Tuesday, May 24, 2011

15 comments The Durant/Westbrook Power Struggle

Way back when, Macedonian generals returned home from battle to a heap of lavish praise and gifts. As long as their aggression brought back the fruitful spoils of devastation, all was forgiven. That is Russell Westbrook. If he were an historical figure, I’d assume he’d be Alexander The Great (If you take anything away from this, remember that Alexander was Macedonian, not Greek). Capable of conquering in a flash, but ultimately renounced and rebuked by future schoolteachers everywhere. “Be humble,” they would say. “Live within your means. Don’t overextend yourself.” But we are the masses, and we don’t listen to the wise words of a few. When we hit the street courts to emulate our favorite players, we don’t take a charge and scream “Big Baby!” Instead we chuck a fadeaway from the elbow, clinging to ephemeral hope while teetering on the precipice of utter disappointment. But then the shot goes in, and calamity turns to jubilation. Poor shot selection turns into greatness.

For three and a half quarters, this is Russell Westbrook. He meanders through the game, aimlessly fulfilling his every desire on a whim. For three and a half quarters, we indulge ourselves in the best part of Westrbook’s game. His blazing speed and unabashed invasion of the paint remind us of the beauty that basketball can be. There’s something alluring about a smooth crossover followed by a finger roll unperturbed by the rim. To the unenlightened, it’s merely large men gathered in a small space. But the basketball fan can extract meaning, and eloquence, and emotion, and a host of other seemingly unrelated adjectives. Westbrook is that answer. He’s at the heart of our desire.

The fourth quarter clock passes the six-minute mark. Possessions slow. Misses are that much more heart wrenching. A Nick Collison rebound causes Jeff Van Gundy to yelp in delight. But the beauty that we appreciate in Westbrook evolves from authoritative to transgressing. He is no longer conquering, but usurping. But only because Kevin Durant is a passive king. Just as we laud Westbrook for his confidence and ambition, we kneel at Durant and his storybook caricature. He’s dominant, yet unselfish. Industrious but respectful. Resourceful but loyal. Cruel on the hardwood, kind off of it. When it’s time to stamp down legacy, the greats momentarily reverse this trend. MJ and Kobe tap into something more. It is this same part of them that transcends basketball and pervades their general personalities. “I want to beat you, slaughter you, put you back together and hack you to pieces again.” But not only do they beat you, they let you know about it. And then step on you. And trash talk some more. And then they score another basket, jawing at their defender as he crawls back to the locker room. Durant may be a scoring champion with unparalleled levels of shot-making ability, but he’s missing that indefinable something else. That same something else we that we disparage if it’s not the last six minutes of the fourth quarter. I want to call it a killer instinct, but it’s not; everyone has the instinct to close out games. It’s just extra. Russell Westbrook has it, but is missing that elite basketball skill which Durant possesses.

This is how the God made the Thunder – unrelenting youthful enthusiasm, loose reigns to guide the stallions. Ultimately this protocol has led to a consistent yet scary narrative: build a big lead, don’t blow it at the end. During these playoffs, they have seen both sides of the coin. They have come back from huge deficits, riding the unpredictable wings of Westbrook and the hot hand of Durant. On a few occasions, they have finished off these comebacks. This is how narrative lives. It changes, transforms and evolves. When retold or reread, it is not the same. The miniscule changes throughout the chapters culminate with a slightly different ending. A missed free throw here, a made three there. That’s the difference with the Thunder. They never know whether a botched play in the 2nd quarter will impact the final result. The Mavericks, meanwhile, don’t worry. Dirk will swoop in to clean up the mistakes. Keep him within striking range and the storybook ending will write itself. Until Durant throws Westbrook off the throne that is rightfully his, the Thunder will just beneath the cusp.


Bengoodfella said...

I felt like I was reading a poem.

So what you are saying is that Russell Westbrook needs to take over in crunch time since Kevin Durant doesn't seem to want to do this? Or are you saying Durant has that special skill which requires him to close out the game, but he can't seem to do it.

I don't want to overreact to the last few minutes of the game last night, but I feel like there is some confusion as to who the main guy on the Thunder is. Shouldn't it be Durant? Then why do I feel like it isn't?

Dylan said...

