The idea of positions in basketball has been called into question a few times this year. The subject has been deemed “positionality” and most people are starting to believe that the traditional PG/SG/SF/PF/C lineups are becoming outdated due to the advancement of NBA athletes and the way coaches use those athletes.
One of the biggest storylines of the 2011 NBA playoffs is the play of Russell Westbrook. Because Westbrook is the Thunder’s “point guard,” having him take more shots than Kevin Durant in some of the Western Conference Finals games bothered a lot of people who thought Durant should be taking 25+ shots a game. Even though it was Durant’s fault for not getting enough attempts because he was not working hard enough off the ball, all of the blame fell on Westbrook for being a “point guard” who supposedly wasn’t doing his job well enough to get Durant those shots.
It is no secret that Westbrook is not a “true” point guard in the sense that he doesn’t think or play the game like Chris Paul. One could argue Westbrook is a shooting guard trapped in a tall point guard’s body. Westbrook played two guard at UCLA and the truth is that if he was just two inches taller, he’d be Dwyane Wade-lite, devoid of any criticism when it comes to distributing the ball. Instead, he is OKC’s point guard, and because his running mate is NBA Golden Boy Kevin Durant, everyone who watches the Thunder searches for a scapegoat to blame Durant’s shortcomings on.
Although Westbrook certainly wasn’t perfect in the Western Conference Finals, we saw the solution to the Thunder’s problems in Game 5 and it had nothing to do with Westbrook looking to pass more. With his back to the wall in a do-or-die, Thunder coach Scott Brooks played James Harden extended minutes with his starting unit. A lineup of Eric Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant and Nick Collison was used often and though the lack of size with that lineup did cost the Thunder big time in the fourth quarter because the Mavericks were able to outwork them on the glass for key offensive rebounds, we saw how well that lineup worked offensively because Westbrook wasn’t forced to handle the ball.
Within a few minutes it was painfully obvious that Harden was the Thunder’s best option at “point guard” but since I am advocating the removal of that term from our collective basketball vocabulary, instead I’ll say that it was painfully obvious that Harden was the Thunder’s best creator with a knack for finding the open man or a cutter. Harden was a creator in college as well and even though he didn’t have the tag of point guard attached to him at Arizona State or as an NBA draftee there’s no doubt that having Harden run the offense is Oklahoma City’s best option not only because Harden is their best passer but also because of what it allows Westbrook to do off the ball.
Because I prefer giving players descriptive tags rather than position tags (like creator/distributor for Harden), the most obvious tag for Westbrook is “attacker/slasher.” I used Wade as a comparison for Westbrook earlier and though there are some differences between the two, there are certainly a lot of similarities as well. Westbrook is either an extremely savvy player when it comes to attacking the basket in an attempt to draw fouls or a youngster with fresh legs and no regard for his own health when he goes to the rim. Westbrook is made up of some combination of those two things and that’s what makes him so dangerous off the ball.
When Westbrook was playing off the ball he was able to make viscous cuts toward the basket and Harden was on-point with several passes when Westbrook was in motion. Westbrook has a tendency to lose the ball on the dribble when he attacks the cup simply because he can be too aggressive sometimes but catching the ball on the cut allowed for Westbrook to go up immediately without having to put the ball on the floor. With Westbrook cutting to the basket, Durant and Maynor spotting up and Collison providing some interior spacing and offensive rebounding, the Thunder offense looked as good as it had all season with Harden running things.
Looking forward, it is hard to envision a scenario in which Brooks continues to have Harden coming off the bench. The defense/offense substitution has worked for some teams before, but they can’t have their best creator on the bench to start games, particularly in the playoffs. Getting into big holes was a problem for the Thunder at the start of games this season and a lot of blame goes on Brooks for refusing to alter his starting lineup. Westbrook and Durant is a deadly combo, but when there is no one on the floor beside them that can create shots or post-up, it’s hard for the team to score at an efficient rate – especially when the other three players on the floor are Thabo Sefolosha, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins.
Not only is Harden just a creator for others but, as he showed against the Mavericks, he is also capable of getting to the rim and finishing over bigs. Harden scored 23 points on 7-of-11 shooting in Game 5 in addition to his six assists and five rebounds. Harden has had himself the occasional one-of-10 shooting night in his first two seasons but becoming a consistent player is part of the rookie learning curve and the poise he showed against the Mavs leads me to believe he is more than ready for a starting job. Harden can distribute, get to the rim (and the line) and rebound. Sefolosha is a superior defender, but it is clear at this point that Sefolosha’s defensive skills don’t make up for what he lacks on the other end.
Embracing the idea that positions in basketball are no more is something the media has done over the past year or so. In order for Brooks to keep his job and in order for the Thunder to take the next step towards a title, they will also have to embrace the idea that there is no such thing as a point guard in the league anymore. Just because Westbrook is 6-3 and James Harden is 6-5 doesn’t mean Westbrook has to be the point guard and Harden is the shooting guard. It’s not a slight to Westbrook to say that Harden is the better creator – some players are born with passing instincts like Harden while others are born with a relentless desire to attack the rim like Westbrook.
If the Thunder want to make it further than the Western Conference Finals next season, they don’t need to make any major roster changes by trading one of their core players, Scott Brooks simply has to reassess the way he uses his players. If Brooks can adapt to a world without positions and put a lineup of Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins on the floor to start games and a lineup of Maynor, Westbrook, Harden, Durant and one big man (unless they’re playing the Lakers) on the floor during crunchtime, I think the Thunder will be set next season.
But if Brooks doesn’t make that adjustment and continues to rely on Westbrook to create for others, it may cost the Thunder another season of basketball and Brooks his head coaching job.