BDL 25: Russell Westbrook searches for an encore to an overwhelming season

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The guy is just a wee bit intense. (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)
The guy is just a wee bit intense. (Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)

The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it's time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2015-16.

Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook is no stranger to extremes, but his 2014-15 season exceeded even his high standards as an overwhelming force. With Kevin Durant hindered by foot problems and unavailable for all but 27 games, Westbrook met his added responsibility with an even greater rise in energy and confidence — no small feat for a player known as one of the most hyperactive of this era. Emerging as an MVP candidate as the Thunder attempted to claim a playoff spot, Westbrook did virtually everything a team could ask of a professional basketball player. He led the league in scoring and usage while regularly putting up triple-doubles before the end of the third quarter. These were stat lines most current video games don't even allow, seeming misprints that some players don't even post in a week of fantasy basketball. In an era that prizes statistical efficiency, Westbrook affirmed that profligacy can hold its own power.

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Yet the numbers only told a small part of the story. LeBron James put up gaudy stats under similarly shorthanded circumstances in the NBA Finals but maintained a certain sense of control of the proceedings — it felt as if he set the rules of engagement. By contrast, Westbrook appeared to brush up against his limits on on every single possession, only to return for the next one with a fresh tank and renewed intensity. Put simply, no player in recent memory has looked to work quite so hard, serving as the focal point of every offensive action and somehow throwing himself into countless loose balls and crowds to make any available impact. Westbrook played less like a basketball savant than like a prototype for a basketballing robot, the sort of fully capable but ultimately unsafe initial model never intended for public consumption. A dented cheek did nothing to convince anyone otherwise.

What Westbrook's play meant was not always clear. Never a favorite of the orthodox, Westbrook offered plenty of reason to decry his approach last season. He took objectively bad shots (often making them), took on crowds of defenders with regularity (succeeding more than expected), gambled for steals to the point of becoming a questionably effective defender (but did get a lot of transition buckets), and perhaps impressed upon himself upon the game more than any player reasonably should. Fans who glamorize the 1970 New York Knicks and 1977 Portland Trail Blazers were presumably not happy. Westbrook did not so much carry the team on his back as he dragged the other four people on the court to wherever he was heading.

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However, Westbrook didn't just soak up all available possessions and opportunities. He also reconfigured notions of what he can do on the court. Although Westbrook's career has largely been discussed in terms of the extent of which his ball-dominant ways hold back Durant, the absence of the 2014 MVP showed that the guard had sacrificed his own statistics to play with another star. Durant's return is not just about his ability to stay healthy, but how Westbrook will coexist with another superstar now that he has set a very high bar for his own production.

To be clear, this is a basketball issue rather than a personal one. (Despite the years-long (mostly unfounded) suspicion that the two don't get along, Durant and Westbrook matured together as pros and seem as close as two max-salary 26-year-olds could be.) Durant's reputation as an efficient scorer is well-earned, but he is still the sort of player who, like Westbrook, needs the ball in his hands to thrive. Under Scott Brooks, the Thunder usually looked to be trading off possessions to ensure that both players got the requisite number of touches. When Durant went out, Westbrook took on his workload and did not falter under the weight. The challenge for new head coach Billy Donovan will be to figure out a way for Westrook to play with the same kind of intensity while simultaneously amplifying the calmer excellence of Durant (and vice-versa) on each and every possession.

It could very well be a question without an answer. One of the great wonders and pleasures of Westbrook's season was that it appeared to explode the typical basketball hierarchy — it was hard to locate the individual within the team structure because he essentially superseded it. There is no guarantee that the everywhere-at-once Westbrook we saw last March can exist with a fully healthy squad, because a player may only be able to do all those things when no other star-level teammates are there to define the rest of the system. Projecting this new Westbrook may now not be a matter of finding out how a dominant player can adjust to equally or more talented teammates. Rather, the key may be to understand that he only expanded the possibilities of his game because the Thunder had no other choice but to let him explore his own limits.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!