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Sounds of Thunder: Russell Westbrook needs help from a friend... or two

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Even Batman needed Robin from time to time.

Sam Presti and Russell Westbrook looking for someone to stand up when he sits.

During TNT’s recent broadcast of the Thunder vs Spurs, Inside the NBA’s esteemed panel delved heavily into Russell Westbrook’s historic season. The main question was, “Is Russell Westbrook doing too much?” And it was interesting to note how Kenny Smith and Shaquille O’Neal, —two players sporting championship rings— and HOF’er Charles Barkley responded.

Shaq’s View:

The proof is in the win/loss column. The Thunder is far more effective when Westbrook does those things the big guy says are asked of him. In games where Westbrook posts a triple-double (32 and counting, 2nd-highest total in NBA history) the Thunder’s record is 26-6. Conversely, when Russ doesn’t triple-double, an 81% winning percentage devolves to just an 11 and 23 record. That stat is why I finish my Facebook LIVE pre-game show with this:

(okay, so it was a shameless plug of my Facebook show, but it’s my show and my post so in the infamous words of Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper, neener neener....)

Kenny Smith added this to the discussion:

Smith makes a valid point. The Thunder needs a player, or two, or three, to step up and tell Russell, “I’ve got your back, give me the ball.” What is missing in his analysis is that, as it stands, the Thunder don’t have an Olajuwon to go with their Smith, or a Kobe to go with their Shaq. They have promising role players, but Kobe and “the Dream” were superstars almost from the moment they touched an NBA court and that is where Barkley’s comments comes in:

Firstly.... NO sir, you don’t tell your one and only superstar to do less, that is just plain loco, but Barkley tries to make his point at the beginning of the clip. Russell cannot do it alone. As the only one of these three ex-players without a ring, Barkley is speaking from a perspective the other two cannot relate with. Smith’s point about Kevin Johnson may be true, but that didn’t change Sir Charles’ point that the game became easier when he had help.

Keep in mind, Barkley was commenting after the Thunder’s recent four-game slide and has a habit of making knee-jerk analysis. After the Thunder took a seven-point lead going into halftime and Westbrook had posted these numbers...

ESPN.com

Barkley’s tone softened.... well, somewhat:

Close Chuck, it’s absolutely true that Westbrook has to trust his teammates, but seven assists states Russell WAS trusting his teammates in the Spurs game —and averaging more than ten assists throughout the season says he has trusted them all season. First of all, Barkley tried to back himself up with the comment about times Westbrook has taken 40 shots in a game. Twice in 66 games doesn’t back that up. Yes, Russell is averaging 24.4 shots/gm, the most in career, but he is playing with one of the youngest rosters in the league. Last season, when Westbrook had players around him more willing to shoot, he averaged just 18.1 FGA.

Shaq strengthened his pre-game comments with this halftime analysis:

Westbrook made mincemeat of the #1 rated defense in the NBA that night. Going into the game there were three teams in which Russell had not posted a triple-double, but before he was done that number was down to two. The Thunder won by ten in a walk, and Russell took only 21 shots in the process. He moved the ball, made good decisions, and clearly helped make his teammates better.

In the previous 4 losses, Westbrook attempted an average of 32 shots per game, while averaging just 8 rebounds, and 7 assists against weaker opponents. More on this later.

Like Shaq, Kenny Smith also strengthened his pre-game comments with this analysis:

I totally agree with Smith’s assessment that Russ’ teammates need to step up rather than Westbrook doing less. I also agree with his #1 candidate, Victor Oladipo.... and there are encouraging signs to indicate this is already happening.

Make note of Oladipo’s game logs from his last ten outings:

basketballreference.com (click link for larger view)

In his last four games, Oladipo is averaging almost 20 pts/gm, and is scorching the nets at a 62% clip from 3-point range. Further, Oladipo appears to be OKC’s top option, followed by Steven Adams and Enes Kanter —both double-figure scorers. In this case, my vote goes to Victor because he has the ball in his hands more, and the role is not that foreign to him after his time in Orlando.

Immediately following the Thunder’s victory over the Spurs was a win over the Western Conference’s #4 seed and Northwest Division leading Utah Jazz. Not only did the the Thunder beat their division rival for a third consecutive time, but Westbrook recorded his 3rd triple-double in a row vs. Utah.

The season series with the Jazz only reinforces the importance of Oklahoma City’s need for Westbrook’s teammates to step up. During those contests, when they did, the Thunder topped the NBA’s #3 rated defense 3 times. When they didn’t, the Thunder lost by 21 points.

So, how is it that the Thunder averaged 107.5 points in their previous 4 games, all losses, all without a triple-double, and all against weaker opponents, then score just 102 and defeat arguably the best team in the West by 10 and the #4 seed by 8?

