Who knew that one defection would alter the career trajectory of Russell Westbrook. Whereas he was happy to be the Kevin Durant partner two seasons ago, Westbrook is now the triple double machine, the I stir the drink in OKC, and I just got paid. Westbrook was offered and accepted the largest contract in NBA history, following Westbrook’s extraordinary year and more triple doubles than anyone in NBA history. Last season, Westbrook had a triple double against every team in the NBA except the Bulls and Blazers. His triple doubles were responsible for 71% of the Thunder wins. Those same tripled doubles are responsible for the $230 million in Westbrook’s pocket.
His mega contract not only puts to bed the thought of Westbrook turning his back on OKC for California like Kevin Durant did, but it erases for good that bitter taste in the mouths of OKC fans who trusted Durant and had their heart broken. It’s funny though. All those years of fan whining about Westbrook, he shoots too much, he turns the ball over too much, he’s straight up selfish, has come to this. Westbrook is the Thunder. Their hopes live and die with him. The Kevin Durant era is truly over.
In OKC, the hope is different than last year. Last year, it was all about disproving a negative, that Kevin Durant didn’t matter. This year a lot of the scorched Durant earth has been tilled over. The Thunder know the future, or at least part of it. They can build upon what they have with their franchise star. Now it’s about the puzzle, making the pieces fit. There are far fewer questions even as the Thunder will tally up huge luxury tax bills in the Westbrook regime. For a small market, having Westbrook signed for the long term goes a long way in planning, whether Paul George and Carmelo Anthony stay or leave. A plan can be constructed without a lot of what ifs.
The beauty of Westbrook is past and present. He is one of those handful of stars who could have played in the ’80’s when the rule about physical play was to jam your man up. Make him feel you. When social media didn’t exist. When it didn’t matter what people thought of you off the floor, it was on the court that mattered. You didn’t get punked. You retaliated and accepted the technical foul. You settled all grievances. It wasn’t about making friends.
Westbrook is of this era too. Quick to the rim on drives. Three point makes and misses. Play fast. He is two eras in one, a whirlwind of energy and talent and fire. And toughness, grit and let’s settle grudges.
As long as Russell Westbrook has his say, and Billy Donovan hasn’t lost his mind, Westbrook will lead this new look Thunder team with a lot of bravado and edge. It’s a new look. The most talent the Thunder have had; they are not so top heavy anymore. Gone is the mediocrity. Here is the talent. Paul George is in his prime and takes pleasure in defending. Carmelo is out his prime but moving to the four will be a gift with Melo draining midrange shots and not having to work as hard rebounding. Plus Steven Adams will help Carmelo by taking the burden off on the defensive end.
There are weaknesses. Carmelo’s defense. Back up point guard. The second team is average and they’ll have to play one of their big boys with the second unit to keep everything flowing. Billy Donovan has to design an offense to elevate George, Westbrook and Anthony, who all have different games and are used to being the alpha dog. Who takes the backseat and can Donovan, a third year head coach, handle the egos? Once you take on a Big Three, you take on the baggage too. Someone has to be told no.
But those are the small details every team wishes they had to deal with.
A few months ago, when Durant decided to wrap up his OKC stay no one quite knew how it would turn out for Westbrook. They knew Westbrook would play hard. And Westbrook would bring energy. And he would be tireless. And he would lead. But no one could say with certainty, playoff team or entertaining team? Westbook though rose to the occasion and become a virtual one man wrecking crew which was mesmerizing for the league and good for Westbrook. And Oklahoma. And Westbrook’s bank book. But the real question Westbrook answered was less about how he was going to lead and more about how he was going to play under pressure.
The doubters, he made believers. He played hard. He played tough. He didn’t back down. And he was rewarded with the richest contract ever.
He wins. Oklahoma wins. Thunder fans win. Now the season can start.
photo via llananba