Sparks Flying

29 12 2011

The relationship between Oklahoma City’s young stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook has been relentlessly scrutinized. After last night, the Heat have a better chance of getting out of the media spotlight than this close examination coming to an end.

In the Thunder’s 98-95 victory over the Grizzlies yesterday, an altercation took place between Durant and Westbrook. After Russell Westbrook penetrated the lane and kicked the ball out to Thabo Sefolosha for an open 3-pointer, Sefolosha passed up the shot. Westbrook went on to yell, “shoot the (expletive) ball.” Part of his frustration probably came from the fact that he was in the middle of one of his worst games, finishing 0-13 from the field.

At the next timeout, Durant attempted to calm his point guard down, only to be yelled at by him. The two had to be separated from one another. Russell Westbrook was not available for comment once the game ended.

The dissension between these two all-stars has been going on for the past two years. Powerful and dominant describe both of them, and sometimes that combination doesn’t mix well together. Too often it feels as though Westbrook wants to be the primary scorer on the team when he has one of the purest scorers in the league right next to him. The peak of this scrutiny came in last year’s playoffs against the Mavericks when Westbrook took 28 shots compared to Durant’s 20 in their game 5 loss to Dallas that eliminated them from the playoffs.

Many expect the Thunder to make it the NBA Finals. Will they be able to take it to the next level?

Since many arguments take place in professional sports, and frustration always finds a way to sprout from time to time, why does this specific discord deserve to be discussed?

As the league has progressed, point guards have found a way to become the unofficial captains of many NBA teams regardless of the skill level of the other players. Looking at some of the best teams in the league from the past decade, I have noticed that a trend relating to their point guards begins to appear that is unrelated to the stat sheet.

Kobe Bryant has been a part of all of the Lakers’ past five championships, but many forget that Derek Fisher has been there right along with him. The 15-year-veteran has never posted gaudy numbers and had his best sports moment on a lucky heave with 0.4 seconds left. So, what’s so special about this decent point guard that has never averaged more than 4.3 assists in a season? He provides emotional leadership and a sense of stability on and off the court. Many regard Fisher as one of the classiest men in the league as he remains heavily active in his program – the Derek and Candace Fisher Family Foundation (DCFFF). His foundation reaches out to families and communities nationwide encouraging education, health, and fitness initiatives. The same character qualities that motivate Fisher off the court are evident inside the arena as well. Statistics can’t show this type of impact taking place within a team, but his ability to stabilize the psyche of his team is invaluable.

As a Mavericks fan, I’m not too fond of the Spurs; however, the importance of Tony Parker’s role for San Antonio can’t be disputed. Popovich has found a way to very rarely allow anybody on his team to get out of control, and Parker consistently acts as an example of what Popovich wants from his players; he never loses his cool, and arguing with any of the other players or coaches is simply out of the question. Encouraging his teammates always sits near the top of his to-do list.

Take a trip up I-35 and you will find another championship squad – the Dallas Mavericks. When they won the NBA Finals last year, Dirk Nowitzki played the most obvious role in bringing the Mavs their first championship, but Jason Kidd shouldn’t go unnoticed. When any Mavs player was asked a question pertaining to who helped lead this team to the top, Kidd’s name was always mentioned. Kidd’s demeanor, regardless of the game’s situation, was even recognized and noted by the commentators as he shot two free throws in the closeout game of the NBA Finals. It makes no difference whether his team is being blown out by 20 points or is tied with little time to go, or whether his game is on or off, the 10-time all-star remains cool and collected. When a point guard can bring this to the court night in and night out, it allows some of the stress of the game to be assuaged and the players to feel at ease.

Westbrook’s youth doesn’t excuse his immaturity since Derrick Rose contradicts that argument. Westbrook and Rose both have lightning-quick speed along with ridiculous athleticism. Both put up many shots and took their team to their respective conference championships. Where do these two players differ? Leadership. Rose might become fired-up in the middle of a game, but he always supports his teammates and bounces any praise off himself onto his teammates. Rose has been given plenty of opportunities to lash out at his teammates with frustration since they have been hammered for not having any crunch-time support for the MVP, but Rose has never taken that approach. The Bulls organization respects Rose and has established him as their leader.

This elite team point guard pattern can’t be a coincidence, but if the Thunder want to keep pushing forward with this never-ending problem revolving around Westbrook, they will have to find a way to work around it. When the Lakers won their three championships in a row during the early 2000s, Shaq and Kobe never found a way to work together. (In fact, O’Neal eventually forced the Lakers to trade him because he couldn’t stand playing with Bryant.) However, they had Fisher to provide emotional stability. Who on the Thunder’s young team can step up like Fisher and take on the role so many championship squads have possessed?

With the Thunder coming off a trip to the Western Conference Finals and standing at 3-0 this season, why should this problem be a cause for concern? Winning regular season games differs so much from winning playoff and eventually NBA Finals games – just ask John Stockton and Karl Malone. Yes, the Thunder are young. Yes, the Thunder are athletic. Yes, the Thunder are in a conference up for grabs. But do they have what it takes to mesh at the right time and take their place with the NBA greats? The answer to this question rests heavily on Russell Westbrook and his shaky demeanor. All stats aside, this Thunder team needs him to grow up quickly and contribute a team-first mentality to the game. If Westbrook can do this, I have no doubt they will achieve greatness sooner than later. If Westbrook continues to yell at his teammates, take ill-advised shots, and get in scuffles with league-leading scorer Durant, the NBA might have to wait before they see lightning strike.

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4 responses

1 03 2012
An Unnoticed Era « jay's jems

[…] am in full agreement with the power a point guard’s impact has on an NBA team. It can’t be disputed the high […]

27 02 2012
Not So Surprising All-Star Game « jay's jems

[…] though many still doubt Westbrook and Durant’s ability to work together (including myself), they showed why they are the highest scoring duo in the NBA. These men know how to put the ball […]

17 01 2012
Real Deal or Fake Zeal? « jay's jems

[…] a confident point guard to lead your team night in and night out has constantly been shown to be crucial for success. Right now, he is having his worst season since his rookie year in 2004-2005. This kind […]

29 12 2011
Ryan

I never realized this attribute most elite teams have. Nice post!

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