Whenever something in sports doesn’t go according to plan, we as fans are quick to place blame. The easy way to explain why the Oklahoma City Thunder couldn’t get back to the Western Conference Finals, much less the NBA Finals, would be to blame Kevin Durant for not being able to carry his team to the next round. Let’s take a deeper look before placing blame.
What became of the Thunder the second Russell Westbrook‘s meniscus tore falls on many parts of the organization.
I think that Scott Brooks was exposed in the series with the Memphis Grizzlies, even more so than he was in last year’s NBA Finals. He made absolutely zero adjustments once Russell Westbrook went down, showing us he never even thought about about a contingency plan in case one of his stars got injured. His offense essentially became Kevin Durant isolations, which was likely not going to win the Memphis series, no matter ho well KD played.
Essentially it was breaking away from their usual offense and becoming a “Kevin, create whatever you can for us offensively, take a tough shot, drive and kick, quick three, whatever you’re feeling” offense. Brooks did nothing to put Kevin Martin, Serge Ibaka or Reggie Jackson in any position to succeed, individually, or as a unit.
I was of the belief that after last year’s NBA Finals, whether the Thunder organization knew it at the time or not, that Scott Brooks was on his way out. The way he was overmatched by a coach we previously thought of as inferior in Erik Spoelstra stood out like Dwyane Wade‘s capri pants.
After last season, OKC GM Sam Presti couldn’t fire a coach that took his team to the NBA Finals. This season Brooks has the excuse that Westbrook was hurt. It won’t be long down the road, however, until Sam Presti will exercise his options. There’s no way he doesn’t; Sam’s just too smart to not see the misfires.
A couple of weeks ago, right after Westbrook went down, I wrote about how Russell’s absence exposed the James Harden trade in a whole new light.
In the column, I talked about how behind closed doors, I’m willing to bet that the people in OKC’s camp who were involved in pulling the trigger on the deal would admit that they didn’t know James Harden would be this good.
I’m also willing to bet that they thought they had more in Serge Ibaka (a guy they just signed to a four-year $49 million extension).
Much in the way Westbrook’s injury exposed Scott Brooks coaching ability (or lack there of), it also exposed how unreliable Serge Ibaka is offensively.
Ibaka has three offensive strengths: He can hit open jump shots (sixth in true shooting percentage in the NBA), he’s great at finishing on the break and he’s great at putting back offensive rebounds for hustle points.
You know who makes all three of those skills a lot easier to display? Russell Westbrook. It’s Russell’s creativeness that gets Serge open jump shots. It’s Westbrook’s insistence on pushing the basketball seemingly on every play that allows Serge to run and score in the open court, and it’s RW’s driving ability that draws defenders to him leaving Serge Ibaka free to roam and crash the boards. Without Russ, Ibaka’s defender can stay at home on nearly every play and box him out.
In the nine playoff games without Westbrook, Serge Ibaka averaged 12.4 points and eight rebounds per game. During the regular season he averaged 13.2 and 7.7. That’s not exactly “stepping it up” in Westbrook’s absence. We all think of Serge as a budding star in the NBA, but his playoff numbers are eerily similar to someone like Emeka Okafor, whose career averages are 12.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
Ibaka improved his scoring by four points a game this season, which is reasonable given the James Harden trade, but he has failed to improve his game in ways we expect from up-and-comers. He’s still a spotty on-ball defender – a fact exposed by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. He basically possesses the offensive skill set of Carl Landry, which is not exactly what you’re looking for from the guy you essentially chose over James Harden.
I’m not voiding Kevin Durant of any blame, I’m simply saying there’s a lot of it to go around and actually, what Kevin did, largely in Russell’s absence, has been historic.
According to basketball-reference.com, KD is just the 31st player to ever log at least 44 minutes per game through (at least) 10 same-season playoff contests. He’s the first player in NBA history to exit the playoffs with averages of 30 points, six assists, nine rebounds and one block.
The 50/40/90 superstar saw those numbers dip in Russell’s absence to 46/31/81 splits. It appears average, correct? Before you criticize Kevin Durant for seeing those numbers fall so drastically in Westbrook’s absence, consider this (and it’s not exactly rocket science): No matter how good or great a basketball player is, he’ll be much more efficient when you can’t unabashedly double team him.
Kobe Bryant‘s two best shooting season were in 2000 and 2009, when he had Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol in their primes and teams filled with a competent slew of role players. He won an NBA title in both of those seasons.
Each of the past two seasons have been LeBron James‘ best shooting seasons of his career, when the Heat have been at the peak of their powers, when D-Wade and Chris Bosh have been there to complement him.
Elgin Baylor‘s best shooting season was during the 1969-70 season, when he played with a loaded Los Angeles Lakers team that also had the likes of Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain.
Kevin Durant isn’t void of any blame because of this. What it shows us is what we’ve always known; even the best players in the world can’t do it all by themselves. Without Russell Westbrook, I would argue that the Oklahoma City Thunder are almost as bad as, if not worse than, the 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers (whom LeBron carried to the NBA Finals, before being swept) and the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers (carried by Allen Iverson; lost the NBA Finals in five games).
Of the three teams, only the 2001 Sixers possessed an All-Star other than their star player (Dikembe Mutumbo, who joined the team after the All-Star break). On the 2007 Cavs, Larry Hughes was the team’s highest paid player.
Kevin Durant hears your criticism; you can bank on it. Perhaps this was his destiny the entire time. Perhaps he needed this hiccup in his career to better himself as a player. Perhaps this is what he needed to sharpen that killer instinct that all the great ones have.
Perhaps, and maybe most importantly, Russell Westbrook is far more important to this team than anyone had ever thought.
Should the Thunder be looking for a new head coach?
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