He is one of the most routine-driven athletes in all of sports. From having the same peanut butter and jelly sandwich before a game to calling his parents on the trip into every game, Russell Westbrook does things his way on and off the court, so what made that same man change everything?
It was the 12th of July when the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder decided they wanted to swap hall of fame caliber point guards and go in different directions with their franchises. For Westbrook, this was a chance to walk away from all he’s ever known and see what the rest of the NBA world had to offer. Like a kid leaving his hometown along with his family friends and all his comforts of college, Westbrook had to leave the only place he’s ever known as an NBA player to see what the world had to offer. He had become all he could possibly be in Oklahoma. Russell Westbrook had become stagnant.
Last season something had changed in the universe of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Westbrook. It is hard to point out exactly what had change, except that something felt different. Paul George was playing at an MVP level while Westbrook was trying to find himself and in the past, that was okay. This time not so much. While George was hitting game-winners Westbrook was fighting racism and the Oklahoma media. If Westbrook wasn’t threatening to go up into the stands and teach a racist a thing or two he was saying ”Next Question!” to the Oklahoman journalist Berry Tramel.
Westbrook’s combative nature had gone from galvanizing to tiring. Westbrook was struggling on the court with his shot and his place on the team. He no longer was the center of the Thunder universe and he didn’t seem to know what or who he was supposed to be if he wasn’t that anymore. It was easier before with Kevin Durant, because it was already Durant’s team. When Westbrook arrived it was only a year later, but the writing was clearly on the wall; the Thunder was Durant’s team and Westbrook had his place, which was to be the number two to Durant’s number one.
He was more verbally aggressive towards opponents than he ever had been and it wasn’t because he’s one of the most competitive athletes to play the game. It felt more like a man who had lost his shot that was trying to hide the fact he was lost at sea, fighting to keep his grip on his universe that was being pulled away from him. Even though Westbrook was battling with himself and his role. the Thunder still found success thanks to George’s production and high level of output until George got injured which forced the Thunder to revert back to a Westbrook heavy offense. That was good for Westbrook but not so much for the Thunder and their progress as a team.
As Damian Lillard waved the Thunder off the court after their playoff loss, we watched the Thunder walk off the court for thier third consecutive first-round exit. All of the problems plaguing him through the season came out to play in the series the anger, frustration and trying to do too much while Lillard was the complete opposite to Westbrook. He was calm, composed, and effective which would ultimately put the spotlight on Westbrook and his flaws.
Westbrook’s public reputation took a hit throughout the season in the Sports Illustrated player rankings. Westbrook was the 7th ranked player in the league for the 2018-2019 season, and to start the 2019-2020 season Westbrook was at 12th. A perennial first and second All-NBA team vote-getter, Westbrook found himself in discussions to not make the third team this past season. No longer is Westbrook an automatic name that you throw out when you’re out with your mates, or your listening to your favorite NBA podcast.
The landscape of the NBA changed this offseason with Durant leaving the Golden State Warriors to join up in Brooklyn with Kyrie Irving as Anthony Davis finally found his way to the city of angels and the purple and gold adding another duo in the NBA setting a new trend or actually an old one in teams going with a two-headed monster. The Rockets have made the most intriguing duo with the partnership of Westbrook and Harden. Westbrook finds himself back with his old Thunder teammate both a completely different player to the one they both were when they last put on the same jersey with both holding an MVP trophy but they also lack a ring on their finger. As soon as the trade was made unlike other duos that were put together this one was met with much more negativity with questions being asked in the form of “There is only one ball” and “Who is going to sacrifice?”
On the surface, they are fair questions to ask as both men have had the highest usage rates in the league but if you look at Westbrooks usage rate numbers from the past three seasons and not just the outlier season of his MVP campaign you would see a decrease in his usage rate with the addition of Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. In Westbrooks MVP season he had a usage rate of 41.7 percent in the next two seasons there was a 10.8 percent drop. In the season following his MVP year, the Thunder added more weapons around their star and he dropped his usage to 34.1 percent in 2017/18 and then when George became the focus of the Thunder and they also added another point guard in Dennis Schroder from the Atlanta Hawks in a trade for Anthony Westbrook’s usage dropped to 30.9. It’s easy to say Westbrook hasn’t and won’t sacrifice but there is evidence to show that if you put talent around him of the same quality like a Durant or George and Westbrook can play second fiddle to them.
In the way stages of his Rockets career, he is saying and doing everything right. On media day Westbrook talked of his ability to affect the game without the ball.
“I don’t have to have the ball to impact the game,” Westbrook said. “I don’t have to score, I don’t have to do anything. I can defend, I can rebound, I can pass, I can lead. Our main goal, main focus, is to win. I can go be scoreless, and if we win, that’s the best thing that ever happened. That’s … all I ever cared about.
and how individual accolades are no longer good enough and the ultimate goal is nothing short of a championship.
“When it comes to me and James playing together, who’s going to have the ball, who’s not going to have the ball, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t have to prove I can score 30 points. I’ve done that before. I don’t have to prove to average 10 assists. I’ve done that before. I don’t have to prove to get 10, 11 rebounds. I’ve done that before. My goal is to win a championship. So whatever it takes to do that, that’s what I’m going to do.”
This is also an opportunity Westbrook hasn’t had before and that’s playing with freedom and no pressure of having the franchise on his shoulders. This is Harden’s team, not Westbrook’s maybe that’s what the doctor ordered.
“He comes to an entirely different chapter in his life to just go out and play,” Harden said. “He doesn’t have to stress and worry about the pressure of carrying an entire organization. I’m excited for him. The front office, coaches and teammates are all excited, too.”
There is changes aplenty in the coming season for Westbrook in the way of a new city, colours, fanbase and playstyle. If this gamble is going to payoff for Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey Westbrook has to improve on his shooting. To be an asset without the ball for the Rockets he needs to improve on his 29 percent three point shooting and 65.6 percent from the free throw line. Westbrook needs to find at least six percent more on his three-point shot to become respected again as opponents started to dare him to take the three-point shot and it was paying off for them. If Westbrook turns his shooting back around to at the very least to league average his warning to the NBA world will become very very real very quickly.
“It’s going to be scary, that’s all I can tell you,” Westbrook said. “It’s going to be scary — not for us.”
With all that being said one thing will never change in the world of Westbrook and that’s his right-hand man his man’s pots and pans the Bonnie to his Clyde the Goose to his Maverick the Buzz to his Woody and the Beyonce to his Jay-Z. His one true friend Spalding. Spalding has been with Westbrook from the 562 to the 405 now the 713 and that friendship will go on as long as Westbrook continues to step through the white line wall that separates the ordinary from extraordinary that friendship will never die.
Feature image from Houston Rockets.