Now that the main competitor to the MVP has been eliminated in a must win home game by 39 points, I thought I’d reflect on the real MVP, who of course was dismissed in the last round, but wreaked havoc in his wake.
Curt. Abrasive Rough. That is Russell Westbrook. Fearless. Relentless. Electrifying. That is also Russell Westbrook. The man, the mystery, to quote Bill Simmons the 6-3 Oklahoma City guard brings so much to the table and manages to take just as much off of it. He’s a conundrum of an NBA star, the one player you love to hate, and for the longest time I did just that. I hated. At least up until July 4th, 2016.
As we all know, July 4th was when OKC lost their founding star and their biggest hero turned sell out in Kevin Durant when he decided that it would be a great idea to join the team with the easiest path to the Finals with the Warriors. I remember being stunned, thinking of a team that was now a shell of itself, one that was at the very least built around a high usage small forward, much less one of Durant’s caliber. Even when Russ signed that extension that was essentially a one year deal with a player option I thought “Oh yes, with this roster there is nothing stopping Westbrook from jumping ship like Durant.”
When NBA 2K17 was released, I immediately played a couple of games with the Thunder to simulate how the Thunder’s play could potentially play out. I was appalled. There was simply no spacing at all whatsoever, and the drop off from Durant (offensive savant) to Andre Roberson ( Offensively anemic) was very real. There was absolutely no wing depth, and the offense sputtered once Westbrook went to the bench. With literally no one outside of Oladipo and Westbrook able to hit or facilitate from outside, the Warriors just packed the paint and sat on every drive, forcing me to shoot (and brick) outside jumper after jumper. I rage quit shortly after the third quarter down 17 and sent up a silent prayer for my new found hero Russell Westbrook.
Then the season happened. I don’t really remember being that interested in Westbrook’s play in the beginning; I remember thinking with such a high usage rate that any uptick in numbers would really just be par for the course as far as counting stats went. But it never stopped. The tenacity, the intensity, the ferociousness. I felt the anger that drove Westbrook. Every slam dunk was like an exclamation point on his quest for wins through vengeance, retribution through victory. OKC rolled to 47 wins and clearly pushed that team beyond the boundaries set for them, it was amazing. He found a new aptitude for the three point shot, hitting a career high 200 them. He improved on every major statistical category from last season (and in most cases his career). It was awe inspiring, and something I never think I will see again.
It wasn’t until the Triple Double craze started that the mass media really started getting behind it. The detractors came by the dozen, claiming that Russell’s rebounds were “uncontested” (whatever that means), that the triple double average was an empty stat, that people were giving Westbrook a pass because of Durant leaving and overlooking his reckless play. It went on and on. They didn’t stop to notice that Westbrook was turning chicken shit to chicken salad by almost single handedly making a 47 win team out of a near 25 win one. And yet, you’d never hear Westbrook talk down about a teammate, lament the hand he was dealt, or refer to his teammates as a “supporting cast.” They were his team, and he went to war with them every night.
No one stopped to look at the roster itself, full of young, unproven players, and one dimensional talent highlighted by a paper thin bench that needed a fulcrum like Russ to hold them together. And yes, they were able to say “I told you so” after the Thunder were dumped unceremoniously by the Rockets in 5 games that were really the epitome of the Thunder’s season; strong play by Westbrook yet slightly marred by shot selection issues, a bench that couldn’t come through for OKC when it mattered, and a win that was a lot harder than it had to be.
What the Media COULDN’T say, however, was that Westbrook didn’t give it his all. He averaged 37 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists per game! They couldn’t say that he didn’t leave everything on the floor, and he didn’t. He brought the good, the bad, and the ugly. He brought Russell Westbrook, the complete package. In the end Russell played the same way he always has, by lowering his shoulder and ramming into the wall until either he or the wall gave in. This year it was Westbrook and the Thunder who bowed early. But I as a fan have gained such newfound respect for the man. I know that this summer he will work harder, become even stronger, and make himself better for next season, where he will set out to take on the world again and bust through the wall. It was a hell of a season Russ, and as an emotional fan who lives and breathes on every shot, I want to say thank you. For the Passion. The pain. The wins. The losses. The whole package.
Westbrook will continue to do what he wants, and I for one can’t wait to get a front seat and watch him work.