MIAMI -- The easy thing to do, in this ongoing Russell Westbrook-Scott Brooks tug-of-war, is to rip Westbrook for not being a "true" point guard or rip Brooks for not letting Russ be Russ, because ripping on people is easy, and if you don't believe that, you're a moron. See what I mean?
So let's not do that. The two are in the NBA Finals, after all: Westbrook at age 23, after two second-team All-NBA seasons, and Brooks at age 46, just four years after taking over a 1-12 team. They are clearly doing something right. They just can't quite agree on what that is.
Brooks, the Thunder coach, benched his star point guard in the third quarter of Oklahoma City's Game 3 loss to the Heat on Sunday night. The benching was both remarkable (because Westbrook is a star, and these are the Finals), and unremarkable (because Westbrook has been benched before, for longer stretches). And afterward, the following happened:
1. As far as I can tell, in his postgame press conference, Westbrook was asked a single question about the benching.
Westbrook's answer to that single question, about whether he asked Brooks if he could go back in the game: "No, man, it's Coach's decision. Got to live with it."
2. At his Monday press conference, Westbrook offered the same answer: "It was the coach's decision. You have to live with it." He also said Brooks did not give him a reason for the benching, and he did not ask for one.
3. Westbrook said something that everybody should consider the next time they call him a selfish ball hog.
"I mean, they don't have to particular cater to what is best for me," Westbrook said. "You have to do what is best for the team."
Maybe he meant it and maybe he didn't. But hey, at least he said it. A lot of guys wouldn't even have done that.
4. Brooks was asked if he was trying to get a message to Westbrook, and he said "There was no message, I just took him out."
That last statement sounds like a coach covering for his player, or trying to pour water on an impending media firestorm. But I actually think it sums up the simplicity and difficulty of the Thunder's Westbrook conundrum.
There was no message. He just took him out.
Westbrook is a terrific player. He is also not a natural point guard, and sometimes he looks like he is playing basketball blindfolded while riding a motorcycle. At those times, Brooks takes him out -- to calm him down, as Brooks said Sunday. Then Westbrook goes back in the game.
Brooks does this even though this is the Finals, and even though Westbrook is signed for the long term for a lot of money, and Brooks' contract expires this summer. That makes it seem especially risky, but it also makes it especially obvious. Brooks knows his bosses and he knows his team. He also knows his own contract status. Brooks wouldn't handle Westbrook like this if he were the only one in the Thunder organization that feels the way he does.
Brooks and Westbrook are so close to a championship, but that doesn't mean they will get there. It is easy to look at the Kevin Durant-Westbrook-James Harden Thunder and figure that this group will win a title, either this year or soon after -- and that Brooks will re-sign this summer and win it with them. But NBA history tells us this is not necessarily that simple.
Paul Westhead won the 1980 championship with the Lakers, thanks to star rookie point guard Magic Johnson. Two years later, Westhead got fired, thanks to star point guard Magic Johnson. The Celtics won a title in 1981 under Bill Fitch, then fired him two years later because his players were sick of him.
Doug Collins helped the Bulls rise to contention, then got fired so Phil Jackson could finish the job. Del Harris won 61 games with the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, made the conference finals, and was fired early the next season. The Pistons fired Rick Carlisle after making the Eastern Conference Finals, then won the title with Larry Brown the next season. (Then, a year later, they fired Brown, because of all the Larry Browns in the world, he is the Larry Brown-est.)
Westbrook seems entrenched in Oklahoma City and he probably is. But remember, after the Spurs won the title in 2003, they tried to sign point guard Jason Kidd to replace Tony Parker. NBA teams make radical decisions sometimes.
Westbrook has to get this right, and Brooks
It is so easy to scream that Westbrook should defer to Durant more, or slow down when he speeds up. But being a point guard, a true point guard, is not just about knowing how to pass. It's a state of mind.
Magic Johnson had an exceptional ability to understand where other people are and where they are going. So did Isiah Thomas. (Even most of the criticism of Isiah -- that he always has a hustle, or an angle -- comes back to that skill.) John Stockton had no interest in the spotlight, and it showed in how he distributed the ball. Allen Iverson believed in staying out all night and humiliating you with crossovers the next day. Iverson had point-guard skills, but there was nothing in his personality that suggested he could be a conventional point guard, and he never was.
Can the Thunder teach Westbrook to be a Stockton-type point guard? It would be like trying to parallel-park a locomotive. This is who he is,
Westbrook got to this point by being a highly aggressive scorer. Now that he has had so much success, and been paid so much money, why would he suddenly morph into a different man?
The solution is for everybody to move a little closer to each other. Westbrook can become a little wiser. Brooks can give him a little more leeway. And the Thunder can surround Westbrook with a roster that supports his skill set a little more. If the Thunder had backup point guard Eric Maynor, this might be a different series. (Maynor is out for the year with a knee injury.)
In the meantime, the Thunder will hope to get the best of Westbrook and win three of the next four games. And if Westbrook gets pulled from the floor again, well, maybe we don't even need that one postgame question. We already have our answer. It's the coach's decision. They all have to live with it.