|I'm pretty sure they're actually interviewing his beard. And yes, I'm convinced it's talking...|
Last night, amidst one of the biggest wins in Thunder franchise history, saw one of the most bizarre scenes in recent basketball memory unfold right before our eyes. No, not James Harden’s fabulous beard independently hoisting (and nailing) three pointers from all over the court. And no, it wasn’t Kendrick Perkins’ improbable 15 foot, contested, fadeaway jumper to beat the shot clock (Jeff Green would have missed…). In fact, you could make the argument that Perkins miracle heave pales in comparison to last night’s weird, Twilight Zone-like scene. It’s late in the fourth quarter of the tightly contested and highly crucial Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, and Russell Westbrook is sitting on the bench. He’s not in foul trouble, he hasn’t been kicked out, he hasn’t injured himself, he hasn’t tried to sucker punch anyone Carmelo Anthony-style or charge into the stands Ron Artest-style; he’s just sitting on the bench. Waiting. Watching.
The story of last night’s big OKC win should have been about James Harden, Eric Maynor, Nick Collison and the rest of the OKC reserves. Led by ‘The Magical Beard’ and his 23/7/4 outburst, the Thunder bench absolutely annihilated their Dallas counterparts by an unreal 50-29 scoring margin. Yet, anytime a player the caliber of Russell Westbrook finds himself comfortably seated on the sidelines for the entire fourth quarter, it tends to be a pretty big story. Statistically speaking, Westbrook was having a decent bounce back game after his disastrous 3-15 FG outing in Game 1. Through three quarters, Westbrook was shooting a respectable 7-15, scoring 18 points, collecting 3 rebounds, and dishing out 4 assists. It’s safe to say anyone who didn’t watch the game and just looked at the box score this morning would be justifiably confused as to why Westbrook sat. Of course, as we’ve mentioned several times here on BDT, simple basketball statistics can be extremely deceiving. In this case, they don’t even begin to tell the story.
Let me be straight with you; I have some very conflicting feelings/opinions on Russell Westbrook. Part of me absolutely loves him for his sheer physical talent, his drive to relentlessly attack the basket, and his unbridled competitive streak. Nobody can deny his effort and his desire to win, and those are qualities I admire above all else. Russell Westbrook is easily one of the ten most physically gifted players in the NBA and I respect him for working to squeeze every last drop of production out of that talent. Sad as it may be, traits such as effort, energy, and desire are not the most abundant of qualities in today’s NBA. Simply put, Russell Westbrook is a star player who gives a crap. For that, I love him.
However, I’ve grown more and more critical of Westbrook as these playoffs have unfolded. His shot selection, ball security, and overall decision making have come under severe scrutiny these past few months and his response has been…well, it’s basically been to shoot more bad shots, turn the ball over more, and make an obscene amount of Starbury-like decisions. Here’s the thing; Westbrook is only 22 years old and has only been playing PG since getting drafted by OKC three years ago. Given that, one can expect a fair share of turnovers and poor decisions. As a star player on a contending team, he deserves criticism for those things, but definitely not a Stephon Marbury comparison. What does earn him the Marbury comparison is the type of selfish play he has exhibited throughout this season.
When I say “selfish play,” I’m not necessarily referring to his high scoring average. Westbrook is a key part of the Thunder offense and he has to maintain aggression on the offensive end for them to be successful. Some nights they need him to score 30 and I have no problem with a PG who’s willing and able to look for his own offense. I think Westbrook is a selfish player for one simple reason; he seems to forget Kevin Durant is on his team. Sure, it seems like a fairly ridiculous thing to say at first glance. After all, how could you forget Kevin Durant is on your team? He’s one of the best players in the game! Watch a few OKC games, though, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. They’ll go long stretches where OKC’s offense essentially boils down to Westbrook dribbling at the top for 15-20 seconds, the result of the possession being an ill advised foray into a crowd of defenders or a contested pull-up jump shot…all while Kevin Durant and his remaining three teammates stand around idly, waiting for the inevitable to occur. I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I would call a good offensive possession. Now, instead of just imagining that one offensive possession and being slightly disgusted, imagine it happening for five straight minutes. That’s what I mean when I say he forgets Kevin Durant is on his team. Look, if you’re a PG and you’re playing with Durant, you can’t go ANY lengthy stretch where Durant isn’t involved. He’s the best pure scorer in the NBA! Yet, night after night, Russell Westbrook forces up bad shots and freezes his teammates out. So, yeah, 18 points in 28 minutes sounds great, but let’s look beyond the score.
