The truth about Russell Westbrook: He isn’t good enough to lead the Thunder

Yahoo Sports

As Portland’s Moda Center exploded Tuesday night amid confetti and celebration, Russell Westbrook couldn’t get off the floor fast enough to process his most recent first-round exit.

But the harsh verdict of history has long been nipping at his heels and no amount of triple-doubles can obscure the fact the Oklahoma City Thunder have gone nowhere with him as the headliner and perhaps his best days are in the rearview mirror.

His less-than-stately conduct aside, Westbrook is no longer excellent enough to warrant the currency on the floor or off, and if he won’t adjust his game, the Thunder organization should alter its light-handed treatment of its star.

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He was embarrassed in the most visible way — one-on-one with a counterpart who let his game do the talking with a 50-point closing performance and historic dagger that sent Westbrook back to the drawing board before the calendar hit May.

Damian Lillard isn’t a member of a superteam and isn’t as physically gifted as Westbrook, but used his gifts and his brains in a way Westbrook hasn’t yet mastered, baiting Westbrook into a singular battle the game didn’t call for. When the game got close, the Thunder looked frenetic and out of order. When Portland fell behind by double digits in the fourth quarter of the deciding Game 5, it performed with the poise fitting of a veteran point guard.

Russell Westbrook has to do something about his declining game. (Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook has to do something about his declining game. (Getty Images)

The position calls for order, but so does being the face of a franchise, and we’ve seen Westbrook’s brooding, boorish news conferences. Westbrook’s standing in the league adds a layer to it as well, but he was unable to produce, posting ugly numbers in the team’s four losses: 29-of-89 (32 percent) from the floor and 7-of-28 from three (25 percent).

And it’s not just the sample size of the postseason, either. There’s just one player in the league who takes more than five triples a game and shoots under 30 percent: Russell Westbrook.

Part of that was his recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery weeks before training camp, and he shot a respectable (for him) 34 percent from deep after the All-Star break. But his 3-point shooting has declined since his 2016-17 MVP season, and even his free-throw shooting has dropped to 65.6 percent.

If the drop is due to a lack of offensive creativity, coach Billy Donovan has to change that. If the personnel isn’t good enough, the cap-squeezed roster will have to evolve on the fly. But if it’s because of a lack of discipline, poor decision-making and too much freedom, Westbrook has to do what he said he would in his postgame news conference and look directly at himself.

He’ll need to take a page from Lillard’s playbook, the man who waved “bye-bye” to Westbrook as if making quick eyes with a toddler in a stroller. Lillard was embarrassed by the Pelicans' Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo last year in a playoff sweep, but prepared for a different outcome this time around. When opportunity presented itself, he didn’t hesitate to let fly a 37-footer.

Westbrook’s changes may have to be more dramatic as he enters a critical year in his career.

The environment, with very little alteration (read: Paul George), is transparent. Westbrook owns the restaurant, the equipment and the food. Nobody eats without his permission.

With that in place, player development can be stifled, even if the roster is good enough in terms of talent. The triple-double exploits have their drawbacks and having players fend for themselves is difficult.

The scouting report on Westbrook seems simple enough: use his strengths — his aggressiveness, his pride, his bullish nature — against him. In his mind, it’s all for the greater good. He was the player who defied the wisdom of the day to go from a low-level recruit to a lottery pick who was deemed a reach by a Thunder organization in its infancy.

That determination and tunnel vision gave him a Captain America-like shield to every criticism, especially the unfair ones. The front office and ownership being unable to make it work with James Harden? Blame it on Russ.

The Harden trade that only seemed to net Steven Adams? Criticize Russ.

Sticking with overmatched Scott Brooks? Kevin Durant’s sometimes free pass from criticism? You get the picture. It wasn’t that Westbrook was blameless, but he seemed to catch a disproportionate amount of blame compared to other people in his building.

And as bulletproof as he once seemed, it’s likely taken a toll through the years, and the loyalty earned through the criticism has created a seemingly unhealthy relationship between him and the organization.

If he insulated himself from the heavy-handedness of things, it also meant he was deaf to the critiques that made sense.

And as he enters Year 12 with multiple knee surgeries on his medical chart, he can’t keep going this way if he wants to be known for more than round numbers on the stat sheet. If he wants to win, he’ll have to be as proactive with his game as the Thunder organization should be with roster moves and those uncomfortable conversations teams must have with their stars.

Just because he stayed and Durant didn’t shouldn’t earn him a lifetime pass of loyalty, and being held accountable for his play doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be appreciated for the things he does well, and the standards he’s set through the years.

His greatness demands accountability, as history shouldn’t remember him as just an unabashed stat-stuffing soloist who ran off a dominant co-star and couldn’t adapt to his evolving body and game.

The question is: Will anyone talk to Westbrook before it’s too late?

The bigger one is: Will he listen?

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