It boils down to this: Russell Westbrook has that "I want to eat your children at the end of the game" instinct, but he doesn't have the elite talent to make it happen. Durant does, but he wants to cuddle people's babies instead of eat them.

And yes, it was slightly poetic. I was trying to harness my inner Free Darko. You know, change up my writing style a little bit. Gotta be versatile. Not sure if it worked, but basketball is intellectual so I tried to combine intellectualism with basketball. Hopefully it worked, but I have no idea.

Bengoodfella said...

I think it worked. I think I would rather have a Westbrook than a Durant in that case. At least Westbrook has the drive and can maybe score a basket. Durant, I am not so sure his lack of a killer instinct is something he can learn. I think Westbrook can learn to bring his talent to that level.

Still, both players are great. I do tend to not feel great a/b the Thunder closing out games...even before last night.

J.S. said...

Aren't these both flawed players, and isn't the larger problem that OKC have no one else to go to besides Harden for offense at all? Like, I'd be amazed if Ibaka, Perkins, Sefolosha (though I know he got 12) or Collison went for even 10 in a game.

Westbrook shoots because he has to. He takes some bad shots because he has to an he's 22 years old. Durants doesn't take as many shots as some would like because he's only OK getting in the paint and thin as a rail and can't post up basically anyone. And he is also, 22.

90% of their offense is from 3 guys, that's even more than Miami, and all three of those guys are used to carrying an offense in the playoffs.

It's a matter of a roster tweak or two, and time. Come on folks, they are fucking 22 years old!

brent daniels said...

I agree with J.S they are only 22 same with Rose and the Bulls. We are in such a rush to define everyones legacy 2 years into their careers. Its a constant need by every media outlet to immediately define who is the greatest after every single game anymore. Every champ except maybe Magic Johnson, usually has to get their heartbroken at least a couple times before they win a title. Bulls and Thunder apparently not exceptions to this rule either.

Bengoodfella said...

J.S, I think you may be may be missing part of what I was trying to say. I am not talking about the Thunder roster or how they may tweak the roster in the future. I, and I am assuming Dylan is as well when he wrote this, am talking about right now and how Westbrook and Durant work together with their skill set on this current team.

I don't think the larger problem is the Thunder don't have other options. In crunch time, you want your best or second best player taking the shots. That's Westbrook and Durant, so the fact they don't have a third option (other than Harden) really doesn't seem to factor in too heavily when the game slows down at the end because the ball needs to be in the hands of the best players, which barring a complete roster overhaul will be Durant and Westbrook.

So you make good points about them being flawed players, which they are because they are young, but I am not talking about the future or giving them time. I am talking about right now, and I agree with Dylan, there seems to be a power struggle of sorts with how these two players' skill set work together.

I never said Durant or Westbrook may never be an end of game killer or the Thunder can't close out a game. In fact, I said Westbrook can learn to close out a game, while I am not sure Durant can learn a killer instinct. It may happen, but I wasn't intending to project in the future too much since the discussion was about now.

Brent, I am not trying to define either player's legacy. I was commenting it just seems there is a power struggle of sorts on the current Thunder team. Time very well may work it out. I don't think the current situation defines their legacy, because both have room for growth, but I think right now this seeming struggle defines what this Thunder team is able to do.

Dylan said...

What BGF said.

I also think that too much stock is put into the whole "they're a young team." It's not like these guys are 15-years-old, or that it's their first time on the big stage. Sure, there are jitters and nerves, but the Thunder have been in plenty of late game situations together. You'd think that they would have it figured out by now. I think experience with teammates is a bigger factor than youth. And the Thunder have the former.

J.S. said...

Couldn't disagree more Dylan, I really do think this is basically as simple as "they are 22". Twenty two is fucking nothing in the NBA, seriously. There are rookies who are 22. It's a complex game, especially in the postseason, where it really is just a different sport than the regular season. They did not have the know how...come on man, watching them turn the ball over compulsively tonight, or the innumerable mistakes a couple of days ago (the backcourt fouls in particular)...you just don't see NBA teams with real veteran presence make those errors, you don't.

Even just physically Kevin Durant needs to bulk up and that should happen in the next two or three years. Expecting two 22 year olds to lead a team to a championship isn't just ridiculous, it's unprecidented.

Bengoodfella said...