Tail end of the third quarter. The clock is running down. The lead is continually changing hands in a tight, back-and-forth contest. Russell Westbrook starts to do his Russell Westbrook thing. His stats aren’t the issue, of course, but Durant didn’t attempt a single shot in the last 8:03 of the third quarter…and that falls squarely on the PG. As usual, the dribbling up top increases, the standing around increases, and the scoring decreases. Finally, near the end of the third quarter, Westbrook kicks into full Starbury mode and completely sends his coach, Scott Brooks, over the edge. After drawing a few silly fouls on DeShawn Stevenson, Dallas decides to switch Jason Kidd to cover Kevin Durant. Yes, you read that correctly…JASON KIDD IS COVERING KEVIN DURANT. How much bigger of a mismatch do you need? Durant has 7-8 full inches on Kidd. Durant is well over a decade younger than Kidd. Durant is much faster than Kidd. DURANT SHOULD SCORE A MILLION POINTS ON JASON KIDD! So, logically, Russell Westbrook ignores the mismatch and continues to gun for his own shots. Third quarter ends, Westbrook takes a seat. End of night.
Of course, we all know how the game ended. The third quarter ended with OKC holding a narrow 77-76 lead. The game ended with OKC comfortably (sort of) winning 106-100. I don’t always put a ton of emphasis on plus-minus stats, but Eric Maynor’s +18 from last night is no aberration. When he played, OKC crushed. Westbrooks’s -12 tells an entirely different story.
Here’s a fact; Russell Westbrook is a stud. Here’s another fact; Russell Westbrook sucked last night and sticking with Eric Maynor was the right decision; controversy or no. The Oklahoma City Thunder are playing in the Western Conference Finals and there’s no room for hurt feelings. Good decisions must be made, from the head coach all the way down to the twelfth man. Westbrook did not make good decisions last night and he hasn’t made them all playoffs. To be completely honest, I’m terrified this will end up exactly like the KG-Marbury pairing. At some point, Westbrook must come to grips with the fact that he isn’t Kevin Durant and he never will be. Durant is Jordan and Westbrook must be Pippen. If they can co-exist like this then look out, because the championships will come. If not…then an inevitable divorce must occur. I sincerely hope Westbrook is able to pick himself up and learn from this. I sincerely hope he gets the message.
One other interesting question arising from last night’s happenings was whether or not Russell Westbrook is a superstar. Mike Greenberg and Jalen Rose discussed this topic on Mike and Mike this morning. I always find the “superstar” discussion interesting because it’s a description I feel is thrown around way too much. There are, in fact, precious few superstars in the NBA. Of course, in order to figure out who they are, we have to first define what they are. Here are the criteria I would use to determine what a superstar is.
Criteria #1 – Production
You can’t be a superstar unless you produce like a superstar. Yes, stats only tell part of the story, but there’s not going to be much debate when you’re averaging a meager 12 ppg. A superstar produces on the highest level, leaving no doubt he’s one of the best players in the game.
Criteria #2 – Efficiency
At one point during the 2010-2011 season, Michael Beasley was putting up huge numbers. I know this because I stole him from Cutter in a fantasy basketball trade earlier in the year! Anyways, Beasley was tossing up 25 points on a regular basis. Anyone think Beasley was a superstar? Didn’t think so. It’s been proven time and time again that efficiency is one of the biggest factors of success in the NBA. Beasley was nothing more than a volume scorer who needed large quantities of possessions to get his stats. A true superstar is efficient and makes the most of his possessions.
Criteria #3 – Versatility
Most NBA players fill specific roles. Some guys are defenders, some are shooters, and some are rebounders. Superstars exhibit an ability to contribute in every facet of the game. Think of a superstar guard who rebounds effectively, or a superstar forward who finds teammates out of double teams. Whatever the case may be, a superstar will be able to positively contribute to his team even when the shots aren’t falling.
