MEMPHIS, TN - MAY 13: Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder leap around during introductions before facing the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals in the 2011 NBA Playoffs at FedExForum on May 13, 2011 in Memphis, Tennessee. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
By inking Russell Westbrook to a contract extension, the Thunder have said they're not worried about he and Kevin Durant. So who should they worry about? Their head coach.
Sam Presti thinks the two will work out just fine. The Thunder just gave Westbrook a five-year, $80 million extension. That's $186 mil in extensions for those two guys, which isn't what one does for mismatching parts. Considering how Jeff Green spent the end of last season lost with the Celtics, it's safe to say Presti would have moved Westbrook if that was best for the Thunder.
And if a trade ultimately proves to be the move because the point guard can't learn to share like a good boy? Good luck trading a spectacular talent who costs that much for enough assets to stay a contender. Looks like Kevin and Russ will be playing PlayStation on Friday nights in Oklahoma City until 2016.
The general manager is hailed as a genius. The contracts he's offered effectively make Westbrook and Durant indispensable. That leaves one major cog that can be replaced if the Thunder can't get closer to a title soon: the head coach.
Sounds like, if anyone's on the clock, it's Scott Brooks. The question is how long it's going to take before people realize he should be.
Brooks is a good coach. Oklahoma City got too successful too soon for that not to be the case. Is he a coach that can take a team to a championship? That seems more debatable than whether a team could win one with Russell Westbrook running the offense.
Whose job is it to mold Westbrook into the point guard the Thunder needs him to be? Who's supposed to provide the framework necessary to make both Durant and guys like Thabo Sefalosha in position to take and make good shots? Who is supposed to make Durant understand that he sometimes has to take shots, not just shoot them? Since when has such a talented scorer been allowed to tolerate a lesser player wanting shots more than him?
How does a 23-year-old point guard hold that much more sway than the superstar and the guy in the suit? And if the coach can't get through to either player, whose fault is that, really?
The Thunder do have general flaws and problems specifically in late-game situations. Westbrook does take more shots than most would prefer their point guards put up. Durant makes scoring look easy, but infamously couldn't bench press 185 pounds five years ago and has a hard time getting to the ball. And there are times he disappears late, seemingly watching Westbrook go all Carlton Banks when the whole gym's screaming "PASS THE BALL TO WILL!"
Except sometimes, a quick scan of NBAPlaybook.com's archives shows Will isn't doing enough to get open. Or the offense is poorly designed. Or Westbrook is doing a bad job of running a poorly designed offense when its top scorer isn't doing enough to get open.
It's been clear to anyone who chose to look that the Thunder's problems are collective. Everyone involved, relative to his peers, is young except Kendrick Perkins. He, at times, looks old. There's never been one thing to point to when they struggle, and none of the things listed but Perk answer why they can be beaten badly on the boards. It was never only about Westbrook.
Westbrook gets blamed for covering for others' mistakes and called selfish for being frustrated that a teammate wouldn't shoot, but no one's asking who's in charge around there? Now, with the Thunder emphatically -- and financially -- saying Westbrook isn't the problem, it's time to focus more attention elsewhere when looking for improvement.
So with all that going on, why is it assumed that a coach who has only coached as long as Westbrook's been in the league can lead a team to a championship?
Or, put differently -- what's the difference between Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City and Mike Brown in Cleveland? These sorts of comparisons make people uncomfortable, but think about it. Both were young coaches, inherited superstars before their second seasons, made their teams defensively respectable and offensively simplistic. In the process, both won lots of games and greatly exceeded expectations in their third seasons (Brooks in the conference finals in 2011, Brown in the NBA Finals in 2007).
And...Brown was fired after winning 147 games and three playoff series in his last two seasons with the Cavs, and being run over by a ball-dominating superstar he couldn't control. Those are the breaks.
And they sound awfully familiar.
So let's look at Brooks and see if he's running a program that can coax a championship out of his smallish roster. Let's see if Durant matures, physically and mentally, into a player who can demand the ball in a way that leaves Westbrook no choice but to look his way. Keep an eye on whether Oklahoma City continues to look poorly coached when they have the ball. And let's watch the development of Westbrook, whom Presti will be worth the $16 million per year Clay Bennett will pay him.
Or, we could keep talking about whether Russ and KD can get along. It's a cool soap opera, Shaq and Kobe on a smaller scale in a smaller city. But why waste that time when even it's clear they have no choice but to keep the peace, and every other option will be exhausted before breaking them up is even considered?
And stick with that narrative when we've already ignored so many things spent more time on how much Westbrook shoots instead of asking why?
Brooks has that "aww shucks" look that fits perfectly with the most "aww shucks" team in the league, the one David Stern could hold up to show the NBA has fully entered its dress coded, post-Iverson era. But that "aww shucks" will have a much different tone if OKC doesn't fix what ails them.
Those, as they were for Mike Brown, are the breaks.