Can the Thunder win with Westbrook?

Russell Westbrook is undeniably a spectacular talent, one of the most gifted athletes in the game, writes Sam Smith. The problem the Thunder has—and most would love that problem—is they have a more spectacular talent in Kevin Durant.

It’s almost playoff time in the NBA, which means the annual debate: Who is the best team? Well, that, too. But whether a team can win with Russell Westbrook is another big question.

Last season showed the Thunder could not when Westbrook was injured in the opening round against Houston and the Thunder lost to Memphis in the conference semifinals. Westbrook is back from another knee injury and looks as dynamic as ever, which appears to be the problem for the Thunder. After an initial 5-5 stretch when Westbrook went out Dec. 27, the Thunder then went 14-2 in the greatest run of Kevin Durant’s career and the first serious discussion of his career he could be league MVP. The Thunder then went to 3-5 with Westbrook back after Sunday’s loss to the Lakers, that after a loss in Phoenix Thursday that summarized the ultimate spouse issue with Westbrook: Can’t live with him; can’t live without him. Well, maybe can live without him.

Westbrook is undeniably a spectacular talent, one of the most gifted athletes in the game. The problem the Thunder has—and most would love that problem—is they have a more spectacular talent in Durant. The dynamic most miss about the two or three star grouping for a title is there has to be a No. 1 star. It was easy for the Bulls as Scottie Pippen was a natural role playing star. The Heat didn’t win that first year because Dwyane Wade still was too good. Once he stepped back, LeBron James could emerge. Similarly, Kobe had to be restrained for Shaq to succeed. Then Pau was a better fit once Kobe could no longer.

There are basically no great teams where the dominant talent was challenged by another star. It was easy for Magic as a natural point guard to defer to Kareem. Larry Bird was the guy in Boston. Tim Duncan did with the Spurs, and then stepped back when he knew it was time. But Westbrook still remains incapable. It’s difficult to blame him because he knows no other way to play. And playing this way is what’s made him great. But he’s not a natural facilitator in that he’s not really a point guard. He just plays that on TV and once stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.

Many point to a game like Sunday’s when Westbrook attempted 23 shots (geez, 7-23) to 19 for Durant. But the Thursday loss to the Suns was classic Westbrook and more indicative of the Thunder’s insoluble problem. His line was brilliant: 36 points, nine assists and nine rebounds. But in the last two minutes he made the most amazing series of selfish plays that doomed his team.

Westbrook is so talented sometimes he overcomes it. But it’s as if he plays with no understanding of the game. He dribbled down and pulled up each time. The media in Oklahoma City wrote about poor team defense. But shot selection is a major part of team defense. A good shot is when your teammates are in position to defend. It was staggering to watch Westbrook in his usual frenzy run up and shoot. More importantly, a good shot is when your teammates know it is coming. Westbrook thrives on instinct and shoots seemingly at a whim. He happened to miss every time down the stretch against the Suns as he did against the Lakers, which doesn’t happen often. Then every time the Thunder had a timeout they came out with a play for Durant. So it’s obvious they cannot control Westbrook’s impulses. It also was understandable why the Thunder played so well when Westbrook was out. The ball moved, others were involved, and Durant, one the game’s most efficient scorers, got the best space for shots and dictated the offense. And when he does the defense sets up. Westbrook doesn’t much provide that without point guard instincts, but mostly running into his own shots. It’s just the Thunder is so talented they’ll always be in contention. ESPN threw out this interesting statistic on Westbrook: He was one for 11 in the half court Sunday. Among guards with at least 500 half court plays this season, Westbrook ranks 41st out of 61 players in field goal percentage, shooting 39.9 percent.

This season likely is their final test. If they do not win, they’ll have to think about breaking up their duo to enhance Durant’s dominant role. You’d get plenty of suitors for Westbrook because he is a terrific talent. But for now he needs to be his team’s No. 1 guy. And plenty of teams can use a player like that. Boston for Rajon Rondo? Cleveland if they cannot resign Kyrie Irving this summer? Deron Williams? Is he healthy enough? You need a shooter with Durant to space the floor. Ideally, the Thunder would want to trade Westbrook, who has three years left on his contract after this season, to the Eastern Conference. Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic? It could be a wild summer for a lot of teams.

Pacers looking to regroup prior to playoffs

-- Tough times for Oklahoma City, Miami and the Pacers, a combined 1-9 since early last week, which suggests it’s not that big a problem as at least one of them should be in the Finals. But the one who hasn’t been is the Pacers, who look the worst with four straight losses and a slumping defense giving up a dozen more points per game then before the All-Star game. So forget Roy Hibbert as Defensive Player of the Year award based on overall team defense. David West, who has been their leader, appropriately noted to Indianapolis media: “We've got time. Sky's not falling. The reason why we wanted to start strong and get off early the way we did was to give ourselves a cushion.” That makes sense, though it has been a different team of late. And not to say they go as Lance Stephenson does, but with Evan Turner, a potential future replacement coming in, Stephenson’s gone even more to his over dribbling, isolation play which breaks down a defense as well. “We can't get teams under control," West said. "Nobody's afraid of us and we got to regroup.”

