Home Featured What’s a Point Guard Anyway: The Curious Case of Russell Westbrook

What’s a Point Guard Anyway: The Curious Case of Russell Westbrook

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While watching Game 2 of the Finals I realized the answer to one of sports’ great debates: Russell Westbrook is, in fact, great. I had been on the fence, trying to balance the great plays with the awful ones to figure out where he truly ranks as a point guard. Thing is, Westbrook isn’t a point guard, and I am starting to think that casting players in any position is outdated. Westbrook’s worth looks diminished when you think of him as a “point guard;” here’s why that is short sighted:

A point guard has to initiate the offense – The loudest critics tear Russ (I can call him Russ…we’re friends now, right?) down because a traditional point guard’s role is to get his teammates involved and rack up assists. All the great point guards (Chris Paul, Steve Nash, take your pick) score almost out of necessity. Russ loses points with basketball fans that hate his no-pass possessions and feel he should do more to include his teammates. But seriously, take a look at his teammates!”

The truth is, Russ is the second scoring option on the Thunder. Would you pass to Thabo “Light Skinned Can’t Jump” Sefalosha? Kendrick Perkins’ pharaoh beard? Trust Serge Ibaka’s jumper? These are the options besides Kevin Durant. I don’t blame Russ for looking to score. His scoring ability has taken his team to the Finals. It also makes his teammates better by creating easier opportunities, though unconventionally. This is all we want from a “point guard” anyway.

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The game has evolved, and we should too. Russ is a better player than he is a traditional point guard. What do we need traditional positions for anyway? Look at Mario Chalmers and Derek Fisher. They play important roles for each team (though rarely setting up the offense) while filling the position of “point guard.”

Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the world, feed him! – All this Westbrook praise is not to throw shade on Durant. He IS the best scorer in the world (apologies to Carmelo Anthony), and he needs lots of shots for the Thunder to win.

All I’ll say is check the numbers. Kevin Durant is the league’s THREE-TIME SCORING CHAMP. It’s safe to say he’s getting his shots. Could Durant go #KobeSystem and take every shot? Probably. But how has that worked out for Bryant the past few seasons? Also, the Thunder are 25-6 when Russ takes more shots that Durant this season (36-17 otherwise) so it isn’t like the team suffers because of his play.

Don’t take this to mean Russ is not above criticism. He has blown some lay ups, and missed some chances to kick the ball out to open teammates. In a series this tight (three games decided by an average of seven points), precision and decision-making are key. I certainly don’t mean to defend his postgame wardrobe either. Those Sallie Jesse Raphael glasses are ridiculous. But when you watch Game 4 tonight, look at Russ from a different perspective. Consider his role on the team, despite the position he’s listed under in the program.

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What do you say, SBM? Can the Thunder win a championship without Russ becoming more “pass-first?” Who will make up for his scoring? Or do you think the Heat will take it regardless? Hit the comments and let me know!

Comment(58)

    1. I think the winner tonight wins the series. If Miami takes it, 3-1 is a wrap. If OKC takes it, I think they take 2 out of 3 with home court advantage.

      That said, I got OKC. As good as Miami has been, these games have all been winnable for either team. 4 and 6 point games (the winning margin in Games 2 and 3) can come down to a lucky Battier 3, Ibaka getting hot, or whatever.

      1. I have to disagree Joe. If both Wade and The King keep scoring like they have, MIA has this hands down. They are finally understanding that The King can not be stopped so let him keep driving in the lane because he is either going to score, get fouled, or both. The King is the only dude right now that no matter what kind of defense you play, he can break it down.

        1. I could easily be wrong. This series is close and Miami has the lead already.

          I agree that LeBron and (to a WAY lesser extent) Wade can be counted on right now. But I don't think Miami can win without a Battier, Bosh, Chalmers kicking in a good game. Bosh was 3/11 last game (very underrated for some reason). I dont' think Miami can survive like that. OKC had a three-pointer to tie with under a minute to go last game. Despite everything LeBron can do, he can't blow the Thunder out by himself…so OKC still has a shot.

