Don’t Blame Russ: The Thunder are Inches Away

After the loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas Day, Russell Westbrook found himself trending on twitter. What was 98% of what was coming out of the public’s 140 characters? You guessed it: negative. Here were a few phrases that came up over and over again:

“Russell Westbrook hits more sideline tables than jumpers late in games.”
“Russell Westbrook needs to realize he’s not Kevin Durant.”
“Russell Westbrook should’ve been traded over Harden!”
“Russell Westbrook…..SMH.”
“Russell Westbrook looks like a ninja turtle.”
(Russell Westbrook has been taking more heat for his shot selection than clothing since Santa came.)

The last two may or may not still be popping up two days later. The fact of the matter is, for one reason or another, Westbrook has become the fall guy to all of the Thunder’s recent issues. Anyone with a naked eye can look at his game and realize that he forces shots at times, but what to do you expect with the starting lineup that the Thunder throw out? Scotty Brooks is hell bent on saying he loves the Russ-Thabo-Serge-KD-Perkins line to start because of the defensive ability it has. And while that is true, it is truly hurting the Thunder on the other side of the floor. According the, That lineup gives the Thunder a 50% win percentage across 48 minutes, which would come in as their 10th best lineup. Tenth! When your starting five is being proven to being your 10th best lineup, maybe their is room for some fixing. (For those curious, the best overall lineup with over in terms of getting both offensive and defensive production would be swapping in Kevin Martin for Perk.) 
On Christmas Day, Lebron went one-on-one with Kevin Durant, and somewhat lost. Kevin led both teams in scoring, and at times was having his way. Ibaka was finding space and hitting the jumpers at the elbow like he has been all year. But when those two weren’t getting open, or weren’t on the floor, what is Russ supposed to do? Perkins is not an offensive threat whatsoever, and Thabo has become more and more afraid to take jumpers because his percentage is so low. In Wednesday’s game, he finished with zero points on one shot in 28 minutes. When your guard mate isn’t shooting the ball, doesn’t Russ have to create on his own out of necessity instead of want? Many of Westbrook’s 19 shots were either the result of fast breaks(which you always want him shooting, he could be the fastest baseline to baseline player in the game right now, and I’m including Lebron) or because he was forced to create something late in the shot clock. If Brooks was consistently getting more weapons on the floor that Russ could look towards(such as Collison and Martin, who can make big shots when put in the right position), he wouldn’t be taking as many of those shots that everyone says he is forcing.
(I won’t disagree that some of Westbrook’s move have caused this look, but not all of his deserve it.)
When looking at the game on Wednesday, you have to look towards Kendrick Perkins as the fall guy. And I am not talking about the late defensive non-switch that led to the Bosh dunk. Perkins simply isn’t an offensive Center. In Boston, he was surrounded by three hall of famers and a point guard who could all score. Now coming to OKC, he is surrounded by two of the best players in the game, including the best scorer, but then a bunch of players similar to him. It’s not his fault, but he simply can’t give the Thunder the offensive production they need from the five. In my opinion, the Thunder have two options:
1. Play Ibaka at the five with either Collison or Martin playing in clutch instead of Perkins depending on matchups. Ibaka is a great shot blocker, and has improved the rest of his interior defense. Also, Durant is more than capable of guarding most 4’s in this league, as is Thabo with most 3’s. 
2. Trade Perkins. While his contract is not the most attractive(7.8 Million/3Years), they have a protected first rounder from Toronto that they can float to any team looking to rebuild. And while the Varajeo for Perk trade has very much been out there(including here on the Pick and Pop), what about going after a certain center who has alot of talent, a good contract, and is definitely looking for a new home. Yup, you guessed it, I’m talking about Demarcus Cousins.

 Offer the Kings Perk, the Raptors’ #1 from the Harden Trade(Protected only for Picks 1-3, so if the Raps get 4-14 in the lottery, it goes to whoever is holding it) and Eric Maynor for Cousins and Travis Outlaw, and see the if the Kings bite. On the Kings side, they gain another draft pick in the lottery this year that they desperately need, a defensive minded veteran center who will become the only guy in Sactown not looking for his own shot, and Eric Maynor who would be an upgrade over Isiah Thomas and is also on an expiring deal. Meanwhile, Cousins is still on a great contract(2 years/3.8m) and can gain a fresh start on a team full of guys that would force him to think team first. If the experiment doesn’t work out, you set him loose and cut your losses. If it does work out, you have a nucleus of Durant/Cousins/Westbrook/Ibaka for the next two years. While many people may argue they are then in the same “who do we pay” argument of Cousins and Ibaka like they were for Harden and Ibaka, isn’t the goal to win a title? A center like Cousins helps you do that now.

(Playing Ibaka at the five gives the Thunder more options on offense.)
I’ll end with this. When looking for a scapegoat as to why the Thunder lost four straight games in the finals, many people criticized Westbrook over James Harden. Did anyone care to look at their numbers? in five games, Westbrook had a stat line of 27PTS, 6ASTS, 6REBS and only 2TO’s(as the primary ball handler against a Miami Defense known for creating turnovers) per game on 43% shooting. On any given night, he had Lebron, Wade, Chalmers, and Norris Cole giving him different looks on the perimeter. While Harden received some of the same treatment, his numbers are nowhere close. 12PTS, 3ASTS, 4REBS and 2.5TO’s were all under his season and playoff averages, and much less impressive than Russ. Even less impressive, Harden only took 48 shots in almost 32 minutes a game. Wouldn‘t you rather have someone whose not afraid to miss than someone who is afraid to shoot?
So Thunder fans, calm down. Your team is 20-6. You have two of the top 10 players in basketball, and if you decide to go forward with this lineup, there are only small tweaks to be made. Perkins could work out, Thabo could remember how to shoot, and Russ’ shot selection has continuously improved. So while you woke up the day after Christmas saying “if Russell keep shooting, we won’t win a championship”, you might want to realize that if he stops shooting, they might not make it at back to the finals at all.


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