I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to watch an individual play basketball.
To be honest, I’ve been waiting for Russell Westbrook to be given this opportunity for years. I remember arguing with friends following Derrick Rose’s 2011 MVP campaign that Westbrook could put up better numbers and get the Bulls further than Rose did if the two swapped teams. But Westbrook had Kevin Durant on his team while Rose was allowed to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted, at least on offense. Durant is a marvelous player, but I also think he—or rather his presence—was holding Westbrook back.
Some players just aren’t meant to play second fiddle. From a pure basketball standpoint Westbrook certainly isn’t, and when it comes to an emotional presence Russ takes a backseat to no one. He’s just not wired that way, for better and for worse.
Me, I think it’s for better. There’s a reason Westbrook is the favorite to win this season’s MVP award. Dude is a beast, and now the shackles are gone, the team is his, the offense is his. You know how Nate Archibald is the only player to ever lead the NBA in points and assists per game? Believing Westbrook could do so too this year isn’t crazy.
He led the League in scoring two seasons ago (28.1) when Durant missed a chunk of games, then averaged 10.4 assists last year. Obviously Durant’s absence will hurt the assist numbers, and the Thunder could use some more shooting. Still, the ball’s going to be in Westbrook’s hands the majority of the time this season and OKC does have a number of bigs (Steven Adams, Enes Kanter) who should thrive on dump-off passes.
Think of it like this: Westbrook was a part of 722 pick-and-rolls last season, according to NBA.com’s player tracking database. Durant, meanwhile, was the ball-handler on 348 screen-and-rolls.
With Durant now in Golden State where do you expect those now free pick-and-rolls to go?
Then again, we all know Westbrook can, and will, put up monster numbers. In terms of most ridiculous athletes to ever step foot on an NBA floor, Russ is up there with LeBron, plus he’s got skills. The ability to blow by anyone trying to guard him, to create fast break points, to finish in the traffic at the hoop, and let’s not forget that picturesque stop-and-pop foul line jumper he’s perfected.
But the real question facing him and OKC this is year is can they win without KD? Or, more to the point: Can a team with a wild dervish like Russell Westbrook as its primary weapon compete for a title, or at least climb to the top of the standings? (No one in the West is knocking off the Warriors.)
In order to do that, Westbrook is going to have to do the Alpha Dog Balance: He’s going to have to learn when to take over and when to get teammates involved, and how to be more efficient (he shot 45 percent last year, but just 42 percent in 2015). He’s going to have to give full effort all the time, even on defense.
And he’s going to have to lead.
The latter, leading—it’s something that sounds easier than in actually is, especially for someone with as electric a personality as Westbrook.
(Though more no-so-subtle Instagram shots at his former buddy would certainly be welcomed by this writer).
What’s cool, though, is that these are responsibilities Westbrook clearly wanted; after all, he didn’t have to sign an extension with OKC, he could have waited to become a free agent and done that whole dance. And obviously that decision wasn’t a selfless one; there were financial benefits to him doing so.
But he was also itching to, finally, be handed a team and show everyone what he’s capable of if fully unleashed. I for one am excited that we’ll no longer have to spend May mornings debating whether he and Durant can co-exist. They don’t have to anymore. The Thunder now belongs to Westbrook.
And who knows what happens now? Maybe the League will soon be Westbrook’s, too.
RUSSELL WESTBROOK SLAM TOP 50 HISTORY
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Rankings are based on expected contribution in 2016-17—to players’ team, the NBA and the game.
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