        2. One word: Defense.

          Who can get stops when they need them late in ball games will determine the final outcome.

      2. Like the Celtics series, Game 2 (and that foul) is going to be come up big for them later. I think Heat win tonight, Thunder take Game 5 and the Heat win in 6.

  1. they definitely can win a ship with him playing the way he does. they made it this far despite the criticisms from people like skip bayless. westbrook is going to be ok. you can compare him to players like nash and rondo or even cp3 but lets be honest none of those players are as athletic as westbrook. if you want to throw comparisons out there they have to go both ways. westbrook does certain things well and others he doesn't. you take the good with the bad. there are at least 25-27 nba teams that would give up 5 draft picks for him to be their "point guard".
    My recent post Take Me Back to 1953

  2. You can be a scoring point guard. Many have done it and will continue to do it if their abilities dictate it. Yes, its the point's role to get others involved but you can have your point be the "it" guy or the 2nd option and it be okay. Assists are nice, points are nice, steals are nice…the big question is does he make the other players better when they play together? Is the team winning?
    My recent post InAnimateAlpha: Phrases people need to stop saying: "Me personally"

    1. How often has a Scoring PG been successful though? Derrick Rose likely isn't going anywhere, cause the PG being your top shooter/scorer isn't a recipe for the highest level of success.

      1. See my comment below but, Westbrook is averaging 7 assists a game. Isiah Thomas, Tony Parker have 5 chips between the two of them.

        Also, we're not realizing something about the way we classify our PGs in the discussion. There's Pass-first PGs, Score-first PGs and then the Freakilish Great PGs.

        If I was to tell you Magic was a scoring PG, you would say I was wrong, but he led his team in scoring basically each year after his rookie season. He was one of those freakilish great PGs. Take those PGs out of the equation. The only teams you are going to find a pass-first PG of any value winning a chip is the Rockets. Unless you really think BJ Armstrong, Paxson, Kerr or Fisher had anything to do with them winning a chip.

        The only pass-first PGs to actually win a championship is probably Rondo and Kidd. It's just a misnomer in the conversation. People don't really know what they're actually saying when they play that situation all the way out in their head.

        1. U gotta rephrase that last one tho about pass-first PGs. Your talking about teams where the PG was not the 1st or 2nd scoring option.

        2. If I was to tell you Magic was a scoring PG, you would say I was wrong, but he led his team in scoring basically each year after his rookie season.

          I'd say you were wrong because, in my opinion, you are. Magic led the Lakers in scoring in 1987 and 1989…and that was it. He led the league in assists 4-times, ranks 2nd or 3rd in all time assists and has the most All-Star game assists in history thus far.

          The reality is that Magic was a great PG who was generally pass first, but not ashamed to score on you in a second given the opportunity. Magic's career scoring average of 19ppg and 11.2 assists attests to this.

        3. Actually, when I looked it up I realized that it was off about Magic just because I got in two separate arguments about Magic, Kareem and Worthy lately. Magic led in 3 seasons. All the others was Kareem and Worthy.

          In the playoffs, he led more seasons than those three regular seasons.

          But my main point was that he's not a scoring PG or a pass-first PG. He was one of those freakilishly great PGs. Those like him and Isiah were just great.

        4. Ok, I can roll with that….freakishly great he was.

          FYI: Magic led the Lakers in scoring in the playoffs in two seasons. 1990 and 1991.

        5. I think people in general almost forget that Magic played with the NBA's all-time leading scorer for much of his career. Kareem, not Magic, led the Lakers in scoring Magic's first 7 seasons. Outside of the 2 or 3 years Magic led the team in scoring and Kareem's 7 or 8 it was Byron Scott or James Worthy.

