2. I want to see Russell Westbrook’s FIBA defense in the NBA
If you haven’t been watching the World Championships or the exhibitions that led up to it, you’ve really missed out on seeing one of the most crystal clear displays of what Sam Presti was thinking when he drafted Russell Westbrook to be a defensive stopper out on the perimeter for this franchise.
Westbrook has been everywhere defensively on the perimeter and even down on the blocks when he’s seen the opportunity to double a post player. His hands have been almost relentlessly active, his footwork has steered guards to where he wants them to be and, thanks to FIBA rules, Westbrook has used his sizeable strength advantage to amazing effect, bodying guards to the point that they are entirely redirected anytime they want to drive to the bucket.
This display leads me to one thought over and over again as I watch this unbelievable performance: Why haven’t I seen this on the Thunder?
Now I have a lot of ideas about why Westbrook-the-defender in FIBA is vastly superior to Westbrook-the-defender in the NBA, but they all seem to center around the fact that international competition allows contact when you’re guarding out on the perimeter (just like you can in college) and to put it kindly, Westbrook is almost always going to be bigger, stronger, quicker and able to impose his will physically on almost any point guard (and even some shooting guards) in international competition.
In short, Westbrook is allowed to use the very utmost of his athletic ability to defend in FIBA, whereas in the NBA he is practically handcuffed regarding his size and strength.
But that excuse means very little to me, to be honest. After two years, Westbrook needs to adapt to this less physical style of play because it’s painfully obvious that he has the quickness and position awareness to move his feet and cut offensive players off without using a hand-check or a bullying chest bump.
If these World Championships have taught us anything it is that Sam Presti was absolutely correct in believing that Russell Westbrook can be a hounding, disruptive defensive stopper in the NBA. He has all the tools and desire (which is what defense is 90% about anyway) to be a top-level defender, he just needs to stop leaving those tools in the tool box if it’s just because he can’t use hand-checks.
That’s why the second thing I most want to see happen next season is for the Westbrook that I’m watching on Team USA on defense to make an 82 game appearance on the Thunder. Because if that happens, then a lot of issues about who Thabo has to guard as the defensive stopper on the perimeter, if Thabo is really needed in the starting lineup as badly, etc, etc, will be somewhat resolved organically.
In addition, the Thunder would easily become a Top 5 defensive unit if opposing PG’s weren’t consistently wreaking havoc on the defensive scheme and the scoreboard like they have done over the last two seasons from time to time (plus Thabo can stop guarding PG’s instead of SG’s/SF’s, which drives me crazy).
But most of all, I wouldn’t have to live with the frustration that Westbrook COULD be an amazing defender, as I saw from him at UCLA and now with FIBA, but seemingly just can’t put it together in a Thunder uniform.
Because there’s nothing more frustrating than knowing something is possible—and yet it never materializes.