Russell Westbrook was one of the most polarizing players in the NBA this season as he made a bid for league MVP while assaulting the triple-double record books. But, how valuable could he be if his team only went 47-35? The Thunder’s first round playoff series loss to the Rockets was a microcosm of their season and how it revolved around Westbrook. It put the question of the sustainability of relying on one star into the spotlight.
The Thunder dropped four of five games against the Rockets, ending their season. The losses in Games 2 and 5 stood out as particularly winnable for the Thunder. Down 0-1 in the series, the Thunder played terrific for three quarters to start Game 2 in Houston. Then, in the 4th quarter, Westbrook resorted to hero ball as the lead slipped away. Westbrook’s downfall was primarily settling for too many 3-point attempts, possibly looking in vain for one knockout blow in a close game. It is obvious, or at least it should be to Westbrook, that 3-point shooting is not his forte. His reckless 3-point bombing late in games, when it does not work, undermines Westbrook’s otherwise beautifully reckless abilities.
Perhaps Westbrook was too tired from playing extended minutes in these playoff games to rev up for his legendary drives to the basket, thus settling for these excessive 3’s late in games. The Thunder consciously have not let Westbrook play entire 4th quarters because they apparently have strong data that shows when Westbrook plays 12 consecutive minutes, his play greatly suffers, namely with a spike in turnovers. But the team had no viable options at backup point guard, probably the worst flaw on their roster other than the lack of outside shooting. The Thunder, considering Kevin Durant left them, had a successful season, and Westbrook’s pursuit of the triple-double record provided a great rebound narrative for fans. But there are obvious tweaks that need to be made to the roster if they want to give themselves a chance at further contention.
The fateful Game 5 of the Rockets series saw the Thunder take a lead in the 2nd half once again, and once again Westbrook’s perimeter hubris was their downfall. It is jarring to see Westbrook, who can seemingly get to the rim whenever he wants, settle for 3’s on a string of possessions with the season, or merely a game, in the balance. If the 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder did anything, they reaffirmed the postulate that one player can only take a team so far, no matter how great that player is.