  3. Westbrook needs to play with aggressive fervor, but he also needs to defer more often. The problem isn't with Westbrook though, it's with Kevin Durant! Durant's numbers as the scoring champion 3 straight years are deceptive, his ability to close propels his numbers through the stratosphere. Durant plays complacent in the 1st half of games, he needs more desire for the ball & should play as though he demands the ball touch his hands.

    If Durant would give his 100% for the entire game, you would see Westbrook play much more efficiently as he would have a moment to survey the court & make accurate assessments of what the best move is. This also would lead to an increase in shot efficiency for Westbrook as his shots would be far better looks than when he storms up the court in less than 4 seconds & takes a bad shot without ever passing the ball even once.

    Game 3 showed what can result if they play this way, Thunder were virtually unstoppable & only way for the Heat to beat them was to get Durantula into Foul trouble… taking him off the court. If Durant doesn't go to the bench for a long stretch when the Thunder were leading by double digits, the Heat don't win the game.

    1. Interesting that you put it mostly on KD. I hope they start with Thabo on LeBron tonight just to see if KD can get going earlier. I really think guarding LeBron on the other end hurt his offense. The Heat start with LeBron on Kendrik Perkins of all people, which is much less demanding.

      This reminds me of another thought…why the hell is Perkins in the game at all? I can't think of any way in which he makes it harder on Miami to do ANYTHING. Scott Brooks might screw himself being stubborn.

      1. I concur… Perkins definitely shouldn't be out there as much if at all! Sefolosha adds a great defensive element, Fisher adds both offense & defense as well as his leadership, Collison is underrated in the paint on the offensive end, Ibaka is a Defensive POWERHOUSE while often times being turned up on offense.

        Perkins is the only 1 that I just don't see much happening from him on either end!

  4. i think that the point guard can be a viable scoring option in his own right…however, and this is just my personal opinion…

    if you have someone who is a better scorer than you, than your #1 priority is to get the team involved, including that #1 scoring option… IMO, Westbrook believes he is that #1 scoring option (well, it was worse last year…i guess this year, someone told him he's the #2 scoring option)

  5. JVG made an interesting comparison between Russy and Steve Francis. And when I looked at the stats side by side, I understood Russy's in-game choices a little better. In Steve's best statistical yr as a Rocket, he had a balance between his scoring and his ball distribution. It's only because of Yao's freakish size that Steve wasn't shooting 20 times per game. Ibaka is no Yao!

    Russy's strength is being the #1 scoring option, it is what it is. He was that way at UCLA. No amount of criticism will change that. But you have to couple that w/ Thunder's starting 5. You're seeing in this Finals that he can't defer to Thabo and Lebron's done a pretty good job defensively on KD. I also notice KD doesn't call for the ball as vehemently as Melo and Kobe do. KD himself has to be more aggressive and realize that dude you're Durantula, it's ok to be selfish sometimes.

    Far as Game 4, they really need to get back on D. That hurt them early in Game 3. On many plays, it was 3 on 1 or 4 on 2. These guys are young and agile, there's no reason they should be lagging behind. And for the love of God, stop biting on that D-Wade fake!!!

    1. Speaking of JVG, I think he did a great job diagramming how some of Russ' shots come from broken plays where Durant can't get open. JVG has done a good job explaining why Russ is successful, I just don't think most people are paying attention.

      1. It isn't even so much that Durant can't get open, because he more often than not… isn't open & still makes the shot. Durant does not aggressively pursue the ball early in the game! If Durant had the same sense of urgency early in the game as he does late, the Thunder would be totally unstoppable as Westbrook's threat factor would now rise even higher.

  6. That fake drives me nuts. Works 90% of the time. Also, why hasn't anybody recognized that Battier can shoot yet? Teams just keep leaving him open for momentum-shifting threes!

    1. Yeah, I don't get that either re: Battier!!! I think maybe it comes from you're kinda stunned when Shane makes them. But the flip is he's streaky like JR Smith. Once he starts making 3s, he's going to keep shooting them. It'll be interesting to see if Scott Brooks make that adjustment

    2. Battier is open because the game plan for OKC is to keep MIA out of the paint. You beat Miami by making them an outside jump shooting team. It also allows you to run the fast break off missed baskets and long rebounds created by those outside shots.

