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An imperfect superstar: What the Westbrook extension means for OKC

Russell Westbrook, the former MVP. (Wikipedia Commons)
Expert
4th August, 2016
7

Russell Westbrook has never been afraid, and his boldness in big moments (and every other moment) has come to define him.

He is his fearlessness, whether it’s taking the biggest shot of the game, or cannonballing into a thicket of big, angry limbs at the rim. Westbrook knows only one speed, and it’s a speed that doesn’t slow down for doubt or trepidation.

Never one to shy away from responsibility, it was no surprise to see Westbrook sign a contract extension with Oklahoma City yesterday. In essence, all the extension does is delay the drama by 12 months (it’s a three year extension/renegotiation, but he was already signed for the coming year and he has a termination option for the third year), but it’s more powerful in its symbolism than its formal reality.

While one leader chose to go to richer, more certain pastures, the Thunder’s other icon decided to stick around. With all due respect to Ersan Ilyasova, the Oklahoma City Thunder are now Russell Westbrook’s team. Is this a good thing?

By almost any estimation Westbrook is one of the five best players in the NBA, and certainly one of the top seven. Last season he was second in the league in assists, and unlike stat-hunter Rajon Rondo, Westbrook’s assists actually meant something. Among players who weren’t regularly hacked, only James Harden, DeMarcus Cousins and DeMar DeRozan got to the free throw line more than Westbrook. He’s also the best rebounding guard in the league.

The advanced stats paint a similarly impressive portrait of Westbrook’s impact on games. Only Stephen Curry rated better in plus/minus numbers and value over replacement last season. Westbrook was third in PER and win shares, and sixth in usage percentage. The Thunder were 12.9 points per 100 possessions better with Westbrook on the floor, bigger than the difference between Golden State and Orlando.

And yet, are we sure, when left to his own devices, that Russell Westbrook really helps his team win?

After Curry (and, for sentimental reasons, Manu Ginobili), Westbrook is my favourite player in the NBA. He attacks the rim with sweet violence, he crashes the boards, and he distributes willingly, if not naturally. He is the irresistible force that makes the immovable object whimper and retreat for cover.

Kevin Durant was the best player in last season’s Western Conference Finals, but Westbrook was its heartbeat and identity. He asserted his will on the series, and his relentlessness and athletic chaos momentarily tilted the NBA’s axis of power and made a 73-win team look confused and rudderless.

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Against the Warriors he averaged 27 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and four steals. Of course, with those numbers came 4.4 turnovers per game, sub-40 per cent shooting from the floor and a ludicrous 5.9 attempts from deep each game – which isn’t ideal considering he can’t really shoot. But that’s the Westbrook experience. And his influence, as it always does, transcended the box-score.

The mere presence of Westbrook on the court is powerful and unsettling, his shadow impacting the game in a way that no other player’s can. After every one of their misses, the opposition has to be alert to the reality that Westbrook can go from snaring a rebound to eating the rim in the blink of an eye. That unending consternation is as exhausting as it is intimidating.

It ate away at the Warriors until Klay Thompson destroyed the cosmos and created a new world where the perfect arc of a shot was more devastating than long limbs and pure, raw athletic power.

Westbrook was brilliant against Golden State, but his flaws eventually came to the surface, as they always tend to. He takes terrible shots, often from deep, and often at the worst of times. He’s as frustratingly reckless with the ball as he is admirably reckless with his body. He has defensive lapses that would feel at home in a James Harden YouTube compilation.

Can someone with all those flaws be the best player on a championship team?

No, probably not.

It’s almost trite to say that he couldn’t be, given that Westbrook has as strong an argument as anyone to be considered the fourth best player in the game. But the reality of the NBA is that the fourth best player in the game is almost never the leader of a title team. Titles are won by the Jordans, Birds and LeBrons of the world. The Nashs, Iversons and Ewings typically have to wait at the door.

We’ve already seen what a Westbrook-led team sans Durant looks like. With Durant injured in 2014-15 and Westbrook playing, the Thunder went 22-18, with the bulk of those wins piled up against mediocre teams. Westbrook is special, but without the terrifying threat of Durant to bend defences his influence is blunted. Westbrook’s inability to punish teams with his shooting makes him easier for defences to contain, and he doesn’t have the offensive dynamism and versatility that Durant, Curry and James possess.

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As awkward as the fit with Durant seemed at times, Durant was the perfect player to pair with Westbrook. His all-world shooting made up for Westbrook’s shortcomings, and his deferential personality allowed Westbrook to be the team’s alpha force at times. The relationship, by all accounts, wasn’t exactly harmonious, but no relationship with Westbrook could be, and that’s the beauty of him.

Westbrook is a running mate, not a president. If he’s clearly the best player on your team, your team is likely not a contender. Do not be fooled by the superficiality of assist numbers – he does not make his teammates better the same way that James, Curry or Chris Paul do. His awareness and selflessness have improved leaps and bounds over the years, but they’re still a task for him – they don’t come effortlessly like they do for many of the greats.

The Thunder will be similar to the team they were last time Westbrook was handed the keys. Steven Adams has improved significantly (is he, as Bill Simmons has suggested, the best center in the league? If we remove head cases – adios DeMarcus – then he might be). Victor Oladipo is an upgrade on Dion Waiters, and Billy Donovan is seven rungs higher up on the ladder of coaching competence than Scott Brooks. But Serge Ibaka is gone, and so are D.J. Augustin and Jeremy Lamb, who were capable if unremarkable rotation pieces. Over the course of a whole year, the 22-18 record under Westbrook’s guidance would be a 45-win season, which feels exactly where this team is right now.

But they’re a 45-win team with upside. Adams turned 23 a fortnight ago and is already a star and a foundational piece. Oladipo is only 24, and can finally breathe outside the shackles of Orlando’s obsession with mediocrity. Enes Kanter is the ultimate match-up player, but in the right one he can be devastating, as the Spurs could tell you. Andre Roberson showed real flashes in the playoffs, Alex Abrines comes hyped, and Cameron Payne and Domantas Sabonis are both loaded with potential. And Russell Westbrook is still just 27 years old.

This extension shouldn’t be about Westbrook becoming the face of the Thunder. It should be about him giving them an extra year to grow, and giving them a shot to pair him with another superstar via free agency or trade over the next two seasons.

There is nothing definitive or certain about the Westbrook extension, but ever since the Harden trade, Sam Presti and the Thunder have never been about selling certainty. They’ve been about selling hope and flexibility, and this extension is another product in that sales line.