Around 12 months ago, there was a genuine prospect of LeBron James coming to Australia and playing basketball.
There’s a difference between being lazy on defence and being actively bad. But Russell Westbrook has a propensity to be both.
Westbrook has the physical prototype of an excellent defender. He has the physical prototype of an excellent everything.
He’s the fastest guard in the league and the strongest one too. Immovable in the post and with lateral quickness to burn, Westbrook should be as physically devastating on defence as he is on offence. But the guy who should be Gary Payton on D has a shocking habit of looking more like Jose Calderon at times.
Westbrook isn’t an awful defender in a nutshell. The Thunder were actually better on defence with Westbrook on the floor this season, although, glaringly, that wasn’t the case in any of the six seasons prior.
When engaged, Westbrook can wreak havoc on opposing point guards, like he did at times against Mike Conley in the playoffs two years ago. But too often he makes aggressively bad decisions on D, or shows a passive disinterest. All the talent in the world, and not nearly enough of its execution: therein lies the rub with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Westbrook’s performance in Round 1 against Dallas served as beautiful, unfortunate symbolism for his team. He was basketball electricity, dominating to the tune of a 26-11-7 for the series on 46 per cent shooting and even 38 per cent from three. He carved up the Dallas defence, which admittedly, was like carving up air.
But for all Westbrook’s impact, there he was in game two, getting outrun by Dirk Nowitzki down the floor, allowing Raymond Freaking Felton to go off for 21 and 11, and costing his team the game. Everyone will look at Durant missing 26 shots that game, which, was, yes, very, very bad, but if Westbrook didn’t play the most abominable defence you’ll ever see, Durant’s wayward shooting wouldn’t have mattered.
You can get away with mental lapses and poor decisions against a team who plays Salah Mejri 28 minutes in a must-win playoff game. When you do it against San Antonio though, you end up losing by 32 points in a score-line that flatters you.
Oklahoma City’s flaws are not exclusively tied to the shortcomings of Russell Westbrook. The good more than outweighs the bad with Westbrook. Again, it more than outweighs the bad, and he’s one of game’s six best players. And so is Kevin Durant. Which makes it so jarring that a team with two of the best six basketball players on the planet can play for a team that falls down 105-66 at three quarter time in the playoffs and it’s not that surprising.
For the sixth consecutive season, Oklahoma City are the most poorly coached contender in the league. Whether it’s Scotty Brooks or Billy Donovan, the cadences of ‘bad’ remain the same. The Thunder offence has famously fallen apart in fourth quarters, descending into inertia and predictability. The defence has never hit its stride under Donovan, finishing the season 13th in points allowed per 100 possessions, an intolerably mediocre finish for a team that starts Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Kevin Durant.
The Thunder continue to underwhelm, and you can point fingers everywhere. You can point them at the coaching, with the OKC staff long treating the notion of staggering the minutes of Durant and Westbrook like creationists treat evolution. A great coach wouldn’t let Westbrook get away with playing James Harden-level defence, and also wouldn’t let him, the fourth worst three point shooter of all time to have ever taken more than 1500, jack more than four times a game from deep when he gets to the rim better than anyone alive not named LeBron James.
The team defensive structures have holes that the best teams exploit, and nobody will ever be able to explain to me why Cameron Payne spent the end of the season glued to the bench when he should have been getting battle-tested for the playoffs. Got to get minutes for Randy Foye and Dion Waiters, I suppose.
You can also point the finger at the front office, which has been deplorable for years. The genesis for all the Thunder’s problems is the Harden trade, which remains the most destructive and myopic trade in recent basketball history. That was the self-inflicted baseball bat to the head that dazed the Thunder front office, and they’ve been stumbling backwards ever sense.
Whether it was using their trade capital on Waiters and Enes Kanter, drafting Mitch McGary and Josh Huestis when Rodney Hood, Clint Capela, Kyle Anderson and Jerami Grant were available, or the annual, mind-numbing go-around with Derek Fisher, Thunder management haven’t put its team in a position to succeed since they let Harden go.
Sam Presti has made finding a serviceable three-and-D wing player look as difficult as finding someone with Stephen Curry’s shooting range. Imagine how different the Thunder would look if they had an Iman Shumpert, DeMarre Carroll, Norman Powell, Danny Green, Kent Bazemore, Marvin Williams, Arron Afflalo or Luol Deng. Instead, Durant at the four line-ups, which should be among the most devastating in the league, are rendered almost irrational because the Thunder don’t have one average wing to put alongside him, let alone two.
The current Thunder predicament isn’t the fault of the stars. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, and even Steven Adams, work as hard as anyone in the league. They play heavy minutes and they give a damn every single night. But the margin for error is close to zero because of how little is around them. The load is too large, and too heavy even for Westbrook’s Adamantium body and Durant’s feathery touch.
This isn’t to absolve Westbrook from his defensive sins. It’s only to point out that when other stars on great teams fall apart – when Klay Thompson picks up mindless fouls, when Draymond Green loses his shot, when Tony Parker and Tim Duncan start to show their age – their teammates are good enough to pick them up. Too often, Westbrook and Durant only have each other.
Saturday night’s Texas massacre was a long time coming. It was great coaching, execution and roster construction pummeling cluelessness, indecisiveness and mismanagement into oblivion.
When you look at the top fours of both teams it’s almost a wash, and you would probably lean Thunder. Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka and Adams versus Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Duncan and Parker is a fair fight, anyway.
But when you look at players five through nine, it all goes to hell for OKC. While the Spurs are running out Danny Green, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw, David West and Patty Mills, the Thunder are countering with Kanter, Waiters, Foye, Andre Roberson and, uh, Kyle Singler? That’s a bloodbath.
Then you look at the sidelines and see maybe basketball’s greatest ever coach going head to head with someone that just led the team that has Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka to less wins than the Toronto Raptors. And then Saturday night starts to look not like an aberration, but like an inevitability.
Spurs-Thunder is not a formality. Durant and Westbrook are simply that good that they have a chance to beat any combination of players four out of seven. But that now has to be four out of six, and the margin for error against one of the modern era’s greatest teams is already less than razor thin.
Historically, OKC has posed San Antonio match-up problems with its athleticism. The Spurs will always walk with a limp from the 2012 Western Conference Finals, when they were swept up in the Durant-Westbrook-Harden hurricane.
But over time those Thunder advantages have been mitigated, and now the Spurs have two dynamic, polished athletes in Leonard and Aldridge to throw back at OKC, who have one fewer without Harden. The Thunder can’t beat these Spurs with pure physical advantages anymore. They need to win smart, and that’s something that has proved beyond them ever since Harden was let out the door.