      1. Agree with The Guy…Battier shooting threes is better than Miami attacking the paint. It hurts OKC that he's hitting them at over 70%, but who saw that coming? I think you have to play the averages and figure he'll cool off if you're the Thunder. Do your best to challenge the shot, but don't take it away at the expense of giving up driving lanes.

    3. Oh, they recognize…it's just a bad match-up for OKC personnel-wise, plain and simple. They basically have Ibaka or Perkins on Battier initially. Those two big dudes aren't accustomed to playing out on the perimeter and obviously want to help on the drives. Now it's pick your poison.

      I mean Battier is literally wide open in many of those shots. Those are practice shots, which is why he's knocking down a high clip. When Perkins has been racing to close him out Battier has shown an ability to put the ball on the ground and finish in the lane, too…soooo there's that. Just a tough cover.

      Here is where LeBron helps again, too…bc on defense Battier doesn't have to guard the bigs…they'll let LeBron guard them and have Battier on Durant. Even if Battier guards Perkins or Ibaka they're no real scoring threat in the post.

  7. OKC can definitely win a championship, just not this year. Westbrook's playing style is not typical of most point guards, I think it does fit the system they run. I would like to see him improve on his decision making skills and set up his #1 option in Durant more often, but they are a young team. Hopefully his coach will reiterate his flaws and make him improve on these areas of his game.

  8. "All the great point guards (Chris Paul, Steve Nash, take your pick) score almost out of necessity." – Interesting point. Those two guys along with the others who have high scoring games all are in pick-and-roll systems. Same with Russ. It's just going to give the PG a lot of FGA because he's in a position of being open for a mid-range jumper or having a lane to the basket. It's also hard to say you're scoring out of necessity when you're averaging over 20 ppg, and also taking 18-22 fga a game. Paul, Nash, Deron, Tony Parker… all those guys are expected to contribute offensively. Last but not least, Paul and Nash have never been in the Finals lol. Tony Parker has 3.

    You're right about Durant too. He's eating. There are times when I think that Russ may have done better to get the ball to him. Those are few and far between and not really the reason why they Thunder are losing. The Thunder are losing because of foul trouble, too much jump shooting, lackadaisical defense in the 4th quarter (due to foul trouble) and Coach Scotty Brook not realizing that at all times either Durant or Westbrook needs to be on the court.

    Also keep in mind the Thunder are playing through a key injury. Eric Maynor is their traditional PG and does that job for them very well. If he was healthy it would have allowed them to do more with moving Russ to the SG and then Sefalosha to the bench at the first TO. That's not an option. Meanwhile, Russ is averaging 7 assists a game in the Finals. People are just looking for something to criticize because they don't know basketball all that well and have no idea the way these systems work.

    I think that if Isiah Thomas and the Detroit Pistons can win two chips with the majority of their scoring coming from their backcourt. Granted it's too early to compare Russ and Isiah straight up, but the 88/89 Pistons and 2012 Thunder teams are somewhat similar. But if they can do that with a non-traditional PG in Isiah, it's possible. And also as I mentioned before Tony Parker won 3 championships, He even won a Finals MVP where he averaged 20 ppg and didn't lead his team in assists. Those are two good examples for people to reference in my opinion.

    1. I guess my first point was "they look to get others involved first and score second." I'd say even in PnR plays, most top PGs are looking for the roll/pop/skip pass before attacking the rim. Derrick Rose being a notable exception.

      I really like the point about Maynor. He gives them a ton of flexibility. They can run him next to Russ or Harden, and he basically makes Fisher useless (not a bad thing).

      That Isiah/Bad Boys territory is hallowed ground, lol. As a die-hard Pistons fan, it takes me a while before I can heap that kind of praise. I see RW as even more offensive minded than Isiah. Again, I'm biased. Take all opinions with a grain of salt!

