When Blake Griffin hosted a comedy night in Montreal last year, part of his set included his thoughts on the intelligence of basketball players. Despite what the mundane, repetitious post game interviews would have you think, Griffin contended that anyone who was given a microphone after exercising for two hours straight wouldn’t have the most interesting things to say.
Fans have seen objectively smart ball players; Chris Bosh, Jaylen Brown and Tim Duncan immediately come to mind, and a tiny crowd might make a case for resident Flat-Earther Kyrie Irving, though the shape of the globe would say otherwise.
But when it comes to sport, academic intelligence and basketball intelligence aren’t one in the same. Skipping college for the pros might speak to a player’s inability to differentiate an equation. But more important however, is how well one’s basketball IQ translates in the NBA, and time after time, the league exposes frauds.
Consider Michael Beasley, or pre-Golden State Warriors Javale McGee. Both were physically gifted but their middling court awareness lead to failing to post up a five-foot-nine Isaiah Thomas, or the ability to foul out in 10 minutes.
Different situations however can improve a player’s Basketball IQ. Under the watchful eye of Steve Kerr, McGee became a qualified and integral part of a championship team, leading to reduced appearances on TNT’s Shaqtin’ a Fool.
While McGee has been able to use his situation to improve his understanding of the game, tumultuous times in Oklahoma City over the last two years, might have served to dumb down the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook basketball intelligence. At first it’s difficult to notice. Westbrook is a hyper-athlete whose physical prowess makes a tangible difference in his on-court ability. Last year, an NBA record number of triple doubles and a middling roster excused Westbrook’s in game decision making; choosing the right basketball play is hard if you have limited options.
This year however, Westbrook’s inability to incorporate Paul George and Carmelo Anthony has shown his limited basketball IQ, both through his occasional defection from play, as well as the Thunder’s 12-13 record.
Westbrook has a history of trying to do too much, a trait further aggravated by his athleticism and lack of team dependence. Consider this play against the Spurs.
Westbrook decides to make a risky defensive play in a close game against a perennial rival in the San Antonio Spurs. Not only does the error result in a go-ahead three for the Spurs, but San Antonio would go on to win that contest, 93-85. Westbrook posted 19 points, seven assists and six rebounds, and, unsurprisingly a game high nine turnovers.
Or, consider how Westbrook, with George and Anthony in tow, is nearing a career low in effective field goal percentage at .433. For comparison, Jimmy Butler, who joined a big three of his own on the Minnesota Timberwolves has kept his effective field goal percentage around the .500 mark, comparable to past seasons. Though it’s comparing apples to oranges, that Westbrook has yet to play cohesively with more than one other superstar might signal a deeper problem than team chemistry.
Fear is a surefire way to force bad decisions. Given OKC’s play thus far, the team has every right to fear getting bounced from playoff contention yet again. Westbrook is averaging over four turnovers per game for the fourth straight year and is currently second in turnovers per game (4.7) behind DeMarcus Cousins. Coach Billy Donovan’s bench (and fourth most used lineup) is struggling to put the ball in the basket and the Thunder are are failing to find a way to turn the second best defensive rating (101 points per 100 possessions) into a winning offense (23rd).
Adversity has always motivated Westbrook, and possibly missing the playoffs for the second time while suiting up next to a pair of talents like George and Anthony won’t set well with the 2017 MVP. Locked into a five-year contract, Westbrook is working against the clock, aware of the potential for George and Anthony to jump ship, leaving him, once again to captain a raft in a sea of Western Conference ships (and no, they’re not Clipper Ships).
Now, Westbrook has to find a way to manage his basketball smarts with composure. Like a school, the Thunder and Westbrook can take time to prepare for the test, but unless a concerted effort is made, Westbrook’s inability to adapt might be the death of the 2017 Thunder.