What to do with Russell Westbrook?

Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant (L) and Russell Westbrook react during Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Final basketball playoff against the Dallas Mavericks in Dallas, Texas May 25, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Stone (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been waiting to write this piece for the last couple of weeks. With the way that the Thunder had been closing games, I knew it was just a matter of time before they’d be eliminated from the Playoffs and I have been thinking about the different directions that the franchise can go from here.

After watching both the Memphis and Dallas series, I have come to this conclusion: Oklahoma City can not win a title with Russell Westbrook at the point.

It’s not that he’s not a good player. He is. He’s just not a point guard. People say that he has come a long way in his three seasons, but he sure didn’t show it in the last two series. Take a look at his numbers in the fourth quarter (and overtime) of all the games against Dallas and Memphis:

Series 2PM 2PA 3PM 3PA FTM FTA DR OR TR A S TO PTS
DAL 7 20 1 4 11 16 6 4 10 5 1 9 28
MEM 15 40 1 5 20 21 8 3 11 8 4 13 53
Total 22 60 2 9 31 37 14 7 21 13 5 22 81
Total/3 7.3 20.0 0.7 3.0 10.3 12.3 4.7 2.3 7.0 4.3 1.7 7.3 27.0

Westbrook was benched for one fourth quarter against the Mavs, so he played four 4th quarters and one overtime against Dallas. I threw out Game 5 against the Grizzlies because it wasn’t close in the 4th quarter, and I’m interested in how he plays with the game on the line. In total, he played six 4th quarters and four overtimes against Memphis. That adds up to 145 potential minutes and Westbrook played a majority of them. That many minutes converts to three full games (145/48 = 3.02), so I divided his totals by three to give us a rough idea of what his per game averages would have been if we only counted his 4th quarter and overtime numbers.

His totals (27.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists) are fairly impressive, but his shooting percentages (37% 2P, 22% 3P) are not. He did do a great job of getting to the line (12.3) and made them when he got there, at least against the Grizzlies. He turned the ball over at an extraordinary rate (7.3 per “game”). His assist-to-turnover ratio (0.59) was absolutely brutal. To put this in perspective, a ratio of 2.5 is average for a point guard, while the best ones are usually over 3.0.

He’s not a point guard. This much is clear. In his career, he has played 269 games at the position and proved against the Grizzlies and the Mavs that he’s not consistently able to be the floor general that a championship-caliber team needs.

So what does OKC do with him? The way I see it, they have two options:

1. Move him to off guard.
He’s a little undersized at 6’3″, but with his long arms and athletic ability, he could defend most opposing shooting guards. Also, for a “shooting” guard, he’s not a very good shooter (33% 3P on the season), but Dwyane Wade isn’t very accurate from distance and he makes it work.

In my mind, Westbrook’s best way forward is to follow in Wade’s shoes. Wade isn’t a point guard either, and he has figured out a way to play off guard even though he’s a little undersized.

The problem with moving Westbrook to the ‘two’ is that it’s going to impact James Harden, who is a prototypical off guard. Harden would either stay on the bench (he’s too good for that) or he would have to play small forward, where he would be undersized. That would push Durant to the ‘four’ and he’s not strong enough right now to play power forward on a consistent basis.

This leads me to option 2 for Westbrook…

2. Trade him.
If I were GM Sam Presti, I’d get the Hornets on the line and see if they’d be willing to give up Chris Paul for Westbrook. The Hornets may be feeling the pressure to do something with Paul since he’s entering the final year of his contract and may be on his way out of town. If they don’t trade him and he signs elsewhere, it would be disastrous. It’s very tough to get equal value for a superstar, but with all his flaws, Westbrook is an All-Star and All-NBA performer who could make a killing as an off guard on the right team. Perhaps New Orleans would go for a package that would include Westbrook, Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson’s expiring contract. (See it in the ESPN Trade Machine.)

New Orleans Hornets Chris Paul takes a breather during Game 5 of their NBA Western Conference first round playoff basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers in Los Angeles, California April 26, 2011. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASKETBALL)

If the Hornets decline to trade Paul, then I’d ring up the Nets and see if they would do the same deal for Deron Williams, who is in a similar position (contract-wise) as Paul. Both the Hornets and Nets have to feel the pressure with these two point guards, and if the Thunder played the two teams off of each other, I bet someone would bite.

Imagine a lineup of Paul (or Williams), Harden, Durant, Collison and Ibaka for the next five years! I have no inside info, but I suspect both Paul and Williams would love to join the Thunder simply because they’ll have a chance to contend for a title for the next several years. And don’t forget that Paul is familiar with OKC since the Hornets played there (and drew great crowds) while New Orleans was recovering from Hurricane Katrina.

Obviously, Westbrook would have to agree to an extension as part of the trade, as would Paul/Williams. Both sides will need to come away from the trade with the peace of mind that their new star is locked up for the long term.

Is a Westbrook trade going to happen? Probably not, but that’s the direction I would go if I were in charge. The current makeup of the roster cannot accommodate his move to off guard and there’s no one to take over the point even if he did. (Eric Maynor is a solid backup, but he’s just that…a backup.) A trade would bring in an impact point guard and free up all those minutes for Harden at the two.

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