Published December 30, 2011
| Sports Network
Philadelphia, PA – Russell Westbrook is a superlative basketball player, probably one of the top 20 talents in the NBA.
What he isn't is a leader and that's a problem when you are designated as your team's point guard.
To the outsider looking in Westbrook seems to be having trouble accepting the fact they he will always be playing second fiddle in Oklahoma City to superstar Kevin Durant.
Others have gladly accepted a supporting role in order to win an NBA championship. Greatness tends to get recognized whether its Kevin McHale next to Larry Bird in Boston, Scottie Pippen playing Robin to Michael Jordan's Batman or most recently Pau Gasol helping Kobe in LA.
But playing a supporting role does take maturity and sacrifice, traits that haven't come easy for Westbrook and that's a bit surprising considering his background.
The Long Beach native wasn't always on the path to NBA stardom, arriving at Leuzinger High School in Lawndale, Calif. as an invisible 5-foot-8 freshman that didn't even reach the varsity until his junior year. In fact, Westbrook didn't receive his first college recruiting letter until the summer of his senior year, but by that time he had sprouted into a 6-foot-3 stud that was UCLA bound.
He only spent two years in Westwood, the first as Darren Collison's backup before developing into a star, one that was good enough to be the fourth overall selection in the 2008 NBA Draft.
Westbrook's calling cards at UCLA were his energy and defense, things he has certainly brought to the NBA. By 2010-11 he had developed into an NBA All- Star and the Thunder were a legitimate contender.
Through it all, however, Thunder coach Scott Brooks has been pretty hard on his quarterback. Rewind back to the Western Conference finals last season and you might remember that after losing the opener, Brooks surrounded Durant with four reserves for most of the fourth quarter in Game 2 as the Thunder surged to a 106-100 win in North Texas.
Westbrook, who made the All-NBA Second Team in 2010-11, had already been criticized at times in the playoffs for taking too many shots and being careless with the ball.
Despite scoring 18 points in the first three quarters in that Game 2, Westbrook was pulled after committing his fourth turnover and first foul in the final minute of the third quarter. He never returned as Brooks went with his reserves in crunch time.
Hindsight says it was a prudent decision for one night, considering the Thunder's bench went off for 50 points in the contest, becoming the first NBA team to get at least 50 from its subs in a postseason road playoff win since 2006. Of course, hindsight also says the Mavs responded by taking the next three games.
With cameras watching his every move after being benched in that Game 2, Westbrook did not reveal any hostility and said all the right things afterwards.
"[I'm not upset.] Not when we're winning. I'm good," Westbrook said at the time. "I think as a team we did a good job of staying together."
Publicly Brooks, a journeyman NBA point guard in his playing days, has always been very complimentary of Westbrook, understanding that he was never a true point before arriving in OKC and that he has done pretty well with on- the-job training.
But the real test was always going to be how Westbrook handled that benching after his agent, friends and other assorted hangers-on got in his ear. You can bet words like embarrassing and disrespect were thrown around.
According to ESPN, Westbrook has told friends he feels Brooks blames him for losses, while the credit for the Ws goes to Durant.
Always take that kind of hearsay with a grain of salt but we do know Westbrook got into it with Durant after blowing up at Thabo Sefolosha when the defensive-minded swingman passed up an open jumper in Memphis on Wednesday night.
"Shoot the (expletive) ball," Westbrook reportedly yelled at his teammate.
Sefolosha and a few others, including Durant and veteran center Kendrick Perkins, attempted to calm Westbrook but the volatile guard's emotions continued to boil, eventually resulting in a shouting match between OKC's two All-Stars, one in which they had to be separated.
Emotions often run high in the heat of battle and Durant and Westbrook are far from the first teammates to have words. Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal were certainly never close. The aforementioned duos of Bird and McHale and Jordan and Pippen also clashed at times.
This time Westbrook didn't handle things right while Durant was as smooth as usual.
Westbrook finished the game with one of the worst performances of his young career, scoring just four points on 0-for-13 shooting with six assists, and four turnovers. He also didn't make himself available to the media.
Durant, however, was front and center taking questions.
"We're going to disagree sometimes," Durant told The Oklahoman. "But I'm behind him 110 percent, and he's the same way with me. And you seen when we came on the floor we clicked and everything started to work from there."
It's not like Westbrook and Durant can't work. Heck, the Thunder already made it all the way to the West finals last season and are 4-0 in 2011-12 despite this controversy. Meanwhile, neither player has reached their 24th birthday.
You don't have to be friends with the people you work with it -- you do, however, have to be professional. More and more observers are starting to think OKC might be better off sacrificing Westbrook's talent for a little more leadership and maturity.