The hits taken by Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook on the court this postseason were nothing compared to the daily ones he absorbed off it from local and national media. The floggings only intensified in the aftermath of the Thunder's five-game collapse against the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals. Too selfish, some said. Out of control, remarked others. It was as if, at times, Westbrook was a second-teamer, not a second-team All-NBA player. "It was so out-of-place," says coach Scott Brooks of his third-year prodigy. "Russell took there. I would have rather taken the criticism, not him."
This is an article from the June 6, 2011 issue
Some of the opprobrium was justified. Westbrook averaged 23.8 points and 6.4 assists in the postseason, but he was sloppy with the ball (4.6 turnovers per game) and attempted nearly as many shots per game (20.2) as the NBA's scoring leader, teammate Kevin Durant (20.3). Oklahoma City's lone win over Dallas was due, in part, to Brooks's decision to bench Westbrook in the fourth quarter of Game 2 for Eric Maynor.
The Thunder's commitment to Westbrook is nevertheless unwavering. Brooks dismisses concerns about his ability to play with Durant, citing Westbrook's youth (he's 22) as well as his spike in scoring (21.9 points, up from 16.1) and three-point shooting (33.0%, up from 22.1%) this season as proof of his growth. And his coach remains convinced Westbrook can run the point, though he also believes Westbrook could benefit from more time off the ball and on the wings, where he would be in better position to attack the rim. The likely addition of playmaking two guard James Harden to the starting lineup next season should help ("He's their Manu Ginóbili," says an East scout), as will the continued development of Durant, who struggled to get open against a suffocating Mavericks defense. Oklahoma City's top eight rotation players will be back next season. "As all our guys get better," says Brooks, "Russell will get better."
Brooks and his staff are already targeting Westbrook's weaknesses. The coach has told him that he wants him to limit his turnovers to fewer than three per game. And Westbrook's personal trainer says that a big part of Westbrook's summer training program will focus on changing speeds and diversifying his low-post game.
Teams hoping Westbrook might be available in a trade this off-season can forget it. He's eligible for an extension—three rival team executives say Westbrook is a max contract player—and the Thunder is fully prepared to give him one. Westbrook says he "definitely" wants to stay.
"He knows he is not the player he is going to be," says Brooks. "But he is going to get there."
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The hiring of Mike Brown to replace Phil Jackson as the Lakers' coach has gotten mixed reviews in L.A. Brown, 41, is a defensive tactician who should improve a unit that allowed opponents to shoot 47.2% in the playoffs. But offensively there are questions. As coach of the Cavaliers from 2005 to '10, Brown's attack leaned on LeBron James. But the Lakers have at least three players who need touches—guard Kobe Bryant, power forward Pau Gasol and center Andrew Bynum. The ball movement of Jackson's triangle offense kept almost everyone happy, but Brown seems certain to install one that relies instead on pick-and-rolls and isolation plays. He must bring in a creative assistant—maybe Pistons coach John Kuester, who is on shaky ground in Detroit—to help maximize L.A.'s offensive firepower.