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Bill Simmons on Westbrook, Durant, and the Thunder

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Bill Simmons is tackling the NBA this week. His most recent column addresses a number of outstanding questions he has about the league, and one of them focuses on how the Thunder are doing with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook:

Now that Oklahoma City has extended Russell Westbrook for five years, does that mean we can shelve concerns for an Avon/Stringer ending with Westbrook and Durant?

Here are a few of Simmons' comments in answering this question, along with some of

Did anyone else notice that Westbrook started playing out of his mind the moment Oklahoma City gave him $80 million (and he knew he was staying there)? That HAS to mean something, right? Travel back with me to last spring, when Westbrook (a terrific kid by all accounts) got ripped for his shot selection in the 2011 playoffs (most famously by the TNT guys), took those comments personally, went into a semifunk, became something of a scapegoat for Oklahoma City's collapse in the Dallas series, brooded all summer, then played the first month of the season (pre-extension) with a defiant anger that didn't totally make sense. my own. Normally I am not a fan of fisking somebody else's work, but there are a few places where we can have some fun.

I think that Simmons is onto something here when he speaks of Westbrook's confidence in the team's investment in him, but the turning point is a bit off. If you check out Westbrook's game log, you can see that he started finally hitting on all cylinders shortly after that disastrous December game against the Grizzlies. He treaded water for about two weeks after that until, not surprisingly, the NEXT Grizz contest where he went off for 30 point, 6 rebound, 4 assist, 1 steal game. Since then, Westbrook has been a mini-LeBron stat-stuffer.

Perhaps you could argue that it was merely the process of the team and Westbrook negotiating the deal that finally put the guy at ease, but once again I think that Simmons' cause and effect toward Westbrook is based more on speculation than actual evidence.

Also, as far as I know, Westbrook spent the summer in class, not brooding around the beach.

Look at it from Westbrook's side: He probably believed he was just as valuable as his buddy Durant (and for the most part, he was right), only everyone loved Durant and never criticized him for anything ... but when Westbrook did something wrong? He got slammed. That made it a no-win situation for him - even worse, he knew it - which was why Westbrook's teammates (Durant especially) spent an inordinate amount of energy those first few weeks worrying about Westbrook, cajoling him, praising him, rubbing his head, slapping him on the back, engaging him and doing everything else you'd do when you're trying to make sure someone doesn't drift away from your tribe. I caught them in person in Boston two weeks ago (during the height of the "Westbrook for Rondo" Internet frenzy) and was stunned by how angry Westbrook played. He seems better now. Eighty million has a way of making someone feel a little more secure.

This paragraph is a great assessment of what it means to be a member of the Thunder organization. The outside world was making up its mind on what they thought about Westbrook. To a man, the team figuratively put him in a bear hug and refused to let him walk off the reservation. This isn't a case of a team rallying around a guy who made unfortunate life choices, a la Zach Randolph, and then finally found a place where he was understood by his peers. No, this is a situation where the team is building a wall around their teammate and speaking to him through words and actions that there is a difference between what is said within the team and what is said about the team.

I think it is a powerful testimony, actually, that originates from the fact that "Thunder U" is not just some cute nickname assigned to a bunch of young players. They still live it and breathe it daily. This team dynamic also has a multiplying effect - now the next time some other player struggles, be it Reggie Jackson, Serge Ibaka, or whomever, those guys will know too that the team will stand behind them, no matter what the outside world says.

Still, that doesn't answer the fundamental question: Can Oklahoma City ever achieve its potential without Westbrook accepting that he's the Pippen to Durant's Jordan? Avon and Stringer aren't the right pop culture analogy anymore; there's a better one. A New York reader named Yoni explains: "Is it just me or does this whole Durant-Westbrook situation remind you of the relationship between Russell Hammond (lead guitar) and Jeff Beebe (lead singer) in Almost Famous? Just as Jeff could never quite understand how Russell takes the band to a new level with his guitar, Westbrook doesn't quite understand that KD is a franchise player in a way that he can't ever be. And if OKC makes T-shirts, Durant will always be front and center, and Westbrook will always be in the background as one of the 'out of focus guys.'"

Of course the irony in this section is that the whole Avon-Stringer analogy was originally birthed and made popular by Simmons himself. As we addressed in the past, these types of analogies are so comfortable for us because of the way it helps us understand life. I understand that. However, the story is not yet written. As of today, Durant and Westbrook have at least five more seasons together to prove that they can make it work.

I like the "Almost Famous" analogy, so I'll carry it a bit further. In all great rock bands, there is a natural tension between iconic lead singer and legendary guitarist. It is borne out of the creative juices that must flow in order to make true art. At the end of the day however, even if Durant is the one guy in focus and Westbrook's visage is a bit blurry, the fact remains that the guitarist still needs his lead singer to be present in order to accomplish their goals. Parts aren't simply interchangeable, and one does not work without the other. That is why ideas that could work on paper (i.e. Gary Cherone stepping in for Van Halen, Scott Weiland joining forces with the Guns n Roses crew, or Steve Vai) seldom do in reality. Human beings are too dynamic and vital for simple equations to be applicable.

For Jordan and Pippen, their chemistry didn't peak until they both realized two things: 1) Jordan would always be a better offensive player than Pippen; and 2) Pippen would always be a better defensive player than Jordan. When they both realized this, they also realized something far deeper - they needed each other to win titles.

Durant recently made a similar argument in the most innocent of ways - by asking a reporter why the media cared so much about some sort of rivalry between the two players. Durant's defense is simple - who cares, as long as they play on the same team? At the time of Westbrook's contract announcement, he said that of course he would want to play with the best scorer in the game. Durant has repeatedly said that Westbrook is the precise kind of player that the team needs to matriculate. As long as both mean it and play like they understand that each guy can excel in ways the other cannot, they will make some memorable music together.



From Part 2 of Simmons' Q&A...It's a small throwaway comment, but:

I haven't seen a single 2012 team that made me say, "That team is ready to play in the Finals, they don't need anything." Sunday's Bulls-Heat game was a perfect example: Everyone came away thinking, "Chicago still relies on only one guy down the stretch" and "Miami still gets tight when it matters." Same for Clips-Oklahoma City the following night, when the Zombies tried their absolute hardest and got run off the court. Bad sign for their title hopes.

(emphasis mine)

There is no question that the Clippers played at an elite level on Monday night and did a masterful job of capitalizing on OKC's missteps. The Clippers played exquisite basketball. But to argue that the Thunder "tried their absolute hardest..." yeah, no. We all watched the game. While the effort for the most part was there, there's no way you could convince me that they were playing an A-level or even a B-level game. Maybe a B-minus.

Durant was great and Westbrook was great, but the rest of the team was disjointed. To be fair, a lot of that had to do with how quickly the Clippers put the Thunder in a hole, but the team was missing Thabo Sefalosha, which had a ripple effect on the player rotations. James Harden wasn't quite ready to step into the starting role, and as a result the team played the first 18 minutes of the game in a daze.

I'll cede that it could very well be that the Clippers are the superior team. With their starting five, they certainly can make that argument. However, I'd like to hold judgment for a game when the Clippers don't pull off a statistical anomaly by scoring 12 points all on consecutive 3-pointers in the span of less than a minute and Harden doesn't suddenly look like he forgot he was left-handed before I admit that the Thunder don't have what it takes to get through the playoffs.