Do the Thunder Need a Point Guard?

The Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat will square off tonight in game 1 of the NBA Finals — a somewhat rematch of the 2006 Finals. I say somewhat because only four players (Dirk,The Jet, D. Wade, and Haslem) remain from those finals which the Heat won in six dubious games. Everyone is giving their finals predictions and frankly I didn’t want to get lost in the crowd. So if you want a prediction look elsewhere. I have a more important matter to discuss anyway. A question that has been gnawing at me, lingering in my mind all week — do the Thunder need a point guard?

Yes, I am comfortable admitting Russell Westbrook has been on my mind this week. The truth is I’m worried about him. Look, I don’t want to trade him or anything foolish like that. The man is allowed to have a bad series. I mean for God sakes the kid is only 21 years old! He was All-rookie first team in 2009 and All-NBA second-team this year. He averaged 21.9 pts., 4.6 rbs., and 8.2 asts this season, partnering with Kevin Durant to lead the Thunder all the way to the Western Conference Finals. He even recorded a triple-double (14 pts, 10 rbs, 14 asts) in game 7 of the second round against the Memphis Grizzlies, the first triple-double in a game 7 since Scottie Pippen in 1992.

The Thunder will be a playoff mainstay for years to come thanks to the young nucleus of Durant, Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. Westbrook is quite arguably the third best point guard in the league behind only Derrick Rose and Chris Paul. He told Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman that he would love to remain in Oklahoma City.

“I definitely want to play here,” he told the Oklahoman. “I love being here. I definitely would love staying here.”

So what’s the problem? Why am I worried?

I’m not worried because he took 20 shots a game against the Mavs, while shooting only 25% on shots outside of three feet. It’s not because he had 24 assists and 24 turnovers in the Mavs series (a terrible ratio for a point guard) or because he took 50 shots in the final two games, both losses. It’s not even that the one game the Thunder did win, Westbrook was benched in the fourth quarter because Scott Brooks was tired of his turnovers. None of those are the problem. Because they are correctable. Shots will fall. He’s too damn talented for them not to.

Moving Westbrook off the ball could
open up the offense in OKC.

And therein lies the problem. Russell Westbrook is too damn talented. Too talented to handle the ball. He, like Durant, believes he can take over a game, make every shot. And theoretically, you want that in a player. You want him to have that desire, that will to win. But you don’t necessarily want that in this case. Oklahoma City is a unique team. They are all supremely talented and yet all learning and growing at the same time. Durant grew up and blew up first and took the NBA by storm becoming a superstar with name recognition slowly equaling LeBron. Westbrook is catching up the only way he knows how to do things — fast. Oh, and don’t look now, but James Harden is catching up to Westbrook.

Here’s my theory: Too much talent is a great problem to have, unless one of the players is a point guard. Here is a list of the starting point guards who have won championships in the last 10 years:

Derek Fisher (4x), Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker (3x), Jason Williams, Chauncey Billups.

The two names that standout for me here are Tony Parker and Chauncey Billups. Both were told they couldn’t shoot when they entered the league. Parker worked his butt off and now has one of the most consistent mid-range jump shots in the NBA, has three rings and a 2007 finals MVP to his name. Billups is a 2004 Finals MVP and is Mr. Big Shot, enough said. If Westbrook could dial back his speed and improve his jumper, the Thunder will be formidable for years to come. But is it that easy?

Westbrook is quite possibly the fastest man in the NBA. Should we really tell him to rein in his greatest strength? Should he work on his jump shot? Yes. He most certainly should. But I do not want him settling for 18-23 foot jumpers because he took 300 jumpers everyday in the summer. That’s not his game. What is the alternative? Move him to two-guard ala Allen Iverson.

Westbrook is Allen Iverson only three inches taller and 27 pounds (of pure muscle) heavier. He is Allen Iverson if A.I. ever hit the weight room. Thabo Sefolosha (currently the starting shooting guard) is a serviceable two-guard and a defensive specialist in the Bruce Bowen mold. But imagine moving Westbrook to the off-guard spot. Plug in Eric Maynor as the starting pass-first point guard and keep James Harden in the Lamar Odom-I-should-be-starting-but-I’m-not-for-the-betterment-of-the-team sixth-man role. Now, you have an objective Eric Maynor deciding who should get the shot instead of Westbrook. Suddenly Westbrook doesn’t have to hear the “You shoot too much!” garbage. He can just play his game. He can slash to the basket, he can shoot the ball, he and Durant can take as many shots as they want without the pressure of having to setup his teammates. It took a while, but this is offensive strategy is currently working in Miami. As silly as it sounds, they can become the next Wade and LeBron.

More of this please.

You are basically swapping Sefolosha for Maynor in the starting lineup. Maynor proved he can play against starter quality opponents during his 4th quarter run in game 2 of the western conference finals. Westbrook is athletic enough to guard most, if not all two guards in this league. Plus, now teams must keep an eye on both Durant and Westbrook. Imagine a pick and roll/pop with Maynor and Ibaka. Teams focusing on Durant hanging around the three point line will miss Westbrook slashing to the basket, or if the big man hedges the pick, Maynor will have an open Ibaka. Maybe a wing tries to help, running down in the paint to stop Ibaka’s open layup. Now Maynor can hit the open man at the three point line (either an open Durant for a possible three or an open Westbrook with floor space).

Look, Westbrook doesn’t have the traditional shoot-first point guard mentality. He has a win-first mentality, coupled with extreme confidence. He honestly believes he can get the best shot because he can get to the rim whenever he wants. He’s that good. When he gets stopped, misses easy buckets, or gets caught in the air, he gets frustrated and creates unforced errors that may not be a big deal in game 64 against Toronto, but can make or a break a championship run in June. Westbrook had six technical fouls in the playoffs, he had nine in the regular season. His 1.3/1 assist to turnover ratio in the playoffs was simply not good enough and frustrated his teammates and even his head coach.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are so young and talented that they may very well win with Russell Westbrook at the point guard spot. He may develop a jump shot and the intangibles a point guard needs for his team to be successful i.e. pinpoint passing, limited turnovers, knowing who’s hot/not and knowing who needs a bucket to get rolling. He could develop all those qualities. Me? I want to see the Thunder win a ring next season, mostly because I like them. I’m young like those guys. I want it all now. And I think the fastest way to the Larry O’Brien trophy is moving Westbrook off the ball so he could shine alongside Durant for the next decade.

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