One loss, two losses, home loss, it doesn’t matter. So early in the season, things are rarely what they turn out to be six months from now, in May. But Russell Westbrook is struggling once again, and maybe it has to do with the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have James Harden anymore, or anyone who can be the main ball handler besides him.
There’s a problem, and it’s not necessarily Kevin Martin’s fault. The 29 year old shooting guard is doing better than some expected. He’s coming off the bench for the first time in a long long time, averaging 20.7 points and making 53.1% of his field goals and an even more incredible 70.6% from beyond the arc. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook couldn’t have asked for a better guy to wait patiently for the pass as they draw two or three defenders on their way to the basket while dishing it out.
Assist numbers can lie. Russell Westbrook finished with 9 assists, Kevin Durant with 8. But Westbrook made only 5-18 from the field,ending the game with only 14 points and going to the line only twice. Durant wasn’t far from a triple double, scoring 22 points, grabbing 12 rebounds and dishing 8 assists. But he also turned the ball over 6 times, and he disappeared in the closing minutes.
Fourth quarter? Lets look at the final 3:40 of their 104-95 loss to the Hawks, picking up right after Devin Harris makes two free throws to make it 93-89. Westbrook has the ball in his hands most of the time, not Kevin Durant. Westbrook turns the ball over twice, makes only one of his four field goal attempts and reaches the line for the first time in the game. Kevin Durant? Two shots, making one of them.
There’s a head coach on this team, who saw this syndrome destroying his team in the NBA finals. It’s not the San Antonio Spurs, who seems to devise their entire gameplan around getting into Westbrook’s head, pushing him around on defense, making him work through multiple screens until he loses any desire and hope to successfully defend a play.
This is Westbrook getting and taking the reigns instead of sharing them with Kevin Durant, and simply taking bad shot after bad shot. No set plays and screen for him and Kevin Durant to work around, or trying to free up Kevin Martin. Martin led the team with 28 points, hitting 8-11 from the field, 6-8 from beyond the arc and 6-6 from the line. You’d expect a shot or a play to be set up for a man who knows how to score and was the hot hand all night. You’d expect something more than just off the dribble jumpers from two of the best players in the NBA, who are meant to be taking it another step this season.
Martin can cover for Harden’s point, easy. But Martin isn’t a ball handler or pseudo point guard. He’s a shooter and a scorer and an below average defender. We’ll mention other bad things about the Thunder’s roster (like believing in Hasheem Thabeet who simply can’t be playing on an NBA team), but it seems like the main problem for now is dealing with Westbrook making all the decisions on offense. His skills are enough to make it work from time to time, but him erasing the option of passing to Kevin Durant and simply going gung-ho and trying to win by himself won’t get the Thunder anywhere near the NBA finals.