      1. Got to put Isiah in that Freakilish Great PG category I mentioned above. He's such a dynamic player with such great success that trying to classify him as pass-first or score-first is just a bad comparison. Watching Isiah growing up in college and the NBA he wanted to establish control of the game. But he wasn't coming down the court for the first 5-6 possessions feeding Dumars. Ironically, they force feed Durant in the start of games.

    2. Agree with the point about Maynor as well. That sub pattern would keep Durant on LBJ more than likely, but then again if they sub smart they can get favorable matchups that won't destroy them defensively.

      All other points are good ones, too. The NBA, truth be told, is basically a pick & roll/ pick & pop league…some may run it early initially more than others, but just look at every NBA set and I guarantee you that you will see pick and roll somewhere in 70% of the half court possessions.

  9. What I find interesting is that the same people who diss Westbrook will pile high praise on Derrick Rose in the next breath – even though they're the same player. I guess its because Derrick Rose is clearly the first scoring option while Westbrook's not? I think we just have to accept that OKC has structured their team to work around Westbrook's shoot-first mentality, no matter how much it irks us. However, when he's taking more shots than Durant (and not sinking them), that is a bit extra. I think ultimately, he's just not really meant to be a point guard so much as a two guard, and that he would serve as a much more intense threat in that role.

    1. Agree with the RW hate then Rose praise. It's definitely imbalanced. Guess people just go with what's in front of them at the time.

      I think Russ is close to finding the right balance. They need his aggression, but he seems to put blinders on a bit too often. If he drove and kicked like four more times instead of forcing shots, it would be perfect, lol. How do you tell a guy to pass more when no one on the other team can stay in front of him? Tough to balance, but I think he's thiiiiiiiiis close.

  10. The offense in OKC does not work if Russel Westbrook turns into Jason Kidd. Only question that needs to ever be answered is if his style of play is effective, and that's a big YES. They only have 3 scoring options on offense, one of which comes off the bench. If Russel Westbrook played on the Boston Celtics than maybe it would not work right. But in the NBA there are a number of different types of mixes that can get you to a championship. Most of us are just familiar with the classic "inside out" or "dominant swingman" style of championship team.

  11. But how has that worked out for Bryant the past few seasons?

    The last few seasons? 3 NBA Finals appearances, 2 championships, 2 NBA Final MVP awards and was top 3 seed in the West each of the last few seasons I believe. I'd say it didn't work out terrible for Bryant. *shrugs* lol.

    buuuuut, I'm gonna guess you want to highlight just the past 2 seasons I would imagine and not the last few.

    1. GREAT F***ING POST

      Its never about the success with Kobe its about nitpicking the failure…dudes expect him to win a chip every year, that's how great the Lakers are.

    2. Kobe was swept out of the playoffs the last two seasons. This was at the same time his shots went up (even further) and his efficiency went down. The parellel is Kobe trading more shots for efficient scoring. Durant is one of the most efficient scorers in the league. If he swapped that for more shots (the comparison I'm drawing), it would hurt his team.

      Not saying Kobe isn't great. But you have to say you've seen a difference in how he's produced lately. Even in winning the championship he went 6/24 and had to be picked up by Pau. That whole series (most recent Finals) showed the detriment of inefficient scoring and the importance of the "other guys" (Pau, Bynum). A cynic would say it ALSO shows the importance of the other team having a key injury (Perkins).

      1. Kobe was swept out of the playoffs the last two seasons

        Told ya, lol.

        I won't get into the specifics here since this particular post isn't about the Lakers/Kobe, etc..etc…but a cynic could also say that Bynums knee injury, which made him a fraction of the player he was, played a huge role in that series (playing on 1 leg basically)…and people forget that Kobe was playing with a bum knee and a fractured finger that he refused to have surgery on.

        Bottomline, Bryant makes shots he's praised….misses shots…he shoots too much/inefficient. It's a make or miss league that's ultimately defined by championships of the superstars.

