Hate Wins the Fight but Loses The War

The only way the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to beat the Golden State Warriors without a bunch of perfect performances was an epic Westbrook 55, 25 and 17 performance. Anything shy of that was going to be another Warriors win.

Russell Westbrook tried his best and actually had a triple double- 47 points, 11 rebounds, 11 turnovers.  The Thunder defense was atrocious.

But for the betting public, the game score aside, the Thunder were odds on even money to win the fight. Unlike when LeBron went back to Cleveland and the Cavs players were all buddy buddy with the King, Thunder players not named Russell Westbrook weren’t feeling their old pal KD. Andre Roberson and Durant went fake nose-to-nose.  Enes Kanter tried to start something. Steven Adams was his normal ornery self. Everyone backing up Russ in this border war.

But the war itself? The end result was no surprise. Westbrook’s passion was on display and he got the upper hand in the kiss my ______ back and forth over KD. Westbrook is just tougher. But, at the end of the day this is a basketball game. The Warriors did as expected, delivered Durant a victory, making him 3-0 against his former team and making his case in the way words could not. Leaving was a Durant must. Forget Westbrook. The Thunder don’t have the depth to withstand a 5-6 contending year run. Durant knew that.

As for the gutty little Thunder, they will more than likely bond over their distaste of their traitor teammate but remain in the bottom tier of the playoff seeding. The anti-Durant (34 points, 9 rebounds) back and forth was amusing entertainment for one night but egos aside,  what happens this year between these two is really irrelevant. We know the Warriors will be in the Western Conference Finals. We know the Thunder won’t have a long playoff run. It is the future for the Thunder that looks broken.

The Thunder need a top 10 player to compliment Westbrook. Watching their C and B level talent try to play with the Warriors was painful. Westbrook’s supporting cast can’t compete with the top ten talent of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. Let’s be real. The Thunder aren’t talented enough, despite their late game push to make it a game.

This is Russell Westbrook’s prime. This year. Next year. The next year after that. The following year. How are the Thunder going to get everything they can out of it? They gave us a clue.

Pressed up against the October 31st deadline, the Oklahoma City Thunder took the path of least resistance and started passing out money. Victor Oladipo got a big overpay, 4 years and $21 million per year for a player who has never been to the playoffs, has never shot 45% or higher in a single season (he currently is shooting 44%), has never averaged 20 points a game, has never been an All-Star but has expressed his love for the Thunder franchise. Oladipo has his faults but he is durable, missing only 31 games in three plus years.

But against the Warriors, Oladipo needed to take his game up a notch. He’s not a great player so that was hard to do. He was ordinary, 20 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists. The Thunder need a second leader on the floor when Westbrook is on the bench. Leadership was one of the Oladipo issues in Orlando, or lack of leadership to be specific.

The money wheel stopped next at center Steven Adams. Adams accepted a deal that would pay him $25 million dollars per year, $100 million. That means the seven footer who is averaging 12 points and 8 rebounds and 3.1 free throw attempts per game will be making more money than Carmelo Anthony, Al Horford and Damian Lillard. All three are All-Stars. Adams is not.

Against the Warriors, Adams had 13 points but only 3 rebounds, 1 block and 0 assists. After the first five minutes he had zero impact.

It’s a slippery slope the Thunder are trying to pull off. They want to keep their young players and they want to be contenders. You can’t do both. First, young players don’t win in the NBA. You need veterans. And you need All-Stars. The Thunder lost a generational player. When that happens it’s not business as usual.

The worst thing in the NBA is to be mediocre, to fight year in and out for the 6th seed. Westbrook’s talent guarantees the Thunder will remain relevant. But not championship worthy. They don’t have the depth. They don’t have enough scorers. They don’t have multiple ball creators or drivers. Outside of Westbrook, their athleticism isn’t exceptional.

The way the league is structured, you have to be bad and start over with young talent, or you have to be dominant. A GM’s job is to make sure his franchise maintains flexibility in case they need to make trades. But as it is, the Thunder contracts, including Enes Kanter which was another overpay, makes it so this is the team they will have for the next three years of Westbrook’s prime. This team cannot contend.

Michael Jordan couldn’t will the Bulls into the Finals until the Bulls drafted and developed Scottie Pippen, a future Hall of Famer. The fortunes of the Miami Heat changed when they acquired Shaquille O’Neal. LeBron James wanted to come home because he had All-Star talent Kyrie Irving and he convinced All-Star Kevin Love to get the hell out of Minnesota.

The Thunder are a one man team. We saw that tonight. Oladipo helps in spurts with the offense but you can’t trust him. Steven Adams is a solid force in the middle but he was horrible at the line and he wasn’t tough in the paint. Andre Roberson is a defender. But all three are role players. You need stars, or you need the flexibility to be able to get one. There isn’t a lot of versatility on the Thunder, players who can do multiple things with the ball. And so it leaves them with a hero complex. Please save us Westbrook.

If the Thunder are exciting, explosive and unpredictable it is because of Russ. But they need Westbrook to come close to a triple double in order to win. Against elite teams he has to do even more. His turnovers were a disaster for a team that needed to play mistake free. He can’t have any bad games or bad nights against the league’s best. Against the Warriors, it was a good shooting night, 53.8%. He went to the line 18 times. But still the slaughter was on. And this is true too, a sobering bit of realism: no player has made it to the NBA Finals taking 26 shots a game, not Michael Jordan, not Kobe Bryant. Against the Warriors, Westbrook took 26 shots.  On the year, he is taking 24 shots a game.

Against the Warriors, Westbrook played hard. He did his Westbrook thing, driving and dishing and all emotion. He had double digit assists. He acted as if Kevin Durant was invisible, as if they didn’t have history. And then he acted as if he wanted to kick Kevin Durant’s ass. Ok. Fine. Whatever you need to do. But this is a team game, a game in which stars win games. The Thunder have one star. One star isn’t enough. Even on a night with the drama ramped all the way up.

 

photo via llananba