NBA news and notes

-- The Nets have had some curious acquisitions, but adding Marcus Thornton is working out for now as he’s averaging 14 points in 24 minutes with at least four three pointers made in three of his last five games. Maybe he’ll be worth that $8.5 million next season no one else wanted. … That best power forward debate has been LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin. You might want to add Al Jefferson. You can argue who has done more with less and who has done more to change a team. He is averaging 21.2 points and 10.3 rebounds this season, but 26.2 on 55 percent shooting since the All-Star break in pushing the Bobcats to the playoffs. And who saw that coming? … Bulls executive Jim Paxson and assistant coach Mike Wilhelm were among the invited guests to the jersey retirement of Zydrunas Ilgauskas Saturday night. A reader reminded me of a favorite story I heard when Ilgauskas was a rookie and would go on to make among the great comebacks in league history after missing several seasons with foot injuries. Ilgauskas didn't speak much English when he was drafted No. 20 in 1996. So Ilgauskas started to pick up most of his English from the players he was around and played against. One day he was invited to dinner at teammate Bob Sura's house with Sura's parents. Instead of reaching across the table for a bowl, even though he could have at 7-feet-3 inches, Ilgauskas said, "Please pass the (bleepin') mashed potatoes." His classy speech Saturday also showed he’d come a long way. … Phil Jackson has to be a miracle worker. Just rumors about him going to New York have the Knicks playing their best of the season and with seven of their next eight against teams with records as bad or poorer than theirs and the Hawks sliding, they actually do have a chance to make the playoffs.

-- It’s been a brutal fade for Luol Deng as the Cavs slip out of the playoff race and Deng is in one of his poorest stretches as a pro after 10 points on three of 12 shooting in Saturday’s loss to the Knicks. He’s now played more games this season for the Cavs than the Bulls and after averaging19 points, 6.9 rebounds and shooting 45 percent with the Bulls, in 27 games with the Cavs Deng is averaging 14 points and about five rebounds on barely 40 percent shooting. Deng told the Akron Beacon Journal his Achilles has been a problem and, unsurprisingly, the Cavs’ offense has thwarted him. “If the ball is on the wing, it’s very easy to guard a cut,” Deng said. “I think a lot of our plays are that way. Here we draw one play and sometimes we don’t get it right. If you have a vet team, I think you can get away with not calling a lot of stuff. I think Mike (Brown) really trusts in his players and he allows sometimes for them to call plays. With Thibs, Thibs doesn’t trust anybody. He wants to call the plays, but he’s good at it.” Said Brown: “Lu did a really good job of playing off those guys [in Chicago] and that’s where his extra two or three buckets probably came from. Lu’s had probably two or three wide open threes or wide open jumpers throughout the course of the game because of a guy like Kyrie (Irving) and now a guy like Spencer (Hawes) or because of Tristan (Thompson) rolling. But that wasn’t his strength before coming here.” In other words, we’re not changing so you better. Deng is not expected to remain in Cleveland. … The Bulls “heck week” started well with Sunday’s win over Miami. But now the Bulls Tuesday get the team with the best record in the league, the Spurs, and the hottest team in the league, the Rockets. And watch out for a healthy Dwight Howard, again playing like one of the league’s elite centers averaging 19.1 points and 12.1 rebounds and shooting 64 percent and even 59 percent on free throws the last 10 games. And though the Rockets aren’t a great defensive team, Marshall’s Patrick Beverley is establishing himself as one of the league’s better on ball defenders. … A warning for counting too much on those draft picks. The Pelicans’ Anthony Davis, who had 32 and 17 in Sunday’s win over Denver, would by far be the No. 1 pick if he were in this draft. His Pelicans remain far out of the playoffs. But unlike the 76ers—and credit to the Pelicans--they aren’t about quitting when the only way they could keep their draft pick from the Jrue Holiday trade is to be in the bottom five in record. But their management still values competition. Said Austin Rivers, who has come on and averaged almost 10 points since All-Star break: “At the end of the day our crowd deserves that. They don't deserve for us to come to the game and see us try to tank. That's not the way to play basketball. I don't like that. I think when you step on the floor you should try to win every single game and that's what we're going to do. For the next 20 or 21 games, we're going to try to win every game and try to finish this season on a positive note."… Houston’s overtime win Sunday pushed Portland after that great start to fifth and out of a home court to open the playoffs. The Suns loss to the Warriors dropped them to ninth in the West in losing the tiebreaker to Memphis. If the Suns fall out of the playoffs, that opens the way for Tom Thibodeau to be voted coach of the year as Jeff Hornacek has been considered the leader all season with the surprising Suns.

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