrook may still be more of an athlete than he is a basketball player. Seems like he could step into the NFL right now and thrive as a safety or a running back, or be an elite Olympic decathlete. Guys like Parker or Manu Ginobili have specific basketball skills (though if Manu grew up in the states I think he could've been a great quarterback or pitcher).
To Westbrook's credit, he curtailed his weaknesses somewhat in the playoffs. Only 25 percent of his attempts were threes instead of the 27 percent he took in the regular season. His average shot attempt was 12.3 feet in the playoffs compared to 12.9 in the regular season. He still got to the rim enough to dunk on 3.8 percent of his shot attempts, compared to 4.4 percent during the year. His Win Shares per 48 minutes dropped slightly from .178 to .166. His PER rose from 24.7 to 25.0, which is pretty darn elite.
Compare those numbers with Durant, who went from shooting 29.1 of his attempts from downtown to 29.5 percent (and whose percentage in converting them dropped from 39.1 to 34.4). His average shot attempt rose from 13.8 feet to 14.5 feet. His dunk percentage plummeted from 8.8 percent to 4.5. His assists dropped from 5.5 per game to 3.9, and his assist percentage from 26.7 to 18.3. His assist-to-turnover ratio was basically 1:1. His WS/48 sank from .295 to .145 and his PER dropped from 29.8 to 22.7.
Durant is a guy who's now lost 19 of his last 35 playoff games. He can get to the rim whenever he wants or post up smaller defenders, but he often elects the path of least resistance, pulling up for the long jumper. He wants no part of any physical contact on either end of the floor. He passive-aggressively whines about needing to rebound if he wants to touch the ball instead of just demanding it or putting himself in the position down low to get it. His main goal defensively seems to be to avoid foul trouble, especially in transition. He doesn't make the game easier for his teammates because he never puts himself in position to be doubled. (Somehow I doubt he'll get as much heat for these playoffs as David Robinson got in 1995 against Hakeem Olajuwon.)
I've come to the realization the main thing I dislike about Westbrook is not his game but rather his body language. It'd be hypocritical of me to rip his game because he's basically Oklahoma City's version of Ginobili. He's their emotional leader and the guy who makes the big play at the most important time, whether it's an open court steal, an offensive rebound, or the critical free throws. You live with the mistakes because you can't have the good stuff without the bad stuff. All the yelling, the strutting, the intimidating poses, the gestures -- basically anything that can't be shown on the box score -- they all take away from his game in my eyes. But I suppose he feels the need to pump himself up that way to be at his best.
There's no doubt that he's rubbed off on Durant more than vice versa because now you see both of them snarl and scream and ring up plenty of technical fouls and show up the refs and their own coach. The mild-mannered, happy Durant is gone, replaced by a sourpuss. I wish that team's PR guy would sit both these stars down, show them some clips of Duncan and Ginobili postgame interviews and explain to them, "This is how you answer questions when we win," and "This is how you answer questions when we lose."
It's simply inexcusable to me, for Durant in particular, as the league MVP, to still be this immature and childish with the press so many years into his career. After every loss it's the same thing from these guys, heads down, refusing to make eye contact, offering monosyllabic answers, mumbling non-answers, and appearing generally disinterested in the whole process. You can't keep giving one kind of interview when you win and another kind altogether when you lose this many years into your career. Durant's pet answer is always "give them credit," without ever getting into specifics about players or plays. LeBron James could be a role model to these guys in that regard because it's something he's gotten much better at over the years.
In the end, their biggest problem is Scooter Brooks, and I'm gonna keep calling him that until he acts like a real coach. It's no wonder that Westbrook and Durant have Brooks' back because he coddles them to no end. There is no accountability, ever. He never rips into them -- or anybody -- like Pop does. No turnover or defensive lapse is ever punished. He never pulls them from games. Every huddle it's always, "We gotta do this, we gotta do that," when sometimes the problem isn't "We," but rather a specific guy. Call him out and hold him accountable. Are they really so emotionally fragile that they can't handle being coached? Does Durant need to be told he's the MVP by everybody in the building so he won't fall apart? If Brooks was a good coach he'd have told Westbrook to knock off the three pointers three years ago, just like Pop did with Parker. It's obvious he can't shoot them very well but nobody in the organization has made him stop shooting them.
Jesus Gomez hit on it in his piece too, but again I blame Brooks for the lack of development of guys like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones. Why did he sharply curb their playing time halfway through the year? Because Westbrook came back? To pursue home court? They already beat the Spurs in 2012 without home court. What they needed was to improve their depth. All their old guys killed them against San Antonio: Perkins, Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison. They were all terrible, and I can't figure out why Brooks played Fisher in a three point guard lineup with Westbrook and Jackson for pretty much the entire second half and overtime of Game 6. He let Boris Diaw and Duncan post up Fisher repeatedly. Their biggest advantage over the Spurs and everyone else was youth and athleticism. But by playing broken down old vets all Brooks did was weaken their strength.
As long as Scooter is their coach I'm confident the Thunder will never win a title and as long as Durant and Westbrook continue to act like petulant children I'll be happy to root against them, no matter who they play.