Criteria #4 – Making Teammates Better/Leadership
Guys like Steve Kerr and B.J. Armstrong were better players for having played with Michael Jordan. Likewise, a player like Mo Williams experienced significantly more career success than he should have, simply because he was paired with Lebron James (whom I hate). This should be the case with any superstar player. The role players, and even All-Star caliber players, should all be better simply by being on the court with you. To me, Allen Iverson was a poor example of this. I’ve never rated him very highly (and metric stats will back me up) because I never felt he made his teammates better. You can point to his one Finals trip, but I’m pretty sure Prince and I could have put together a team and slogged our way to the Finals through the toxic waste heap that was the Eastern Conference back then. Iverson was so concerned with his own offense that he would go long stretches where he would freeze out his teammates. No, he wasn’t playing with the finest group of talent, but Lebron was able to get his Cleveland teammates involved. Believe me, there weren’t any All-Stars on those early Cavs teams!
Criteria #5 – Clutch Ability
I know a lot of people will want to underplay this, but you simply can’t ignore a player’s ability to perform in key games and in key moments. No matter what arguments you may make, it definitely is a skill. Now, I’m not just talking about hitting game winning shots; I’m talking taking over when your team needs you to take over, wanting to take the big shot, and dominating in important games. Durant’s big Game 7 against Memphis is a good example of this. A superstar doesn’t fail to show up for those games and he wants the ball in his hands when it matters.
Criteria #6 – Winning
There’s no two ways about this; a superstar is a winner. It’s not just about winning championships; it’s about lifting your team beyond what they should be capable of. Dirk hasn’t won any championships, but he’s a superstar because he constantly carries Dallas beyond what their talent level suggests they should be capable of. To me, this is the most important aspect of a superstar. It separates guys, it defines them. If you want to be known as a premier player in the NBA, then you must win. Basically, a team must be able to win with (Insert Player) as their best player.
These criteria in mind, I’ll give you my tiers of players. As I mentioned, there are very few superstars in the NBA right now. There are, however, several who are right on the cusp of being a superstar, but they just aren’t quite capable of carrying a team. I call those players 1.5’s. Let’s do this!
Kevin Durant, Lebron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Paul
Summary: I bet this is a much smaller list than you would have imagined. There were several borderline guys that I just couldn’t put up here because I’m not convinced you can win with them as your best player. Kobe probably will drop from the superstar list after this season. He showed serious signs of age and his physical skills have eroded. Chris Paul and Dwight Howard were the last two entrants here. Paul is definitely a superstar when he’s healthy, but he hasn’t been for the last couple of years. Of course, his performance against LA suggests he’s just fine. Howard would have definitely been a 1.5 last year, but his improvement in the low post solidifies himself as a true superstar.
Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudemire, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, Deron Williams, Zach Randolph
Summary: ‘Melo was the toughest omission for me. Talent wise, he’s definitely one of the best, and he has the most potential to take his game to that next level. However, at this point, he has no idea what a good shot is and he refuses to contribute on defense and on the boards. He can carry you a decent way with talent alone, but you aren’t winning a championship with him as your centerpiece. The same can be said about Amare. He really isn’t as efficient as you’d like and he’s a below average defender. As for the other guys, LaMarcus Aldridge is the most intriguing to me. I would have put him squarely in the #3 category before this season, but his improvement was off the charts. I don’t know if there’s another level to his game, but I wouldn’t be shocked if I’m listing him as a superstar next year.
Monta Ellis, Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon, Danny Granger, Kevin Love, Paul Pierce, Pau Gasol, Stephen Curry, Joe Johnson, Tyreke Evans, Manu Ginobili
Summary: For starters, this is probably an incomplete list. I could definitely be talked into others. As for the guys I listed, Blake Griffin WILL be a superstar someday, Monta Ellis THINKS he’s a superstar, Eric Gordon is close to being a 1.5, Paul Pierce used to be a superstar, Joe Johnson is paid like a superstar, and Tyreke Evans will probably never figure out he’s not a superstar. Clear? Didn’t think so. Seriously though, a lot of good players will fall into this category. You can argue for a guy like Love, Johnson, or Gasol to be a superstar, but look at the list of superstars again…go ahead, look…now tell me these guys belong up there. We’re talking about Wade, and Lebron, and Rose! Be realistic! You can’t win if Pau Gasol is your best player, just ask Memphis.
What’s the point of all this? Honestly, I have no idea. Perhaps it’s a referendum on why contraction is necessary or perhaps I just find it fun to make lists. Either way, the answer is that Russell Westbrook is not a superstar. He could be someday, but not right away. Of course, if OKC makes it to the Finals and Westbrook goes crazy on Lebron, then I’ll certainly reconsider my stance…
(Now that I’ve made this incredibly incomplete list, I kinda want to expand it…perhaps a future project.)