      2. One other thing, I think you're right on Durant trading more shots, etc..etc….but, what I'll submit to you is that if it were up to Kobe the other guys would shoot more! lol…more than once he blasted Pau in the media for not being aggressive enough.

        Much like Westbrook when the play breaks down Bryant is summoned to bail them out with some last second shot as the shot clock winds down. Much like the '04 Finals against your Pistons when no one else decided they wanted to make a shot then Kobe went into #KobeSystem mode and start jacking up whatever, lol. That was inefficient…but at the same time no one else was being aggressive wanting to do anything outside of Shaq.

        1. That's true. Kobe isn't 100% selfish for the #KobeSystem. He has to pick up the slack, like Westbrook, when the offense sputters on a possession. I was worried the comments would get derailed with that line in the original post, glad to see it's been pretty much contained, lol.

  12. I still got the Heat in 6 because when the going gets tough i'll take Dwyane "When its ready" Wade and Bosh Spice over Russ and Harden and LeBron and Durant are two constants who cancel eachother out. As for Russ its crazy how he gets flack for doing what Derrick Rose got 300M and an MVP for. Not like you see them saying let Deng and Boozer cook (Deng is seriously underrated but thats another topic). Russell is a fearless streaky scorer and while he's not in Durant's weight class he's not exactly supposed to turn into 2008 Rondo for him either.

  13. The whole point of any offensive possession is to get the best scoring opportunity possible. With the line-up OKC runs out, often Westbrook provides the best chance of getting points other than Durant. Could he do more to make some teammates better of course. He's not a classic distributor, but OKC knew this and they built a team to play to his strengths. This team was constructed for Westbrook to be the 2nd offensive option. If they wanted him to score less they wouldn't have traded a stretch 4 in Green for an offensive hermit in Kendrick Perkins. If OKC started useless Derek Fisher and called Russ a SG, he could play same game and no one would have problem with it. In fact he's be Dwayne Wade. But identifying who really initiates the offense would require people to actually watch games instead of highlight reels. How many Miami offensive sets start with their PG initiating the sets, especially in the 4th qtr, I'll wait….

    1. Agree with this for sure. Is there any change you WOULD make to the OKC system though? If we are going to assume this is the best way to do it (which I do), is there something you see to make it run better? Or do you think they are maxing out offensively?

      If Collison started, and OKC fully committed to their system, instead of hanging on to the relic, Kendrick Perkins, I think they'd be better off. This reminds me of Phoenix with Shaq. They tried to blend old school/new school and it just made both slightly worse IMO.

      1. They built this team to beat the Lakers. They collected big bodies to matchup with huge Lakers front line, once they were eliminated in their first playoff run. Now they have to search for flexibility within their roster to matchup with teams similar to them like Miami. One major missing piece in Eric Maynor. A truly underrated sub who won some playoff games for them last year. He is a distributor and he would take a lot of pressure off of Westbrook and Harden (who has no-showed this series) to get others involved and just concentrate on scoring. The one thing I saw from last game is that a hesitant Westbrook is completely useless. They can't ask him to transform his game on the fly in the Finals. Not if they want to win. Gotta dance with the girl that got you here.

        I love that you called Perkins a relic and he's the same age as Lebron. lol

  14. First let me start off by stating….though the Heat are down by 3 at the half of of Game 4…I know Miami will win in 5….

    Now that I've cleared the air of the gasps….I need to make a quick statement….Kobe consistently shooting in the past couple of seasons has gotten the Lakers to the playoffs…and only because of Kobe's relentless shooting

    Now to the questions, Thunder cannot win with Russ becoming a pass-first PG. As Joe stated, he is the second scorer on his team….I mean, c'mon, him and Durant dropped 40 together, twice this season

    The Heat will take this series for one reason and one reason only, they have been together longer than the Thunder…

    Next year, the Heat will have a tough road (Rose, Andre, Blake, Durant, Rubio)….unless the Heat get Stevie Nash!!!

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