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Previewing the Thunder backcourt starters

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In the first post of this series, we take a look at Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA season is approaching slowly but surely. With the NBA releasing the schedule for the season this week, the anticipation is beginning to increase for many NBA fans. The Thunder’s season tips off in 67 days where they will watch Kevin Durant get his second ring. To help pass the time between now and then, I’ll be breaking down the Thunder’s roster by giving a preview of every player. Today, we start with the backcourt starters, Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson.

Russell Westbrook

There isn’t much about this man that the whole state of Oklahoma doesn’t already know. I know there are Thunder fans who refuse to read any negative criticism on Westbrook’s game, so if you’re one of those Thunder fans, this is your signal to bow out. While I’ll praise Westbrook for many things, it isn’t fair to look at his game or this team through blue-tinted sunglasses. Let’s take a look at what Westbrook does well, and where he can improve his game.

What Westbrook does well:

The brodie is one of the most explosive athletes in the league. He plays with a downhill aggression on every possession that is rarely seen in other players. Westbrook will look to average a triple-double for a third straight season, something nobody thought was possible before he pulled the feat in 2016-17. Last year, Russ saw his points per game average drop by 6 points, due in large part to the addition of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. The fact that he could still average a triple- double with those two on his team is amazing in itself.

The former league MVP has become an excellent passer and knows when and how to distribute the ball to his teammates. Many of his assists come on the fast break, where he attracts multiple defenders before he threads the needle between defenders to streaking teammates for open layups. His ability to fly around the court and his killer aggression will propel Westbrook to another award-worthy season with the Thunder. I’m fully aware every Oklahoman has seen Westbrook dunk plenty of times before, so this is just for fun:

What Westbrook needs to improve on:

As I mentioned above, Westbrook is one of the most aggressive players in the league, especially on the offensive end. Often times, this leads to Westbrook barreling down the lane out of control. A big part of his game is finishing layups through contact. When he jumps off two feet and keeps a wide base, he is much more efficient and likely to finish the layup. However, when he has a narrow base and flails his body at defenders, the results are often times ugly. The wider base allows him to extend past defenders and adjust his body in the air, while the narrow base doesn’t provide him with as much explosiveness or control over his body. He needs to remember to come under control and keep a wider base when attacking the basket and going into defenders.

When he isn’t attacking the lane, Westbrook tends to shoot far too many low percentage pull-up jumpers. Imagine if the Thunder cut out every Westbrook pull up jumper that wasn’t in the last 4 seconds of the shot clock and replaced it with ball movement. Moving the ball side to side would help the Thunder get a more efficient shot every time down the floor, while also making it more difficult for defenses to guard. Russell Westbrook took 7.3 pull up two point jump shots per game last season, and only shot 39% on those shots. Typically, 39% wouldn’t be too bad, but not for 7.3 shots a night. Especially not when half of those come early in the shot clock.

Meanwhile, Westbrook shoots 34% on spot up 3-pointers, which is much better than his pull-up percentage. The reason Westbrook takes less spot up jumpers is because he isn’t willing to move away from the ball. Instead, he often stands in the corner and waits for the ball to come back to him. If the Thunder, and Westbrook, want to be more efficient on offense, it will require OKC running an offense where everybody moves, especially Westbrook. I’ll talk about this more in my Billy Donovan preview.

On the defensive end, Russ is often caught between doing too much and too little. His usage rate on offense is so high that it’s understandable why he doesn’t chase around the league’s best point guards every night. He needs to learn when to defend at a top level, and how to not go over the top when doing so. Westbrook picked up four fouls guarding Ricky Rubio in the first half of game 4. Playing tight defense 80 feet from the basket is cool, but only in the right situations. If the Thunder can get top notch defense from Westbrook late in close games, his lackadaisical defense earlier in games is worth the offensive tradeoff.

Russell Westbrook has all the tools and skills to be one of the top 10 or 15 players to ever play the game. The biggest thing that’s holding him back is his inefficiency. The 2017 League MVP would help the Thunder out tremendously if he played a more efficient game, and learned how to channel his hyper-explosive energy better.

Andre Roberson

When the Thunder lost Roberson to a season-ending injury earlier last season, it greatly hindered OKC’s chance at a deep playoff run. This is the way the OKC back court is structured. Westbrook brings the offense, and Roberson plays elite defense. Plenty of teams weather injuries — The Celtics lost two all-stars and still made it to game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Granted, it’s the Eastern Conference. Roberson may never have a respectable jumper, but if he could simply improve his free throw shooting, that might be the biggest improvement any one player on OKC’s roster could give to the team.

What Roberson does well:

Andre Roberson’s strengths are just as obvious as his flaws. He is one of the best defenders in the league, able to lock up even the toughest players to guard. This is crucial in the Western Conference because of all the guard talent up and down the standings. Because he doesn’t contribute much on the offensive end, Roberson is able to expend all of his energy and focus on the defensive end. This is invaluable for a franchise, especially in today’s NBA. While Roberson has the least flashy role on the team, he is underrated in terms of how valuable he is. Dre deserves more love because he does the things nobody else wants to or is able to on the Thunder. Imagine having to guard the best shooters in the league, some of the best shooters in NBA history, every single night out. It’s a tireless and thankless job but every team needs that “glue guy.”

