WASHINGTON — Nobody can deny Russell Westbrook’s talent or drive to win, but whether the Oklahoma City Thunder can win with him is still a prevalent question.
The Thunder have been playoff fixtures since Westbrook’s second season and were championship threats when Westbrook and Kevin Durant elevated into superstars.
But of course, Durant left town for golden pastures and left behind Westbrook with questions that persist about his leadership, personality and playing style, with most of the basketball world counting out Westbrook — who sprained his left ankle Monday night — and the Thunder as championship contenders.
However, All-Star Paul George feels otherwise.
George said he knows championship windows aren’t open long. If not for the gruesome broken leg he suffered in the summer of 2014 while playing for Team USA as a member of the Indiana Pacers, George said, “We were gonna get it [the title] that next year.”
So George feels the Thunder are in a championship window right now.
“I think we are. We have a good opportunity,” George told Yahoo Sports. “We got a team that can be one of the best defensive teams that I’ve been a part of. And I’ve been a part of some good defensive teams, so we know what we got over here. This is definitely an opportunity.”
George’s Pacers teams were well-rounded defensively, with Roy Hibbert manning the middle and George terrorizing wing players as a budding star.
They were close, but not quite good enough to get past LeBron James’ Miami Heat in 2012, ’13 and ’14.
Last year’s Thunder were among the best defensive teams until Andre Roberson tore his patellar tendon in late January, and the team sputtered to the finish, falling to the Utah Jazz in the first round.
Many believed George, who was an unrestricted free agent, was headed for Los Angeles and away from Westbrook. And to a degree, not even Westbrook’s biggest defenders could blame George if he opted to leave.
But he stayed, believing in the Thunder organization that took a chance on acquiring him when the prevailing thought was that he was going to be a Laker. And it also meant he believes in Westbrook, who may be hampered for a while with the ankle injury.
But George, who has superstar talent, doesn’t mind filling in the blanks as a level of calm to Westbrook when the fiery guard is at full strength. In the Thunder’s thrashing of the Washington Wizards on Friday night, George didn’t make a field goal until two minutes remained in the first half — but didn’t seem to mind taking a backseat.
The defensive-minded Roberson is taking steps toward recovery, doing some light shooting and jogging before Friday’s game, and the Thunder’s defense was already in predator mode against the Wizards, harassing John Wall and Bradley Beal into 12 turnovers.
When Roberson returns and Westbrook gets his ankle right, the Thunder could be in position to possibly challenge Golden State in the West.
“[Westbrook] just competes. That’s the main attraction, a guy that’s gonna compete and play hard,” George said. “Regardless if he wasn’t who he was, I still like the level he competes at. You’re gonna get everything, every night. And you wanna play with that every night.”
When asked about Westbrook and his domineering personality, one general manager told Yahoo Sports: “Do you think you can win with James Harden? Did you believe you could win with Stephen Curry before he did it? We have to be careful with the labels. I’d rather have his talent on my team and work around the stubbornness and his flaws than not. You have to build a perfect team around him, though.”
He went on to make a football comparison, saying Westbrook is a lot like Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre.
“Favre would make the bonehead plays, but he did win a Super Bowl,” the GM said. “And guys will run through a wall for Westbrook, because they see him doing it.”
George is betting on Westbrook, and he’s hoping he’s not the only one.
Talking the talk
“At the end of the day, I kicked both of their ass … and we got the win.”
— 76ers center Joel Embiid, after scoring 39 (32 in the first half) and grabbing 17 rebounds against the Pistons — more specifically, Andre Drummond and Zaza Pachulia — in a 109-99 win Saturday afternoon.
The “big man” isn’t dead. Embiid is talking it. And walking it (seven 30-10 games) so far.
Questions, comments, complaints? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or find him at @vgoodwill on Twitter.
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