Despite the end result, the past two years can be defined as successes for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
They did not reach their personal goal of an NBA championship but lost to the eventual champions in both of the past two years (Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat) in the conference finals and NBA Finals.
When you have a starting core that are all younger than 25, there looks to be years—maybe more than a decade—of championship title opportunities.
But with that said, Oklahoma City’s title chances for next season rest solely on point guard Russell Westbrook.
Kevin Durant is the face of the franchise but Russell Westbrook still manages to repeatedly take more shots. Somehow, Durant has managed to win the past three years’ worth of scoring titles. In large part due to his efficiency, Durant is a quietly dominant scorer who is a nightly threat to put up 30 points.
While limiting Durant’s opportunities to score the basketball may only prevent the three-time scoring champion to reach his full potential as a scorer because Westbrook takes a significant portion of the shots in 48 minutes, it also prevents the Thunder from performing their best against the league’s elite teams.
OKC has the talent to dominate the majority of the league—that has been proven. But they will not be able to win a championship with Westbrook taking the shots that he is and not taking on more of a traditional role as a play-maker.
This was more than apparent in the NBA Finals.
They went into the Finals as favorites against the Miami Heat. But the wear and tear on Westbrook caught up with him, if not physically, it did mentally.
Westbrook had some brilliant performances in the Finals including a historic Game 4 where he went off for 43 points and only took three free throws. But it didn’t matter after his careless mistake in the finals seconds of the game where he fouled Mario Chalmers unnecessarily.
The loss to the Heat in the Finals rests no way solely on the shoulders of Westbrook—Miami earned the title and Harden and the Thunder big men were less than stellar offensively (which was to be expected).
But to get to the top of the mountain in 2013, the Thunder will look to Russell Westbrook. As a star and starting point guard, OKC needs him to mold into more of a traditional point guard. Facilitating for Durant and Harden first and then looking for his shot will be a recipe for success.
Doing so will take some wear and tear off Westbrook’s legs, too. And that is a good thing because he has been taking his chances running the risk of injury playing in every single regular season game since his first game in the NBA.
Not only that but it gives Durant and Harden the chance to spot up more and use their strengths.
Is that something Westbrook can do? Or can he succeed as a shoot-first point guard?
That remains to be seen, but one thing to note with Durant preferring the lead-by-example model: the Thunder will go as far as Westbrook can help lead them.