Because his main focus is the defense, Roberson needs to have the awareness in the game to let his teammates know when he needs help. If he can communicate to his teammates on the court and implore them to get a stop, it would be a huge help. He may already do so, but when everyone else is focused more on the offensive end, it’s nice to have a floor general for the defensive end as well.

What Roberson can improve on:

Like I mentioned above, while Roberson is invaluable to this team, he needs to continue to develop an offensive game. More teams in the league are playing “death lineups,” when a team puts their best 5 offensive players in the game, regardless of what position they play or how they matchup defensively. We saw the Warriors do this several times in the playoffs with their “Hamptons 5” lineup. The Celtics will trot out a death lineup on a regular basis next season, as will the Rockets (if you still count Melo as a lethal offensive weapon, that is). This is part of what makes Roberson a connundrum. Having him on the floor helps so much on the defensive end, but hurts just as much on the offensive end. If he were to develop a respectable jump shot and improve his free throws just enough so that teams don’t feel comfortable employing the “hack-a-shaq” method on him, it would improve the Thunder’s chances at making a deep playoff run exponentially.

How do Westbrook and Roberson stack up against the top backcourts in the league?

I’ll compare Westbrook and Roberson to the top 5 backcourts that I think are the best in the league. Those backcourts are:

Houston Rockets: Chris Paul and James Harden

These two can do it all for Houston. Harden can score at will and run the point if need be. The former teammate of Westbrook won MVP last season. Chris Paul makes up for all of the things Harden isn’t good at, and demands a precision from the team that has been lacking. While offensively they surpass, Westbrook and Roberson because they can both score and fill up the stat sheet on the offensive end, neither player plays defense like Roberson does, actually. But when he wants to, Chris Paul can be serviceable on the defensive end, but is limited by aging legs as well as being prone to injury. Also, shoutout to Chris Paul for giving us one of my favorite moments from last season:

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson

One of the greatest shooting backcourts in NBA history, the Warriors backcourt is unrivaled in terms of pure shotmaking ability. Russ and Dre had their shot in the 2016 Western Conference Finals to show us that they were better, but the Warriors got the better of them by the slimmest of margins. Once again, Dre gives the Thunder the defensive advantage in this comparison, but there isn’t a backcourt in the league that can even come close to challenging the GS pair offensively. Golden State is a juggernaut and we will probably never see a team this talented ever again. The Warriors are the best team in the NBA, and everyone else is playing catch up. Next!

Boston Celtics: Kyrie Irving and Jaylen Brown

The Thunder get a little bit closer here. Irving has the best handles in the league and is a dangerous shotmaker. The area that makes Kyrie Irving better than Russell Westbrook is his willingness to play off the ball. With all the scoring options the Celtics will have this season, it’ll be crucial for him to move without the ball to help get his teammates open. While Roberson has the defensive advantage over Jaylen Brown, it isn’t as big of a difference as it is against other two guards. Brown is an athletic defender who can switch 1-4 effectively. Brown has an advantage over Roberson on the offensive end after he took a big leap on both ends of the floor last season.

Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum

The Portland backcourt is one of the best in the league, but unfortunately for the Blazers, that’s about all they’ve got. I give Portland an edge here, but only because McCollum and Lillard are both great shooters. Russ gets the nod over Lillard, but there’s a big gap between Roberson and McCollum. Fortunately for the Thunder, the rest of the Blazers roster is littered with albatross contracts. Portland might sneak up on a few teams this year, but I don’t have them in the playoffs.

Utah Jazz: Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell

It’s only a matter of time before Donovan Mitchell becomes one of the elite players in the NBA. Rubio is a nice player who isn’t a superstar, and thus doesn’t come with a superstar ego. He distributes the ball and scores when the opportunities to do so come to him and has developed his shot over the years. Donovan Mitchell is a better player than Roberson, even at this early stage of his career. Mitchell has a more complete game, as is the case with most players compared to Roberson.

***

This has been my preview on the starting backcourt for the Thunder in the 2018-19 season. Westbrook has been in the gym working on his jumper, according to Sam Presti, and hopefully Roberson has been doing the same as he’s recovered from his injury. If they can both be more efficient on the offensive end, the Thunder will have something really special in their backcourt. Check back here soon for my preview on the starting front court for the Thunder next season.

Poll

Who is your favorite NBA backcourt duo?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Westbrook/Roberson
    (1008 votes)
  • 15%
    Curry/Thompson
    (251 votes)
  • 12%
    Harden/Paul
    (202 votes)
  • 5%
    Irving/Brown
    (86 votes)
  • 2%
    Rubio/Mitchell
    (44 votes)
1591 votes total Vote Now