The Stars Were Maligned

stephrussell

It might not be the Western Conference Finals we expected to see… but let’s be real: deep down, it’s the Western Conference Finals we unconsciously wanted to see.

I know, I know: it was supposed to be the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, two teams that combined for 140 wins in the regular season. My mom was a math teacher, so I know that equates to an average of 70 wins each(!). Would have been awesome, except for one thing: the Oklahoma City Thunder didn’t give a fuck.

So here we are: the Warriors face the Thunder for the right to play Clev… I mean, the winner of the Cleveland Cavaliers/Toronto Raptors series in the NBA Finals.

But, I’m not going to bore you with stats and theoretical jargon about the series (hint: Dubs in six hotly contested games). You can go anywhere and read about that stuff.

I wanted to focus on Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook… not in terms of prognosticating how they’ll play against each other, but to congratulate them.

Why? Because they did the impossible: they were the first guards in the modern era to successfully navigate the transition from “combo” to “point” guard at the NBA level.

Once upon a time, I truly believed in the axiom, “Point guards aren’t made; they’re born.” I even tried to debunk that notion personally as a high school guard. I spent the first eight years of my basketball-playing life off the ball, building a reputation as a dead-eye shooter. I peaked as a sophomore in high school, highlighted by a sick end of the season run where I dropped 75 points in my last three games (doesn’t sound crazy, I know, but eight minute quarters, no shot clock… come on). Cheerleaders finally knew who I was. I truly believed great things would continue when I moved up to varsity.

But, you know how adolescents experience that thing known as a growth spurt? I guess I wasted it in middle school, because at 16 I stopped growing and was stuck at 5’9″ (I grew one inch in college to my current height). My high school coach at Atholton, the legendary Jim Albert, told me that because of my slight frame and limited athleticism, the only way I would get minutes would be as a point guard.

I worked my ass off, trying to fine-tune my ball-handling. I studied some of the greats and analyzed how they led a team in an attempt to increase my basketball IQ. And guess what?

I struggled mightily with the switch in philosophy from “shoot-first” to “pass-first”. My ball-handling progressed, but I was still a turnover machine. I might hold the Raider record for negative assist to turnover ratio (maybe 1:8). My confidence suffered to the point where I couldn’t even knock down open jumpers… you know, the very thing that got me on varsity in the first place?

And it’s not just me. NBA scouts had tried to replicate the same experiment with a lot of high-scoring but under-sized two guards: DaJuan Wagner,Shawn Respert, Juan Dixon, Monta Ellis (we’ll come back to him later). After playing off the ball and/or being asked to score in bunches their entire lives, none of them made it as NBA point guards. Before Westbrook and Curry, the only player I can remember making a significant impact after going from the two to the one was Gilbert Arenas, but injuries and… um…other stuff negated his ability to become great.

You already know most of the preconceived reservations scouts had about Curry. And if not, well, he’ll tell you himself:

Remember: when he went on that magical tournament run in 2008, he did so off the ball. Jason Richards led the nation in assists that year mostly because of Curry’s ability to catch and shoot off screens. When Richards graduated, Steph switched to the point, and while he led the nation in scoring (28.6) and put up solid assist numbers (5.6), he turned the ball over a ton (3.7). Watching him that year, I saw the struggle. That said, he had two things really going for him that I loved: his work ethic and his high basketball IQ. The former ultimately helped him breakthrough, but without the latter he wouldn’t have had a fighting chance.

Still, I didn’t believe he could be an NBA point guard until I saw him team up with Ellis. If he could defer to a shoot-first/me-first guy like Monta, who initially hated the back-court tandem, then I believed he could make it as a legit point guard. And even though the wins were few and far between for that tandem, the foundation was set for Steph’s development as a point guard… and apparently as a back-to-back MVP.

(Speaking on that very briefly, he deserved the unanimous vote. I heard a radio guy say he was upset with how nobody else got a first place vote… but in the same breath he said he would have voted for Steph because it was “obvious”. Let that one breathe for a second.)

As for Westbrook…

should I admit this or na…

… I actually thought the now-defunct Seattle Supersonics were stupid for taking him over Jerryd Bayless.

Hear me out, though. For all intents and purposes, Westbrook was a “project”. He didn’t start playing organized basketball until his junior year of high school. He barely played his freshman year of college. UCLA found out by accident that he could play the point guard position when Darren Collison missed time at the beginning of the season, and while there was no doubting his explosiveness and athleticism, there were serious questions about his ability to run a team. Meanwhile, I watched a lot of Bayless games during his freshman year at Arizona. While he was a shoot-first point guard, he was definitely a point guard. I thought he’d be able to come in right away and help out a team. Oops.

(I looked back at a post I made from that night which is too embarrassing to link to… I missed on just about EVERY pick in the 2008 draft except O.J. Mayo… but that gets negated because when he was with the Mavs, I lost it for a minute and completely overrated him).

The amazing thing is that, on a daily basis eight years later, Westbrook still gets some of the same questions about his ability to run a team. If you’re a Thunder fan, it might drive you insane when he completely forgets that he has Kevin Durant on his team. But, for better or worse, Westbrook has established full command of that position. Are his assists more a product of him always having the ball than making the right pass? Sure… but you can’t ignore the fact that he averaged a double-double (23.5–10.4)… or that for as much as he gets criticized, he averages more assists for his career (7.6) than Curry (6.9). When you combine that with the fact that he is the most ferocious and athletic player to EVER play the point guard position, there’s no debating that the Sonics made the right choice on draft night.

So, what’s the lesson here? I don’t know. Both of these guys are definitely the exception and not the rule (the jury is still out on Utah Jazz “PG” Dante Exum). That said, I still respect the fact that neither guy let scouting reports or prognostications define them. They didn’t allow themselves to be put in a box. Hell, both guys damn near re-invented the box… a box that will probably cost GM’s their jobs trying to replicate.

More important than all of that, I can’t wait to watch both of them work tonight.

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