Skip Bayless engaged in a phone interview with Oklahoman editor Mel Bracht, and for once, the outcome of the interview was not the normal shrill form of discourse that we have come to expect from Skip Bayless, TV personality and Russell Westbrook critic.
First and foremost, this little phone interview confirms my belief that Skip Bayless, TV personality, is largely an intentional construct for the sake of ESPN production. Skip got his start as an honest-to-goodness reporter and columnist, a smith of words who had to rely on his logic and reasoning rather than his vocal volume to get his point made. Compare this interview with this past TV discussion (In my personal opinion, Skip would be a whole lot more compelling if he avoided the bombastic cadence and just made his arguments). So there is that.
In any event, do his core arguments have merit worth debate? I think his argument, which I can break into two sub-components, does have some merit worth discussion, and the argument hinges upon what through what kind of lens we choose to view the Thunder.
At the risk of violating the proverb, "Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like to him," (26:4) here is my take on Skip's "First Take." We could deconstruct the entire interview, but I am often loathe to fisk another person's work (I don't find it very constructive, just fodder for the fool) so I would like to examine Skip's argument by these two sub-components:
1. Russell Westbrook is not a PG and James Harden should start at the PG spot.
The only way I can see getting to the NBA Finals, certainly this year, is to take the plunge and start James Harden at the point. He is a much better point guard than Russell every dreams of being. He's slicker with the ball. Better vision. Better instincts. Better handle. Has better slither through the lane. I think Harden even gets Durant cleaner better shots. When Westbrook is playing it's almost like my turn, your turn.
Now, this may be true...but does it matter? In a classical team composition sense, I think it does. If you are looking at a team like the Celtics or Clippers, teams that absolutely depend on a trigger man getting the ball to the right spots in the right situations lest the entire operation falls apart, those squads cannot function without a pass-first PG.
Is OKC a team built in the classical sense? Not exactly. A season ago you could have made a more compelling argument, with Kevin Durant doing his best Richard Hamilton impression, running off picks left and right in order to hoist jumpers off of Westbrook feeds (Westbrook averaged at least 8 assists per game in both 2010 and 2011 seasons). The reason was because Durant still had a tough time getting enough space to work against the league's better defenses, so he needed some help getting that separation. As a result, Westbrook's stats went up.
In this current season however, the Thunder have retooled their basic offensive set so that it it is engaged by Westbrook, Harden, or Durant. While Westbrook is still the primary ball handler, it is not uncommon at all for him to hand off the ball to Harden after a defensive rebound, or for Durant to grab the defensive board himself and just turn around and bring the ball up the court. Since the trigger man is now a mixture of Westbrook/Harden/Durant, the passes that lead to scores are more likely to be spread out. In fact that is what we see - Westbrook's assists have dropped to 5.5 from 8.2 a season ago, but Harden's has jumped to 3.7 from 2.1 and Durant's has gone up to 3.5 from 2.7. Since we can all add and subtract, it is easy to see that Westbrook's reduction of 2.7 APG a year ago is almost perfectly accounted for by Durant and Harden's increase (0.8 + 1.6 = 2.4 APG). OKC is morphing into a non-classical team, and the assists reflect it.
Is this metamorphosis good or bad? Can such a composition really challenge for a title? If you consider past truly dominant franchises, you see that it is more the norm than the exception. The Lakers' five most recent championships featured a point guard in Derek Fisher who, despite teaming with two of the greatest offensive forces in NBA history (Shaq & Kobe Bryant), never averaged more than 4.3 APG. The Spurs won three rings with a young Tony Parker at the helm, and despite playing with arguably the greatest power forward of all time in Tim Duncan, Parker never even averaged 7 APG until the current season. In the '90's, the Chicago Bulls, featuring two dominant scorers in Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, frequently had one of the best offenses in the league. However, their PG's John Paxon and Steve Kerr never had great assist numbers. In the grand scheme of things, when we're talking about franchises who build dynasties, often the point guard's ability to set up his All-Star teammates is one of the least important factors in their championship march.
