By: Blake Probert
I’d like to step away from the raging CivilWar for the time being. There are those, specifically my sparring partner, who will view this as an admission of defeat. Moreso, it is a sensible use of my time. It’s an argument I’ve had for years and I will undoubtedly continue to do so. I don’t view it as a failure when I fail to convert the non-believers, for as a wise man once said, “you can’t fix stupid.” Besides, how strongly can my counterpart feel about his points if he won’t even put his name on it?
Instead, I’d like to make a case for the man who will likely go down as my favorite NBA player and personality of all time: Russell Westbrook. The topic has been broached several times before, but I wanted this baby to be able to breathe. It commands my full attention; to leave it short would be negligible on my part. So, without further adieu:
GET THE F*** OFF RUSSELL WESTBROOK’S CASE: A Multi-Phase Defense
The world gets this whole thing wrong from the jump. Kevin Durant departs and the immediate assumption is that it must be because Russ is the worst person in the world to share a basketball court with. This is a classic knee jerk reaction to such a departure. A larger confluence of events was at play, if you ask me….which you did implicitly by clicking on the link.
Durant and Westbrook came up together, playing nine seasons in Oklahoma. They often appeared to be thick as thieves in those years, developing the type of friendship you might expect from two young pros taking the league by storm together. By year nine though, OKC’s forward momentum had stalled to a degree. The team had failed to return to the NBA finals since their ill-fated match-up with the Miami Heat in 2012. James Harden would be gone a few months later in a trade to the Houston Rockets.
The following seasons would be spent looking to cobble together enough talent to replace Harden’s production while both Durant and Westbrook suffered through injuries that derailed Thunder seasons.
In 2016, just months before Durant would leave, they had taken the formidable Warriors to seven games after their first title, but had blown a 3-1 series lead amid less than stellar play from both of their stars. By this point, legitimate questions could be raised about where the Thunder were headed with this core.
Then, the split. Durant pulls his Benedict Arnold routine and leaves to play with three other All-Stars who just beat him in what was the defining series for himself and the franchise he helmed to that point.
This is where I can objectively be of two minds about Kevin Durant. On one hand, I’ve been clear how I feel about him leaving to play with GS. It was a betrayal; leaving to join an enemy just when the stage was set for a dramatic, years long rivalry. On the other hand though, I understand why he’d leave OKC at that point. The front office had appeared more concerned with counting pennies, he’d been injured, and spent all his professional life in one place to that point. His basketball biological clock was undoubtedly ticking in his mind. Put all that together with his business interests beyond the court and it may have felt like the walls in OKC were closing in.
So, how does it all relate to Westbrook?
Russ is hyper competitive; his style of play is built on it. He’s fast, brash and plays each game like his life might very well depend on it. It is equal parts frustrating and enchanting to watch. A staple of Westbrook’s career is to watch as he nearly shoots the Thunder out of a game, only to make the two or three biggest plays to keep OKC in it. Costly turnovers and ill conceived threes are balanced out by hustle plays and rebounds snatched away from opposing big men. Couple that with the contempt he seems to possess for his opponent, and playing with him is undoubtedly an intense experience. One that almost surely wore on KD. When contemplating building a championship legacy in Oklahoma, it would have been tough to consider hitching his wagon to a cantankerous dynamo that might fall apart like the Bluesmobile at any given moment.
While Durant has questioned the talent that surrounded him in OKC, he has still paired himself and Westbrook together outside the whole of the roster. It would be my suggestion that Russell’s talent or Basketball IQ were not Durant’s central issues when ending the partnership. Concern about Westbrook’s long term viability and a desire to spend time with a more laid back personality type like his own were bigger potential issues than anything else. Russ can undoubtedly grate on people, but the love that so many of his teammates show for him tells me that the majority of them enjoy playing with him. Perhaps it wasn’t the case for Kevin anymore but, the idea that Russ is so trash that he had to leave doesn’t hold water.
Durant’s leaving to go anywhere would have been a tough pill to swallow, but Golden State was the only destination that could have brought out the level of acrimony that his decision did. No other destination could have stoked the fiercely loyal Westbrook’s fire like the Warriors. It certainly also fed the idea that Russell’s on court decision making pushed KD out the door. The Warriors fluid style served as a counterpoint to the Thunder’s top heavy, two pronged attack. It underscored many of Westbrooks deficiencies as a point guard and the repeated breakdowns of the offensive systems that had been installed by head coaches Scotty Brooks and Billy Donovan during the KD-RW era. No matter how much I may hate the decision from a competitive standpoint, the logic behind it is unassailable.
So, when Durant shocked many and decided to throw the league into chaos by teaming up with the Warriors people went looking for a scapegoat. Russell slid easily into everyone’s crosshairs, and the Thunder’s future fell into doubt.
Thunder At A Crossroads:
Bigger than all the Westbrook-Durant drama, the future of basketball in Oklahoma City was suddenly bleak for the first time. The Thunder had been either brimming with potential or a front line contender for the duration of their time there. Now, the face of the franchise had left town and they were a one star team in a small market. If you have questions about why that is such a big deal in a non-traditional basketball city, you should direct them to Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans.
The middle ground is the worst space for such a franchise to exist in. You’re not appealing enough to attract top tier free agents and you’re not bad enough to get the kind of high level prospects needed to rebuild. A franchise in this spot can often find itself over paying for second tier free agents and hoping project draft picks develop quickly…if at all. There often comes a point where trading your remaining star for future assets becomes the best move. None of this does much to help maintain fan interest in such a market.
This seems like the logical stopping point before we move on to the post-Durant era and I lay out my explanation for the way Russ has been utilized in the two years since his departure. We’ll start PART II with the Thunder franchise in flux, and why throwing their support behind the triple double season was the most logical move.
Pearl Jam still rules.