Divorced from Kevin Durant’s fellowship and divorced again from the one-year honeymoon when no one begrudged him his megalomania, Russell Westbrook has entered a new reality.
In Westbrook’s new world, he is still one of the most exhilarating, enthralling basketball players on the planet. He is still bursting with rage and all that entails. He is still putting up absurd numbers. He is still impossible to ignore.
But a third successive failed epoch — after falling short with Durant, after falling shorter without Durant, and now one game away from falling painfully short with Paul George — has created something around Westbrook that never existed before: clarity.
That is, it is now clear that Westbrook isn’t a franchise centerpiece for a contender.
Central to Westbrook’s sonorous rise and explosive MVP season was the notion that for Russ, there was nothing too outlandish to expect. The triple-double season seemed an exclamation mark on this point: take away a teammate among the top three players in the world, and Westbrook will still find a way to stay on everyone’s lips. No one believed that a solo Westbrook adventure would result in real team success. But he, and by extension the Thunder, stayed relevant.
That relevance morphed into the opportunity to trade for George with some confidence that, after a season with Westbrook and eventually Carmelo Anthony, the two would create a new power center in the Western Conference.
That confidence was misplaced. Westbrook somewhat adjusted for his new star teammate — one who needs the ball less than Durant did, but who still needs the ball and plays a grinding individual style not that dissimilar from what Westbrook does. But the Thunder never reached their imagined potential, bouncing between garbage fire and intriguing potential upset threat all season.
Andre Roberson’s untimely injury surely cost OKC some of their upside — his defensive versatility better helped the Thunder survive their weak shooting by increasing the margin of error for the unsatisfying offense. But all teams deal with injury. Roberson isn’t an all-star-caliber player. Other teams survived worse.
That OKC’s offense never gelled is the biggest indictment of Westbrook. George is one of those multi-faceted wings who has never really starred in a good, interesting offense. Those Indiana teams relied on him in isolation or screen-rolls — not with much movement or grace.
The Thunder essentially plugged George into two roles this year: as a shooter waiting for Westbrook to drive and kick and as a secondary Westbrook. George is really good, but Durant was way better in those roles. While OKC did have a great offense a couple of times despite Westbrook’s relatively inefficient scoring, the Westbrook-George combo hasn’t worked out this season on that end.
You can question whether Billy Donovan’s staff should take a lion’s share of blame, but Westbrook’s offensive consumption has been a common thread across multiple coaches and multiple cores now. He is the common denominator between the unimaginative, predictable attacks of the past and the present. There is only so much of an offensive system you can run while knowing that Westbrook is going to attack north-to-south 35 percent of the team’s possessions when he’s on the court.
Utah provides a telling comparison. While the Jazz offense has degraded from the Gordon Hayward led version of last season, there’s a beauty in its serendipity. Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio are controlling the ball quite a lot, but the shots come from a variety of places, from a variety of players. Jae Crowder is (mis)firing away. Joe Ingles buried OKC in Game 4. Rubio had masterful control of the offense in Game 3, which helped set up Ingles’ Monday explosion.
There is no mystery in Westbrook or the Thunder offense. That is, in a way, a complement to what Westbrook remains able to do: he’s entirely predictable but still (often) gets the job done. Against a defense this good, against a center this intimidating in Rudy Gobert, it’s not nearly enough, though.
George finished Game 4 with 32 points on 26 shooting possessions — a good, efficient rate because he drew fouls — but had six turnovers to go with Westbrook’s five. Both played exceptionally hard to the point where each was, at times, out of control. George’s temper led to confrontations with Ingles, who soaked up every minute and relished in laughing in George’s face by the end of the night. Westbrook’s untamed aggression led to foul trouble, the turnovers, and some particularly wild shots.
In a hostile arena, against a confident opponent, it’s all a recipe for doom.
And so is, it appears, Westbrook as the centerpiece of a contending basketball team in the modern NBA. OKC could, in theory, win three straight to survive the first round and flip the narrative on its head. If there’s anything we’ve learned about the Thunder this season, after all, it’s that they can definitely look like vomit for three games and then look unstoppable in the next three games.
But assuming that doesn’t happen this time around, the expectation George skips town in July will grow. If he leaves, it’s hard to see how OKC finds another star to recruit or acquire via trade. General manager Sam Presti emptied the cupboards to get George and Anthony. The latter has a $27 million option to stay. The former is faced with a serious grass-is-greener situation. If Anthony stays and George leaves, the Thunder are going to be in awful roster shape going into next season. That 2016-17 season will look like a dream for Westbrook, Steven Adams, and Roberson.
Pulling in George and Anthony appears to have played some role in convincing Westbrook to sign a long contract extension. We believed that result instantly made the moves a collective success, regardless of what happened this season.
Perhaps we need to revisit that belief. Perhaps the future OKC locked up when it locked up Westbrook is no future at all.