The Oklahoma City Thunder, my preseason favorite to win the Western Conference title and to defeat Miami in the NBA Finals, is now down 2 games to none in their series with the San Antonio Spurs. Their blowout loss to the Spurs last night has been covered by every major sports media outlet today.
However, I have a different view of this loss last night, and it is has nothing to do with the fact that the Thunder were down two games to the Spurs two years ago and came back and won four straight games to win the series. It is also not about the argument between the Thunder star players, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook during this game.
My view is a longer term look at the Thunder beyond this series, whether they win or lose to San Antonio, it concerns the future of the franchise. This Oklahoma City team is not the same team that rallied to win four straight games, nor are the Spurs the same team which lost four straight to the Thunder two years ago.
I am not sure whether it is strictly because the Spurs play in a small market that they do not get any mainstream media respect, but this is a team which nearly beat the Heat last year in Miami to win the NBA championship, and people are surprised that they lead the Thunder in this series. The Spurs are a top-tier NBA team with star players who have won championships in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. They also have an excellent roster full of young role players and one of the best head coaches in the history of the NBA.
Conversely, Oklahoma City is a team that has been to the NBA Finals two years ago and lost a tight series to the Miami Heat, and they are looking to get back and win their first championship in their history in that city. The problem is that they are not adjusting well to the loss of Serge Ibaka to injury (Ibaka will miss the rest of the playoffs with a leg injury) and he is a key component to this team. Ibaka is their power forward and he can stretch the floor, hit the boards hard for rebounds, and protect the defensive glass for the Thunder as well. He is legitimately the third best player on their roster, and whenever you lose a player of that caliber it is tough to acclimate and win games especially in the playoffs.
His replacement on the floor is Nick Collison, who is a completely different player, with a much different skill set than what Ibaka contributes to the team. The insertion of Collison into the lineup changes the spacing of the Thunder completely, and it also changes the way the Spurs will approach this series from a defensive standpoint.
The Spurs, with Ibaka out of the mix, will now focus their defensive efforts primarily on Durant and Westbrook and essentially let the other guys on the floor for the Thunder take shots. Some people see Westbrook as the key to the series and the focal point for the Thunder to get rolling against the Spurs.
I disagree with that viewpoint, and I think that Westbrook, while a talented player, is too volatile and emotional in these games. I look at him as part of the problem and not the solution for the Thunder, both in this series, which I do not think they will win, and in the future. If the Thunder are to come back in this series and make it respectable, the key is Kevin Durant. He is the one player that the Spurs have a hard time finding a defensive match for, and his offensive game when it is in rhythm, is outstanding.
Westbrook is too far in his own head and is prone to getting distracted and making mistakes in these big playoff games. LeBron James spoke about that in reference to himself once, essentially stating that he learned to be calm in these big games, and not let the pressure of the moment get inside his mind. Westbrook has still not learned that lesson. I also disagree with some of those in the media that think that he needs the ball more, and that he can drive the ball to the rim, or hit jumpers if the Spurs push him away from the higher percentage shots.
Westbrook had the ball often last night and he missed a number of shots in the restricted area that were high percentage shots. He is the point guard and he needs to pass the ball more to get this offense moving again, he can drive to the rim and take that basket if he can get it. He should also drive the rim in an effort to draw defenders to him so he can kick the ball out to an open shooter on the perimeter, he does not do that very often.
In the longer term, beyond this series, I think the Thunder front office should strongly consider trading Westbrook this summer. They do not need to get 25 – 30 points in this offensive system from the point guard position. Kevin Durant is an elite scorer at the small forward position, Ibaka is a very solid offensive player at the power forward spot, and they can utilize Reggie Jackson in the role of point guard next season. Jackson is a year younger than Westbrook, and he is more of distributor at point guard which is what this offense needs to take the next step.
The money that they save from moving Westbrook could be used on a shooting guard or another big man to play in the low post. I concede that Westbrook is a dynamic player, but I think that he is not the right fit for this roster at point guard. If the Thunder are serious about winning a title, then they have to make tough decisions for the long term health of the franchise.
Those decisions start with making a choice on Westbrook, and moving him to another team where he can be the scorer and the star. Kevin Durant is the star of the Thunder and the MVP of the NBA, and the franchise has to prepare to have financial flexibility to sign him to a long term deal. This could be an easier move if they dealt Westbrook off the roster. I have heard in a few places the rumor of Westbrook to the Boston Celtics for Rajon Rondo - that would be an interesting trade. One in which championship caliber rosters are made.