Russell Westbrook now battles the Grizzlies while fighting a negative perception. The point guard is a rising force but his teammate is still the bigger name with the better jumper. Failure to get the ball to Durant means Westbrook has selfishly hindered a hero, an awful sin of pride. This is the narrative that resonates around the playoffs water cooler, and it’s compelling as hell. But, I wonder: Is the story more about how Durant hasn’t met expectations and less about how Westbrook has undermined?
Though we may remember this as Derrick Rose’s MVP year, its beginning was so much pomp for Kevin Durant’s MVP coronation. The young small forward was coming off a fantastic season, and a dominant World Championship offseason. He was the accidental hero of The Decision backlash, primed for a run at that “best player alive” title. But, Oklahoma City spent a decent season on the media periphery as Rose took the NBA mantle of, “coolest doe-eyed humility beacon.” In the background, Durant played well enough to remain a superstar, even if he lacked for the preseason-level of attention.
The current playoffs mean more eyeballs back on the Thunder, and many of those eyes are bulging over how that preseason “it” guy appears frozen out at times. Some are incensed that Russell Westbrook clutches the rock during what seems a dearth in Kevin Durant touches. The phenomenon of RW’s ball dominance certainly isn’t new, but the national scrutiny is. There’s a sentiment that Russell’s an unworthy usurper, oblivious to his britches, a Marbury in the making.
But, I’d caution people of this mindset: It’s not so simple as Westbrook subverting ego and dumping the ball into KD. For example, Sebastian Pruiti aptly showed how Durant can be stagnant off the ball, shaky on using screens.
These lapses hinder the young superstar in finding open looks, but another issue is that he’s so dependent on those open looks. A large 62.4% swath of Kevin Durant’s 10’-11’ points were assisted, compared to 32.3% for LeBron James, 45.7% for Carmelo Anthony, and 36.7% for Dwyane Wade. The other top scorers can call their own number, while Durant’s numbers are predicated on getting his called by others.
The difference in assist percentage might have something to do with how other stars excel at getting to the hoop, while Durant prefers to attack it from afar. He tallied only 3.6 shots at the rim per contest, which ranks 73rd in the league. Despite possessing a nasty crossover, Kevin has issues driving towards easy buckets–relative to other mega talents. And it’s difficult for him to bull his way rimward via a post-game, in part because Durant’s weight is often equivalent to what other small forwards would weigh on the moon.
There certainly is nothing morally wrong with Kevin’s reliance on jumpers, especially since he shoots them so well. While it is ironic that the league-leading scorer is relatively mediocre (among superstars) at creating his own offense, it’s a testament to talent that he can prolifically produce despite that. And going forward, KD has certainly shown the capability for self reliance, most notably in Game 5 against the Nuggets.
I just find fault with the idea that he “needs the ball” in the abstract. He needs the ball in specific situations–until his game expands. For all the attention on Westbrook’s shortcomings as a passer, Durant’s the one with more turnovers than assists. Asking KD to dribble above the arc in pursuit of team offense isn’t a sound plan.
The basketball cognescenti largely agrees that Russell Westbrook should pass more often to Kevin Durant, and I would second that motion–within reason. But I’m arguing against the popular narrative that Westbrook is somehow preventing OKC’s “real” star from thriving. It’s a belief bolstered by Durant’s high scoring totals and higher Q rating. The reality is, until young Kevin grows that game, his is an arsenal that’s quite dependent on Russell for ammunition. If Kevin Durant has limitations, those limitations are his own.
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