Until recently, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder have mostly gotten a free pass from the basketball media. Frankly, unless you (or, in my case, my dad) are from Seattle it’s hard to dislike them. A group of young, talented, likeable guys who were put together by a savant GM and could possibly dominate the league for years to come…what’s not to like?

Then came the 2012 Finals when they were pretty much obliterated by LeBron and the Heat. No one really disgraced themselves on the Thunder in that series which meant the question had to be asked – whether they could actually beat LeBron when he entered Conan the Barbarian (“Crush your enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentations of their women”) mode. But no, they would be right. One more year and they’d be back as real title contenders.

The James Harden trade once again shone a light on the OKC head office. Were ownership too cheap to pay a luxury tax? How would this team manage without their star 6th man going forward? Who would keep the barbers in Oklahoma City in business now? But a roaring start to the year quieted those doubters (including your blogger) pretty quick.

Now we’re close to the playoffs, OKC have a guaranteed 2 seed and look set for another deep playoff run, possibly back to the Finals. (I believe that Memphis are the only team that can stop them, due to their tight perimeter defense and inside scoring – but I’m not sure if the Grizzlies have the class to win a 7 game series against the Thunder).

All nice. However, there’s one elephant in the room that many have touched on but the Thunder-loving media haven’t really wanted to acknowledge much. This elephant has ridiculous athleticism, a winner’s mindset and wears red-rimmed glasses.

I’m talking of course about Russell Westbrook.

There is a lot to like about Westbrook, his fashion choices nothwitstanding. He’s as tough and durable as anyone in the NBA. He’s freaky athletic and has improved his distribution and shooting skills since he came into the league in 2008. (He’ll never be great at either but he’s at least good now). And he plays every game with a killer “alpha dog” mindset.

And therein lies the problem.

It’s my opinion that Westbrook would make a legitimate No.1 option on a decent team. His game combined with his mentality would suit him perfectly for the role. However, he’s not a No.1 in OKC. He’s a second scoring option behind Kevin Durant, who’s probably the best pure scorer in the league right now. Durant is far from a scrub in other areas – he too has improved his areas of weakness (specifically, defense) to the point where he’s no longer a liablity – but he’s at his best when putting ball in hoop.

Only problem is, Westbrook’s mentality, like any alpha dog, feeds him the idea that he too is as good. He’s not. He’s very good, but not Durant-good. More significantly, he tends to be streaky – and when Westbrook is in alpha mode and omega heat the Thunder inevitably struggle.

Alphas naturally struggle with the secondary role. Durant appears to realise this and hasn’t been afraid to defend Westbrook hard in the media in the past and even defer to him on the court. While I understand his reasons for doing so – OKC have a unique level of team harmony for a side as god as theirs and he doesn’t want to compromise that – I question how much of an alpha Durant is at those points. He needs to be more selfish, tell Westbrook “bro, this is my team, gimme the ball the next few plays and get out of the way.” His deferral suggests to me that he may have a bit more young LeBron in him than many who have painted him as the anti-LeBron would want to admit. Of course, it took Bron a few years and a lot of knocks to stop being nice and always deferring to his team and discover his “yo, I got this” mode that everyone recognises as their cue to get out of the way.

OKC is an interesting test study because, as NBA history has shown, two alpha dogs on one team don’t always work out. Shaq-Kobe being the best example of this. When it has worked it’s generally been because one has willingly surrendered alpha status to the other. See Kareem in the 80s acknowledging he wasn’t the baller he was and deferring to Magic, or Wade stepping back in Miami to let LeBron take over once he learnt how to be the best player on the court in every game.

The interesting part for me is that it seems like the greater player (Durant) is also the one who is more willing to step back and let his less talented but more dominant partner run the show. In this regard, the Thunder situation has more in common with Shaq-Kobe than either of the other two scenarios. Prime Shaq was the best player in the league, but Kobe had the Conan alpha mindset to a degree Shaq never had.

Am I saying that Durant-Westbrook will turn ugly? Well, not Shaq-Kobe ugly. I find it hard to imagine Durant rapping “Russell, tell me how my ass tastes” or Westbrook throwing Durant under the bus in an interview with cops. (Hell I have a hard time imaging either of them ever being investigated by the cops – they both seem such decent guys. I’d almost be happy if they were dating my sister). But basketball ugly? Down the line, I see this happening. Within a couple of seasons, title or not.

You heard it here first.


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