Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What To Do About "Bad" Russ Westbrook? Questioning an OKC Fan

(The Oklahoma City Thunder fell in LA last Sunday 105-96 to a resurgent Lakers squad. The loss was in part because Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol took control of the game late, but also was pinned on the Thunder's two young stars. Russ Westbrook and Kevin Durant shot 16 for 48, just one part of a relatively lifeless Thunder team tired from the last bout of a 6-game road trip. The loss immediately spurred several questions at MAMBINO HQ to our resident OKC fan, Thunderstolt)

KOBEsh: On Sunday we watched Russ shoot 6-22, igniting anew any controversy regarding Westbrook's actual effectiveness in games and questioning how he's best used. After talking to Bockerknocker following the slugfest against the Lakers, I have several questions, but let's start with the first:

Do you feel like Russ has reached an "Eli Manning"-esque place in performance? As in, you know you're always going to get a few clunkers along with 40-plus point Finals games? Do you just accept him for what he is at this point, or do you feel like his game is going to change?

Thunderstolt: That is a perfect cross-sport analogy for Russ: he is the Eli Manning of the NBA. 

There is Good Russ and Bad Russ. As long as Good Russ shows up at an increasing percentage to Bad Russ I have no problem with it because I feel like for the most part he is learning and evolving.  You accept him for who he is, but with the understanding that who he is as a player is improving on a yearly basis.  Sure, his shooting percentage is down (41% this year down from 45%) but his 8.3 assists/game and 5.4 rebounds/game are the highest of his career. Morever, there are little things that are starting to stick out about how his game is evolving as well. He is seeing the court better than ever this year making pin-point passes through traffic from everywhere on the floor. He is also starting to understand spacing and pick and roll coverage better as well. Something that Tony Parker does that Russ has picked up on is he will now use screens multiple times with the same big man on the same possession (Usually Ibaka) until he gets the coverage he likes or can expoit for an easy bucket. He didn't do that two years ago, or even for the first half of last year but it's subtle improvements we are looking for, not a big change overnight. 

Taking another page out of the Tony Parker playbook, I think the next evolution of Westbrook game needs to come in the form of a floater that Parker has perfected. Right now he knows he can get to the lane any time he wants because of his speed but has been missing more at the rim and looking for a foul call more than ever. If he develops a floater it would not only result in an uncontested 5-8 foot shot in the lane but also help preserve his body from taking so many hits and falls that will start to add up in his late 20s. Just ask Dwyane Wade how that feels.

KOBEsh: Even with Good Russ showing up more often than Bad Russ as you said, it's obvious that the latter helped cost the Thunder the game last night. Do you that the next step in getting Westbrook to be that same efficient player is for the Thunder to move him to the off-guard spot? There were so many times yesterday where I felt like he was disrupting the offensive flow of the game by constantly throwing up clunkers and committing nearly half of his team's 9 turnovers. Thoughts, gentlemen?

Bockerknocker: This of course depends on who you bring in to play point. If you bring in a Jeff Teague-type or any kind of scoring point guard, then it's a useless move. At that point, you might as well keep Russ at the 1 and see how much more he can develop. His assist rate has been splendid to watch this season, and it's tough to expect EVERY part of his game to improve at once.

But if you bring in a Ridnour/Calderon/Andre Miller-type who can efficiently run an offense, get the ball to the right guy at the right time, it might benefit the Thunder as a whole. Will obviously stunt RW's development as a true point, but he wasn't really ever that to begin with.

Thunderstolt: This is where I actually have an issue with Scott Brooks because sometimes Russ needs saving from himself.  I believe they already have a guy on their roster they can bring in to move Russ off the ball in Reggie Jackson.

In the past, Brooks deployed a Maynor/Westbrook backcourt, but now that primary back-up role belongs to Jackson. However, as much as the team needs a Jackson/Westbrook backcourt on the floor at the same time, the coach isn't using it and it is maddening. I don't believe the answer is to bring in a facilitator in a Ridnour/Calderon/Andre Miller-type, but to go to a Jackson/Westbrook backcourt when it appears Russ is not on his game at PG.  In fact, I wish they would deploy it in spells even when Russ is playing well because he is so athletic. If you have him running off pindowns and cross screens on the baseline, I feel that could add an entirely new dimension to the Thunder offense. Can you imagine KD and Russ sprinting all over the court off screens then getting the ball on the move below the free throw line extended or curling into the paint? Scary.