Skip argues that Westbrook is not a true point guard. If we stipulate that assertion, doesn't that effectively end whatever argument there might be?
"Westbrook is not a true point guard."
"You're right, he isn't. Next question."
If the next assertion is, "Well, he needs to be in order for the Thunder to win," as we've noted above, that assertion falls apart on its face. It isn't true at all. Championship teams DON'T need great point guards; in fact you could argue that we haven't even seen one in a Finals since Isiah Thomas was running the Pistons over 20 years ago.
Whether or not Westbrook or Harden is the superior trigger man is irrelevant to what OKC is trying to do, since Durant, Harden, and Westbrook are taking turns anyway engaging the offense. All that matters is whether the three of them can recognize who has the advantage in any given set, and then exploit that advantage. The first round sweep of the Mavericks is sound evidence that this development is happening.
2. The Thunder need a better point guard to defeat the Spurs this season.
(Respectfully to the Lakers, Nuggets, Grizzlies and Clippers, I know there's a long ways to go before the WCF where OKC and the Spurs would face off. If you will, please stipulate for me for the sake of this discussion that the Thunder are playing the Spurs in this next round)
I picked before the year started the San Antonio Spurs by default (to win the Western Conference) because I don't just trust Russell Westbrook. I wanted to pick the Thunder. I thought they were close. I had no idea that San Antonio would add Stephen Jackson, Patty Mills and Boris Diaw at the trade deadline. Now they have become the deepest team. I knew Tim Duncan was in the best shape of his aging life and Tony Parker finally figured out how to be a pass-first point guard and (Manu) Ginobili is at least for the moment 100 percent healthy. As we saw in the last two meetings between San Antonio and Oklahoma City, the Spurs are just a little better right now. I think if it comes to Spurs-Thunder, the Spurs will take them to school one more time.
I root for the Thunder, but I am not blind as to what the Spurs have been doing since the All-Star break. They, not OKC, not Miami, and not Chicago, have been the most dominant team in that stretch. The Spurs have gone 26-6 since the break and 21 of their last 23, winning by an average of over 15 points per game in that span. They are running one of the most efficient and lethal offenses I can remember seeing in quite some time, and no team has really come close to slowing them down. The Thunder are better than they were a season ago, but the Spurs are a LOT better than they were a season ago, and so I find it hard to squabble with Skip's conclusion.
If we, for argument's sake, agree with Skip's assertion that Harden is in fact the better PG, is he really the difference between the Thunder winning and losing against the Spurs?
In the regular season, the Spurs averaged 103.7 PPG. The Thunder averaged 103.1. Across the board, the two offenses are almost identical. Why then did the Thunder get dominated by the Spurs in the last two outings?
While Parker will not win the MVP this year or in the foreseeable future, he has to be in the discussion because, after 10 years in the NBA, he has mastered almost every offensive nuance of the pro game. Contrary to Skip's assertion, Parker is not now a "pass-first" PG. His assists are up to a career high this season, yes, but I would argue it is merely a byproduct of his overall understanding of the game. He has been playing in the same offensive system for 10 years with two Hall of Fame players in Duncan and Manu Ginobili. He is the team's #1 shot taker and maker. He has become deadly in the medium range game and because of his quickness and footwork, no defense thus far has found a counter for him. He eviscerated the Thunder with 42 points in their 2nd game by running the same screen and shoot play nearly every time, and he has shown no signs being slowed down by anyone. He is not a "pass-first" PG. He is a "make the right play PG." As we and others have discussed, Tony Parker is the perfect model for Westbrook to follow as he grows in his career.
Duncan is great and Ginobili is great and the Spurs have a very deep and talented team. The truth of the matter is, they go nowhere without Parker this season. If by good fortune the #1 and #2 seeds end up meeting in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder's only shot at toppling a superior Spurs team is by slowing down Tony Parker.
James Harden, hypothetical starting PG, is 6'5", big, strong, agile, and knowledgeable, and would have no chance at all in slowing down Tony.
Do you know who can?