The Oklahoman’s sports writers discuss three topics surrounding Russell Westbrook:
1. True or false: Russell Westbrook is the Thunder’s most important player.
Darnell Mayberry (beat writer) — True. We've seen life without him in the regular season and postseason. Here's a recap. It ain't pretty. The Thunder has no chance at a championship without him. And even though the team can survive the regular season, we now know that only a herculean effort from Kevin Durant keeps OKC afloat during the dog days.
Anthony Slater (beat writer) — True. Kevin Durant remains OKC’s best and most valuable player, even if Westbrook was both of those in this latest postseason. But I think Westbrook has always been OKC’s most important player. He’s an every night barometer, because of the ball-control position he plays and the erratic nature of his polarizing game. Durant is typically Durant. But when Westbrook’s great, OKC is nearly unbeatable. When Bad Russ rears his ugly head, the Thunder has problems.
Berry Tramel (columnist) — False. Kevin Durant is the Thunder's most important player. But it's not a stupid question, which tells you all you need to know about Westbrook. Comparing his value to the reigning NBA MVP is perfectly legitimate. The Thunder can't excel without him. We saw in the 2013 playoffs what the Thunder offense is like without him. It ain't pretty.
2. True or false: Russell Westbrook is the league’s best point guard.
Mayberry — False. Allow me to be a traditionalist here. Westbrook is not the best leader at the position. He's not the best passer or the best at consistently making all of his teammates scoring threats. He doesn't have the best shot selection or the best decision-making. Doesn't play with the best pace or the most control. The truth is Westbrook might not be in the top five at his position in any of those categories. When I think of point guards, I think of those things, and Chris Paul, to me, is far and away superior in each of those categories. With that being said, here's where I throw tradition out of the window. Westbrook is a better player than Paul, not more polished but more dominant. And after his magnificent postseason I'm ready to declare Westbrook a top three player, positions be dammed. The Thunder, from day one, has forced a square peg into a round hole and spent the last six seasons challenging anyone who claims Westbrook doesn't fit. Well, I'm done debating the demonstration. You can call Westbrook whatever you want. I'm calling him a dog. One I'd take on my team every day of the week.
Slater — If we’re basing it off the last couple months of basketball, true. No point guard was near as dominant as Westbrook in the playoffs. And he slayed Chris Paul, his biggest competition, in the second round. When on, Westbrook proved there’s only a small handful of players — maybe just two — as impactful on both ends. But can he stay healthy? Can he bring it consistently? Can he maintain such a dynamic level over 82-plus games? Next year will be key in his development and ascension.
Tramel — False. I'd still take Chris Paul. But again, it's not a stupid question. It's very close, and who knows? Maybe by next season, Westbrook passes him. The criticism of Westbrook's floor game is ridiculous. The pressure he puts on opposing defenses is mighty. And Westbrook's willingness to pass always has been understated. He doesn't always make great decisions, but he always plays with a ferocity that redefines the position.
3. What area of his game must improve most?
Mayberry — I’d be shocked if the consensus here isn't defense. Nationally, I'm sure the answer would swing heavily to either shot selection or passing. But for those of us who watch the Thunder every night, it's clear how much better this team is when Westbrook shows no mercy and dominates defensively like he loves to do offensively. Play both ends every night and a problem matchup turns impossible.
Slater — For the sake of diversity, I’ll stray away from defense. His steady on- and off-ball tenacity is key to his and the Thunder’s success. But so is his shot selection on the other end. To me, it doesn’t matter how many shots he takes, just that the majority are smart ones. For most of the playoffs, he was great in that area. And that’s why he flourished. But in some of the Thunder’s losses — particularly in the first five games against Memphis, when he went 7-of-39 from three — Westbrook’s adoration for the off-balance, wild, contested jumpers were poisonous to the Thunder cause. If he avoids those games on a consistent basis, he’s a top-five NBA player.
Tramel — Defense. When Westbrook gets focused on defense, he's excellent. If Westbrook reaches a consistent defensive focus, he'll be a first-team all-NBA player. He's got the talent and ability to be the kind of force on defense that he is on offense. A total distorter of the opposing squad. And we saw from Westbrook in the playoffs a better commitment to defense, especially in the final four games against the Spurs.