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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Russell Westbrook Inherits Kobe Bryant's Spot--for Better or Worse

Kobe Bryant has been the best guard in the NBA for the better part of the past decade or so but an Achilles injury knocked him out of the 2013 playoffs and caused him to miss most of the 2013-14 regular season before a broken leg sidelined him for the remainder of the current campaign; he made the 2013 All-NBA First Team but his reign as the league's top backcourt performer is likely over, even if he returns to action next season. Bryant has been underrated for most of his career, with critics sniping at his alleged selfishness and foolishly suggesting that the L.A. Lakers were better off when Bryant shot fewer times even when Bryant was at the height of his powers, leading the Lakers to championships while also setting various individual scoring records. There are many reasons that the Lakers have sunk to historic lows this season but the biggest single factor is that Bryant played in just six games.

One player seems poised to fill both of Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook. Westbrook helped lead the Oklahoma City Thunder to the best record in the Western Conference last season (60-22) after playing a major role in the Thunder's run to the 2012 NBA Finals but the Thunder's 2013 championship hopes were dashed when Houston's Patrick Beverly wiped out Westbrook's knee during the first round of the playoffs; sans Westbrook, the Thunder struggled to eliminate the mediocre Rockets before getting blasted 4-1 in the second round by a flawed Memphis team that was promptly swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

The Thunder opened the 2013-14 season with a 23-5 record, including a 21-4 mark with Westbrook in the starting lineup. They once again looked like a bona fide championship contender but then Westbrook reinjured his knee; the Thunder went just 4-4 in their first eight games without him before Kevin Durant put up Kobe Bryant-like scoring numbers in January, almost single-handedly carrying the Thunder--but even with Durant's MVP-level performance, the Thunder were still not quite as good as they had been to start the season, going 20-7 without Westbrook.

When Westbrook returned to action he was understandably rusty and the Thunder did not immediately take the league by storm. Instead of acknowledging Westbrook's crucial role in the Thunder's recent success, critics loudly suggested that Durant and Westbrook are incompatible and that the Thunder might be better off without Westbrook--ignoring not only that Westbrook had yet to return to form but also that right after Westbrook came back starting center Kendrick Perkins suffered a groin injury that has prevented him from playing. The "stat gurus" hate Perkins but Perkins provides an important physical presence in the paint for the Thunder, who are 43-11 with him this season but just 6-7 without him.

As the calendar shifted to March, Westbrook's game accelerated back into high gear. In seven games this month, Westbrook is averaging 23.6 ppg, 8.7 apg and 6.1 rpg in just 26.9 mpg--those are MVP caliber numbers and he is doing all of that work despite playing restricted minutes. Yes, seven games is a small sample size but we have already seen Westbrook perform at an All-NBA level for multiple seasons so there is no reason to believe that it is a fluke that he is playing at an All-NBA level now. Westbrook has an astonishing +23.9 plus/minus rating in March. Durant has posted a +10.4 plus/minus rating in eight March games; the missing Westbrook game took place last Sunday, when he sat out for precautionary reasons as the Thunder endured their worst loss of the season, a 109-86 defeat at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks.

Kevin Durant is a great player and a strong case could be made that he deserves the 2013-14 NBA regular season MVP; he is worthy of all of the praise that he is receiving. It is just a shame, though, that so many people seem to think that it is necessary to denigrate Westbrook in order to acknowledge Durant's excellence. When healthy, Westbrook is the best guard in the NBA and he is critically important to the Thunder's championship hopes: they seamlessly absorbed the loss of sixth man James Harden as long as Westbrook was healthy but they are just a good team--not an elite squad--when Westbrook does not play or is not at full strength.

Bryant does not have to listen to his critics anymore; he can just cover his ears with his five championship rings. Westbrook does not seem inclined to listen to his critics, either, and that is a good thing for the Thunder, because if he stays healthy he can be the best guard in the NBA for several years and he has a good chance to build his own championship ring collection in partnership with Durant.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:29 AM