I think we are talking about two different things still. I don't think the Durant/Westbrook power struggle is simply based on their youth. When the times get tough and possessions get tough at the end of a game they tend to look confused. Last night, the Thunder got the ball in the hands of James Harden to make something happen at the end of the game.

Yeah, they are a young team and I will chalk their loss to the Mavs up to that, but it still doesn't explain down the stretch the relationship between Durant and Westbrook. Durant is the franchise guy, he needs to have the ball, but it didn't happen. Westbrook is the guy who drove to the basket and tried to make things happen in the last two minutes.

So I am not talking about their youth, but instead talking about which of those guys gets the ball late in a game and the confusion on the part of the Thunder on who should get the ball. It just seems Westbrook and Durant aren't on the same page. For example, Westbrook immediately left the floor after losing while Durant stayed on the court and congratulated the other players. They have differences that don't complement each other down the stretch of a game all the time.

J.S. said...

Isn't that decision making, and isn't that directly tied to youth?

Bengoodfella said...

J.S., I don't know. Talk to Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo. They are young and make good decisions.

I think part of the decision-making problems comes with some confusion about which guy is the main guy at the end of the game. Maybe not.

J.S. said...

Rondo has been in the league four years, and still is not a premier scoring option for his team and has been surrounded by elite, and veteran talent his whole career.

Westbrook is not as good as Derrick Rose. I agree the turnovers (I don't think it's the shots, even the bad shots really, nearly as much) are a problem and were a major reason why they aren't advancing this year, but I'm so confident it will improve with experience.

Bengoodfella said...

J.S., Westbrook has been in the league for three years now. I thought we were discussing decision-making ability? If that's what we are discussing then regardless of who Rondo is surrounded with he still has to make good decisions.

You make a valid point about him not having to be a major scoring option, but he still manages to make good decisions at the end of the game...or maybe it just seems that way.

I agree Westbrook's decision-making ability will get better. I was talking about right now he is in a power struggle with Durant because his decision-making ability isn't quite where it will be and Durant doesn't seem to get the ball sometime at the end of a game.

J.S. said...

Lot easier to make "good decisions" (which sometimes are clear cut, but sometimes very grey) when you're passing to Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen than Kevin Durant and...maybe very recently James Harden, but he doesn't always play with Harden on the floor and fuck all else.

I think we can agree that Westbrook is an exceptional player, albeit probably like the fourth or fifth best point guard in the league (seriously, Wall, Williams - my personal favourite, Nash, Paul, Rose, Westbrook...it's unfathomable to me Rose won the MVP partly for this reason, 1/6th of the teams in the NBA have a player basically the same as him).

We can also agree he is a fairly "rough around the edges" point guard - he didn't play the position in his college career remember - and lacks the polish of basically all the other names on that list, probably even Wall in some ways.

Surely - and this seems to be, maybe the sticking point - we can agree this is likely (not definitely) to improve with time. That seems a wholly uncontroversial thing to say.

Now, did the rather chaotic and at times, irresponsible way he ran the offense contribute to their exit? Obviously yes but...they wouldn't be within spitting distance of the Western Conference Finals without his immense talents.

I think perhaps we both may have lost the actual kernal at the heart of this argument, but this is what I'm saying.

Westbrook is great.
Westbrook could be better.
Were Westbrook better, it's likely the Thunder would have had more success (I honestly think this is probably equally true of Durant to be honest with you, and think KD would say the same).
Westbrook will be better soon.

That's pretty much it. Can you agree with that? You're not buying the "trade Westbrook" story are you Ben?

Bengoodfella said...

J.S. I guess it is easier to make good decisions with those players. With those players come expectations to get them the ball, which may be easier than what Westbrook is asked to do.

I haven't been saying Westbrook is a bad player or doesn't deserve to be considered one of the best PG in the NBA. I am just saying his game doesn't seem to be meshing with Durant's at the end of the game and there seems to be some confusion. I don't feel good about their chemistry at the end of a game.

Westbrook will be better in the future, there's little doubt about that, but I will be interested to see how that meshes with Durant at the end of games. They're young and they will probably figure it out.

I am not sure how we have gotten to the point where it could be considered I think Westbrook should be traded. I hope any criticism of his meshing with Durant at the end of a game doesn't mean I think he should be traded.