The Russell Westbrook story became so ubiquitous so quickly in 2016-17, that it became easy to forget that the Oklahoma City Thunder were a real team with real quirks and winning attributes that we not only once enjoyed, but championed.
Only a TV goof would say that Westbrook somehow stripped the club of its identity in his search for a triple-double, or its willingness to share the ball and ability to turn into an all-rounder. As if Steven Adams quips aren’t all over the place, as if coach Billy Donovan and general manager Sam Presti aren’t universally admired despite some serious gristle to chew on, as if we didn’t spend an entire regular season obsessing about Victor Oladipo’s fit on the club as a floor-opener and passer while mostly ignoring the great Patrick Beverley’s superior play in national terms (until the Houston guard finally spoke up).
Houston ended Oklahoma City’s season on Tuesday, while we all tried to explain to each other and ourselves (for the 87th time in OKC’s season) What It All Meant. The thinking behind the coverage surrounding Westbrook’s unplanned and sometimes-enjoyed triple-double run was well-deserved – the man turned in a season that feels like it would be diminished by a group of mere mortals voting him even the league’s top official, individual honor. Westbrook’s status as 2017 MVP or not was decided by most sometime last January, and that’s become a bit of a problem.
If you were swayed by Westbrook’s late-season charge of big games and clutch finishes (if you were, and for whatever side, let me ask you this: whyyyy?), you no doubt spent the time talking about it.
If you did make up your mind in January, you weren’t alone and you most certainly heard from others making their own decisions at the time. And we’ll all talk about it again on June 26th, when the NBA will make us watch its awards show. In creating another official place for clicks and chatter, the NBA intelligently took the focus of the MVP chatter away from April 21, when the NBA would have been forced to hand the award favorite his trophy before his team’s Game 3 win over the Rockets.
It was a remarkable season, all 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists of it. The first averaged triple-double season in over a half-century, the first to be done with a scoring title, and we’re burdening this man with MVP race talk? Westbrook might have “only” been the league’s third or fourth-most effective player in full during 2016-17, but in the eyes of many (some mindful of his many stations, some blissfully unaware) observers this hardly matters. This was his season.
And not the Thunder’s, in a way that should have all involved wide awake.
The fellas like each other, we don’t have to worry about that, and coach Billy Donovan has proven more than adept at thinking on his feet. The guy gets it, he’s made a team that was never going to be his actually his in degrees higher than any other coach possibly could, least of all most ex-NCAA head coaches. Anyone else stepping up to a battle with Kevin Durant in a free agent year (prior to Russell Westbrook in whatever the hell 2016-17 was) with an itch to scrap would have been doing the whole of the sport a disservice, and Donovan emerged with dignity intact.
As much as one could have, in peering over at a point guard with a usage rate that puts most reactors to shame. The legitimate leaguewide fears about Westbrook’s culpability in what turned into a limited, 47-win team with a mediocre overall offense are as much about a disdain for the practice as they are a representation of fear. How will Westbrook’s bodacious approach infect Giannis Antetokounmpo, and his Bucks’ attempt to build? How are we supposed to judge Karl-Anthony Towns’ outrageous numbers? What if James Harden is one Houston quirk away from playing on a 47-win team with a mediocre overall offense?
Accurate comparisons have been floated between Westbrook’s role on this team and LeBron James’ worth with either the Finals-making 2007 Cleveland Cavaliers, or the 2010 team that won 61 games before James broke down in Game 5 of the Eastern semis. That Westbrook sustained his bully approach in the postseason (if only for five games) was remarkable, and though his reserve tank was probably made heartier by the luxury of playing alongside Kevin Durant for eight years, it’s a nod to Westbrook’s astonishing durability. Especially after a pair of frightening knee surgeries.
Whether Westbrook’s boundless approach can stay as much beyond this season, though, is not an answer the Thunder franchise should care to find out.
It’s not that it didn’t work – for LeBron, for Oscar, for Doug Collins’ two franchise stars in Michael Jordan and Grant Hill – it’s that it doesn’t work. One can’t play like this, even with the best player in the league, and win a pro basketball title. This has little to do with the statistical achievements, either, because there is a world in which Russell Westbrook can average a triple-double (maybe even with a point total that approaches 30 per game) on a championship team.
That team had better be perfect, though, and failing that the likely MVP is going to have to learn how to win a championship with a box score line that runs closer to Chris Paul or even in-prime Gilbert Arenas than, say, a Destroyer of Worlds. With any other colt, we’d be more confident; but Westbrook is something different. Though he is wise beyond the game, he’s still newer to the go-to game (due to his late development) than the superstars listed above were at the same age (29 next November).
Watching him work it out while be as heart-wrenching as watching the Thunder front office make its latest big decisions in a decade-long history littered with them what feels like endless, wrenching approaches. This season was fun, and the growth period that (hopefully) follows will not be as exhilarating, its advancements less noticeable. And that’s just assuming the necessary arrangements – finding Westbrook a crew of shooters, defenders, and playmakers to run with; Westbrook finding the necessary balance between shocking and mere superstardom – are made.
The immediate concerns will cloud yet another major summer for the team. Enes Kanter ability to blend with a championship-level team is of far more concern than that of Westbrook’s, and the big man is heading into what could be a free agent season if he desires. Midseason acquisition Taj Gibson appeared underutilized by his new squad down the stretch, and he openly questioned his interest in returning to the team after its brief playoff run. Meanwhile, Victor Oladipo’s rookie contract has lapsed, and he’s due to make $21 million a season until 2121. So far, it’s not a fit.
Center Steven Adams’ rookie deal is also over, but the team is happy to maintain his presence at four years and $100 million moving forward, and one supposes it could talk itself into an extension for Doug McDermott (36 percent three-point shooter with the Thunder, hit 5-13 in the postseason) after a certain type of night.
The front office is never afraid to trade, and it’s never going to bottom out to keep the protected-first rounder it owes Utah (not with Westbrook due to mull a $220-plus million contract extension this summer), and with far too many recent draft picks and acquisitions looking like absolute zeroes on certain sides of the ball (Domantas Sabonis, McDermott, Semaj Christon, Kyle Singler, Andre Roberson), one has to wonder if this is a good thing.
Those are snackable, basketball things. What faces Westbrook and the Thunder is far more significant, in ways all the bloated pieces from the triple-double chase gnashed at for months. Russell isn’t selfish, but he is going to have to re-learn the game, all over again. Air-traffic controllers don’t tend to divert their careers midstream for a gig at the local library, and Westbrook is going to have to be afforded some patience after a season like this.
His front office, regardless of its previous intentions and hits along the way, will be afforded no such distance. With Russell Westbrook taken away from us until fall, the focus has to fall somewhere.
Other teams that will be gone until November