He’s the reigning NBA MVP. He’s the first player in Association history to average a triple-double in consecutive seasons. Russell Westbrook’s personal accomplishments stand among the game’s greatest.
The Oklahoma City Thunder should still seriously consider trading the guard this summer after yet another postseason letdown for the squad. You read that right. An organization that Russ helped put on the NBA map following its move from Seattle should relieve itself of the future Hall of Famer.
It seems pretty ridiculous on the surface. Relevance in the NBA is an important thing, especially for those in a small market. Just ask Milwaukee before Giannis or this year’s version of the Memphis Grizzlies. Having star power is needed to lift up a small market.
That’s the economic situation here. On the court, Russ and his Thunder have failed to do anything of substance during the most important time of the season: The NBA Playoffs.
This year saw OKC go down in six games to a much less-talented Utah Jazz team in the first round. That series was only extended beyond a fifth game due to Westbrook’s own performance. And thus tells us a story of the Thunder under his watch.
Oklahoma City brought in fellow future Hall of Famers Carmelo Anthony and Paul George to team up with Westbrook this season. It was the team’s way of catering to the reigning NBA MVP after it lost Kevin Durant during the summer of 2016. Stay with the Thunder, and we’ll continue to give you elite-level teammates to help make that elusive championship run.
It didn’t work.
In a contract year, George played like the All-NBA performer that he is. The impending free agent averaged 21.9 points while shooting at a 40 percent mark from distance. He’s also a top NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate. On the other hand, Anthony failed to fit in with his new teammates and put up the worst performance of his career since Melo was a rookie with the Denver Nuggets.
Both flamed out in the playoffs. While George did average nearly 25 points per game, he shot just 41 percent from the field and averaged four turnovers per outing. Anthony was much more of a hindrance to OKC’s success, averaging less than 12 points per game and tallying a grand total of two assists in six games.
Meanwhile, Russ was still at his elite level doing Russ things. It just wasn’t enough for the Thunder to overtake a Jazz team that actually played much more like a team than Oklahoma City. And that’s the primary issue here.
Whether it was Russ teaming up with former MVP Kevin Durant and likely 2017-18 MVP James Harden or the UCLA product having a matured version of Durant on the squad with him, OKC has failed to take that next step at every turn. It’s not team basketball. It’s a ball-dominant version of basketball at a time when teams have trended more to inclusiveness and sharing on offense.
Take Friday’s Game 6 loss as the latest case study here. Russ put up 43 of Oklahoma City’s 93 shot attempts. In the process, he became the first player in NBA Playoff history to attempt 19 three pointers. We’re not going to sit back and blame Westbrook for this. George and Anthony combined for 12 points on 5-of-23 shooting. Westbrook was either going to shoot OKC into a Game 7 or go down firing. Because, why the heck not at that point?
It’s what the Thunder’s offense under Billy Donovan asks. It’s what a different offense under former OKC head coach Scott Brooks demanded. And it’s simply not going to work moving forward.
Consider this. James Harden and Kevin Durant both had tremendous years with Harden as a teammate in Oklahoma. Both have seen their overall effectiveness and performance increase since leaving the Thunder.
We can say the same thing about a lesser player in Victor Oladipo, who looked like a fish out of water in his only season with the Thunder. One year later, and the former lottery pick is an All-Star with Indiana and might very well be on the verge of leading his team to a first-round upset over LeBron James’ Cavaliers.
None of this changed in 2017-18 for the Thunder. George and Anthony were in no way as effective with Westbrook. Both could very well decide to move on in free agency as a result. Whether it’s the offense installed in Oklahoma or Westbrook’s own mentality as a guard, the writing has been on the wall here for some time. No matter who OKC brings in under this current philosophy, an NBA title will continue to be a pipe dream.
So why not remove Donovan from the bench and install a new offense for Westbrook to thrive in? An offense that’s not as ball dominant. Maybe something we are seeing with his former teammate, James Harden, in Houston. Once the Rockets brought in Chris Paul last summer, their entire offensive effectiveness changed for the better.
That’s fine. Russ would probably benefit from a changed philosophy on offense. But would he be willing to change after his personal success became historical fact once Durant departed for Golden State? That’s an internal question for the Thunder.
Instead of getting into hypotheticals in that regard, Oklahoma City should do the unthinkable and trade Westbrook. He’s entering his age-30 season. He’s among the top-five players in the game. He has the star appeal. And Russ just signed a five-year extension. The market for his services would be the greatest we’ve seen in recent NBA history.
Oklahoma City could start anew. Westbrook could start anew. And while it would take a bold move to make this happen, a keen observer would also note that a Westbrook trade from OKC wouldn’t necessarily be an indictment on either side.
Instead, it’s all about both moving forward knowing full well that the longer this marriage lasts without a Larry O’Brien, the uglier it’s going to get.