It may not be the whole story, but after an hour of digging through numbers I found a stat that is interesting: when Westbrook posts double-digit assists, the defense surrenders an average of 104.6 pt/gm. When he doesn’t, that number balloons to 108.8. And even more discerning, the Thunder’s record when Russ doesn’t hit the magic 10 or more is an appalling 7-21.

Go for that triple-double brother.... right? ...RIGHT!!

Another stat I have followed closely throughout the season is Russell’s three-point attempts. He has attempted 10 or more from deep in 14 contests and the Thunder has only won 3 of those games. Though, during all three wins, Westbrook also posted a triple-double. Psych!!

This data has been jostling around in my brain all season. I am convinced that since the 116-104 loss to the Pacers on April 12th, 2015, that Russell has changed. I do not think he could have done more individually than he did that night, and more importantly, I think he felt the same way. He hit 49% of his shots, committed only 2 turnovers, recorded 8 assists, grabbed 9 rebounds, and scored 54 points .... and was crucified in the press because he took 43 shots. (Remember Chuck’s earlier cheap shot?) But what really hurt Russ was that in spite of one the best games of his career, OKC still lost. He needed help and has averaged double-digit assists ever since.

Recently, in a loss to Portland, his numbers were even stronger; 58 pts on 53.8% shooting, only 4 turnovers with 9 assists. But, again he took an unfair beating in the press for the 39 shot attempts. Right on queue, the hater, Bill Simmons, came out with this, for which he earns this:

(The weekly HUYA. FYI, the base seconds as a container for crow sauce so it’s just in time for the double serving of deep-fried raven Westbrook served since the Simmons’ piece came out.)

... but I digress. Russell doesn’t care what the Simmons of the world out there write or the Barkleys say, he just wants to win and he is aware of the numbers from the Trailblazer game and the result. Which begs the question, why the lapses?

Merely saying he needs to involve his teammates or calling Westbrook a ball hog are cop outs. There is something deeper, and in reading the comment section today at WTLC I had an apostrophe:

Whatever, I was reading the comment section at WTLC and came across this....

... and all the pieces seemed to fall into place.

Breaking down some of the Inside the NBA halftime comments:

Kenny Smith: “I thought in years past when he had Kevin Durant he should do less...

Left unsaid in that comment was that Russell did do less last year, reducing his shot count and increasing his assists, and the result was producing what Andre Iguadala called the best team in the 2016 playoffs.

But with this team Kenny said: “I don’t think he should do less, I think guys should step up...”

Exact-omundo, but is there a way to make that happen? The answer, strangely enough, lies in one of Barkley’s halftime comments when he said, “You guys keep saying those other guys need to step up, he needs to trust those guys. Listen, all these guys in the NBA can play but I think he has better teammates than people give him credit for...”

Again, the assist numbers speak for themselves. Westbrook DOES trust these guys and they certainly are better than people give them credit for being, even themselves. I think what Barkley is trying to say is that Westbrook needs to let go and even push his teammates to step up.

After reading Sammy’s comment, I responded that Westbrook “big brothers” these kids too much, especially at crunch time. When he passes them the ball and they kick it back, Russell does what big brothers do when little brother is afraid to do something, he does it for them. Though, as the season has progressed and so too the pressure of those crunch time shots, he has become even more protective.

There was a great line from the movie Batman Begins in which Alfred rhetorically asks Bruce Wayne, “Why do we fall?” to which Alfred then answered, “So we can learn to pick ourselves up.

The “trust” Barkley was talking about was Westbrook trusting that his teammates can pick themselves up if they fail, better from the trying, and letting them do it.

In the same thread, WLTC’s own Bobby Chancellor chimed in and reminded me that Westbrook was doing that earlier in the season, particularly with Andre Roberson.

With only 16 games remaining, the time has come for Westbrook to put that squeeze on Oladipo, Adams, and Sabonis.

Especially Sabonis. J.A. Sherman’s number one criticism of Sabonis is his tendency to turn down shot opportunities, and it eventually cost him his starting job. Now that he is facing lesser competition coming off the bench, it is the perfect time to push Sabonis to be more aggressive.

I’m not overly concerned about Adams, I think when the time comes he will naturally step up, it’s in his nature to rise to the occasion and Oladipo just needs reminding that he is a better player today than he was 7 months ago and to trust that.

It’s do-able, and the last two Thunder outings against two of the NBA’s finest backs that up. Now it’s time to take the Westbrook triple-double show and one of the best home records in the league on the road and do something about that 12-20 road record. It’s stinking up the joint.