A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

8 thoughts on the Thunder’s elimination

with 3 comments

Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunders at ...

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1. For the second year in a row, the Oklahoma City Thunder exit the playoffs in a way that leaves us all excited for the future. One of the biggest turnarounds in history last year to get to the 1st round, now they get to the conference finals. They remain precocious as hell, and short of some major blow up in the off-season, I expect they’ll be the favorites to win the Western Conference next year, as well as to be the dominant team in the West going forward.

2. I think people need to keep some perspective though. This was a Thunder team that achieved their record in the regular season largely by beating mediocre teams (they struggled against the elite), and that were very fortunate that instead of having to face the best team in the conference in the second round (as a #4 seed should), they played an 8 seed. And even then, they only beat the 8 seed with the help of home court advantage. It’s wrong to talk about the series with the Dallas Mavericks as if it was the gentleman sweep that a 4-1 victory implies – the Mavs had to turn it on completely and get a bit lucky just to win 2 of 3 home games. However, the fact remains that after getting a fortunate draw, they managed only 1 win when faced with a true contender.

Bottom line is that no one should look at this Thunder team like one that took the playoffs by storm this year.

3. I’ll align myself with those who see clear room for continued improvement for the Thunder. While I think the Memphis Grizzlies caught lightning in a bottle, and the Chicago Bulls has an approach that may not be easy to improve upon, it’s quite easy to see where the Thunder have not reached their ceiling.

4. Of course, the Thunder’s lightning rod for controversy is Russell Westbrook. Enough has been said about him that I’m really not sure what to think about the guy. It’s completely beyond dispute that Westbrook needs to get better and making use of his superior teammate Kevin Durant. And when you hear about an anonymous Thunder veteran saying Westbrook thinks he’s better than Durant and and that GM Sam Presti is backing Westbrook in the debate, you have to begin to wonder if maybe we have ourselves a Marbury-Garnett situation here. (For those who don’t recall, the story is that Stephon Marbury left the Minnesota Timberwolves because he wanted to be the #1 star on his team, something that wouldn’t happen as long as he played with the superior Kevin Garnett.)

5. I’m a UCLA guy though. I was watching Westbrook back when he was a freshman 2 guard backing up Aaron Afflalo. I remember when he burst on the scene as a sophomore with Kevin Love as the team’s star, and Darren Collison as the team’s point guard. As Bill Simmons put it, Westbrook was a guy who passed the Table Test with flying colors. Meaning, he didn’t take anything off the table. He blended in behind other talents, and filled the spaces in between. Along the way, he won the Pacific 10 Defensive Player of the Year.

For him to then so quickly be cast as anathema to team chemistry gives me whiplash like a car crash. I recognize that players’ personalities can change when they get their ego stroked enough, but if there was ever a time to cut a young guy some slack, this is it. Being a great floor general is an incredibly valuable skill precisely because it is so difficult and so rarely achieved. Westbrook’s been cast in the point guard role in OKC that he only had in small doses at UCLA, you can’t expect him to figure it all out overnight.

6. Jeff Van Gundy‘s constant gushing over James Harden is annoying, but watching Harden make those beautiful passes to a cutting Westbrook does make me think. It won’t surprise me at all if Harden doesn’t take that next step forward, and I know the game is more complicated than this, but I hope coach Scott Brooks at least considers the idea of making the bearded one the team’s primary distributor instead of Westbrook.

There would be plenty of complications to doing this, it might be a bad idea, but I’m impressed with the way Westbrook works off ball, and not impressed with how he works on ball except when he’s driving to the hole with blinding speed. And then there’s the matter that you want Durant to be the one taking the most shots on the Thunder – and I don’t think there’s any doubt that Harden as point would achieve that pretty easily, whereas with Westbrook on point, the Thunder failed to achieve this regularly.

7. I was both disappointed and thrilled to see Serge Ibaka‘s minutes drop as the playoffs progressed. Disappointed of course because it’s a bummer when you see the hot young prospect’s flaws get exposed. Thrilled because it gave Nick Collison a chance to shine. Let’s give a shout out to the man who has been with the Supersonic/Thunder team longer than any of their other players. You don’t stick with a franchise for that long as a role player if you aren’t doing some very valuable, Table Test kind a stuff. When the Thunder faced Dirk Nowitzki, it was clear that for all Ibaka’s abilities as a help defender, the better man defender is most definitely the savvy veteran with only a fraction of the athletic ability. Here’s hoping Ibaka tries to absorb knowledge from Collison like a sponge. If he does, then we could be talking about a DPOY level defender in the making.

8. Last, the general lack of BBIQ in the way the Thunder plays has to be discussed, but as with Westbrook generally, I’m not sure there’s any clear answer. There’s no doubt that Brooks has left some questionable lineups on the floor, but that certainly doesn’t concern me as much as the blown plays in general. I’m guessing that, as with most things, it’s a little of column A, a little of column B. Brooks isn’t a perfect coach, but it’s hard to make unsavvy players do savvy things. Go ask Phil Jackson about that.  The Thunder emerging as title contenders is dependent first and foremost on the young players getting smarter and more active. This goes for everyone, but the “smarter” part goes more toward Westbrook and Ibaka than anyone else, while the more active goes more toward Durant.

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3 Responses

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  1. great article.

    I was surprised that Harden seemed to be a better pg than Westbrook in this series. But plenty of players have had one really good series that turned out to be misleading.

    Mike

    May 27, 2011 at 3:52 am

    • Thanks.

      Yes, the memory of Troy Hudson haunts us all. More than that, it’s not like Harden was his team’s star here. Easy to see him as being too hyped right now, and I don’t want to fall into that trap. The Thunder though are this lovely puzzle that make the wheels in your mind spin though.

      Matt Johnson

      May 28, 2011 at 5:21 pm

  2. […] A UCLA fan on the Westbrook criticism: “For him to then so quickly be cast as anathema to team chemistry gives me whiplash like a car crash. I recognize that players’ personalities can change when they get their ego stroked enough, but if there was ever a time to cut a young guy some slack, this is it. Being a great floor general is an incredibly valuable skill precisely because it is so difficult and so rarely achieved. Westbrook’s been cast in the point guard role in OKC that he only had in small doses at UCLA, you can’t expect him to figure it all out overnight.” […]


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