The Thunder organization made a decision that Russ is their point guard for KD and he will be until Russ doesn't sign a contract offer with the Thunder years in the future. They are in this for the long-haul and know if they stick with Russ at PG with KD it will produce a championship.

I think they are right.   

KOBEsh: Reggie Jackson! Pride of the the Heights! If he has more than 10 notable NBA games, he'll probably enter the top-15 of greatest Boston College athletes ever. Such a sad state of affairs in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Regarding Eric Maynor, he's completely out of the rotation, stricken with the tragic virus known as "DNP-CD" What do you feel he was doing (or not doing) to deserve the benching, as he was once regarded as incredibly important to the Thunder's future plans (as well as playing a small part in Harden's trade)? 

Thunderstolt: Maynor just isn't ready physically. Everything has healed in his knee after battling back from a torn ACL, but when he was out there the Thunder it felt like they were just down a man.  He initiated the offense but didn't have his quickness and speed back and couldn't hit shots when he was open. Scott Brooks gave him a long leash too as he didn't make the move to Jackson until 25 games into the season. However, when you can't move quickly enough to defend and shooting 29% from the field, he had to make a move to Reggie. In his time at backup PG Jackson has shown some explosiveness and ability to defend well and rebound as well. I predict there will be a Reggie Jackson game where people start to take notice of him as a top tier backup PG.   

KOBEsh: Seeing as you're feeling pretty secure with the point guard situation, let's go further down the bench--what are your thoughts on Jeremy Lamb thus far?

Also, seeing as the Thunder--thanks to Jedi Master Sam Presti--have the Raptors' inevitable lottery pick, how do you feel OKC will use it? Will they even have the pick come June, or will that be used in a trade for reinforcements, if needed? 

Thunderstolt: I am very optimistic as to what Lamb can bring next year. I don't see him making an impact in 2013 unless some injuries happen and they need to go to him out of necessity.

Lamb has been spending a lot of time in the D-League affiliate in Tulsa, OK which is about 75 minutes from the arena. Unlike a lot of other NBA squads, the Thunder uses its D-League team like its Triple A baseball franchise. When guys aren't getting minutes, the team isn't afraid to will send guys like Lamb and Perry Jones III to Tulsa to get their minutes and to improve their skills . So far in 14 games with the Tulsa 66ers Lamb is averaging 21 pts, 5.5 rebs, and 3.3 asts per game. With Kevin Martin on an expiring deal and Thabo Sefolosha the next year, the Thunder will have a hole at the SG position. Martin has gone on record saying he wants to stay in OKC but that will happen only if he takes a substantial pay cut from his $10 million dollar deal.

I believe Thabo is gone after next season as a team will overpay for his skills as a lock down wing-defender, as well as a developing Lamb waiting in the wings. It is no secret that Sefolosha is limited offensively and the Thunder has been looked at as playing 3 on 5 offensively with their normal starters in the game along with Kendrick Perkins. With a full training camp and summer to improve with KD and the gang I believe Lamb will become a mainstay in the OKC rotation next season and could make serious impact. 

I have gone back and forth on if the Thunder will still have the Raptors pick Jedi Presti secured in the James Harden trade come June. However, I think they roll the dice and see where it lands. I don't see many suitors out there on the trade market who will give up someone worthy of that pick before the trading deadline The Thunder could use another playmaker off the bench or a true backup to KD at small forward, but I don't see the Thunder active at the trade deadline. As it stands now that pick is somewhere in the 6-8 range but if the Raptors end up trading Kyle Lowry or Jose Calderon they could end up tanking to try and keep their pick which is top 3 protected. If the Thunder have the 4th pick in the draft I can see them taking Shabazz Muhammad or Nerleans Neal, depending on who is available.

Although I could be completely wrong and Presti pulls off some ridiculous four-team trade to help shore up the OKC bench for another Finals run

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