Passion. Explosiveness. Heart. One could go on with one-word adjectives trying to explain the dynamo that is Russell Westbrook. Truth be told, he is a superstar who simply cannot be explained. Yet, it does not matter to Westbrook what your opinion is of his game. Just ask Steph Curry: Westbrook on Steph Curry.
Westbrook will dominate. If given a spotlight, he will take it. If he is given a challenge, he will attack it ferociously. Therefore, if you are an NBA fan, you are better off simply admitting that Westbrook will be the best player in the league next season. That’s right; not LeBron James, not Kevin Durant. It will be Russell Westbrook.
The league’s most exciting player took the NBA by storm last season; Westbrook averaged a triple double for an entire season and achieved the feat an incredible 42 times over the course of the entire year. It does not stop there as he led the league in scoring and willed a very young Oklahoma City Thunder team to the sixth seed in a competitive Western Conference. His incredible season was appropriately capped off with an MVP award, winning the award against the likes of James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron, who all had tremendous years on their own accounts.
Yet, despite all of this, certain analysts and critics alike downplayed the season that Westbrook had. They labeled him a “stat-padder,” a triple-double chaser, and somehow a ball-hog (the guy had double digit assists, so I am as confused as you are). They claimed that Westbrook was a guy that no star could ever win with, and that he was doomed for the rest of his career. They even marginalized the importance of the MVP award, saying that Westbrook was simply chasing the award the entire year. Well, as DJ Khaled would say, Westbrook chose to stay away from “they.” He has done so for most of his career, and he thrived off of it this past season. Westbrook is no stranger to the unfair criticism as comments like these have only fueled him.
Russell Westbrook is without a doubt one of the five best players in the league. Some may even say he cracks the top three, but with the moves that the Thunder have made this season, they will be a title contender and Westbrook will take the throne.
This past season was supposed to be an uphill climb for the Thunder, and it was. They had the second-youngest team in the league last season, and were still one of the ten best teams in the NBA. The team dynamic completely changed after giving up Durant and Serge Ibaka. The only viable scoring option on the wing was a young Victor Oladipo, who was accustoming himself to playing with Westbrook the entire year. In a league dominated by the three ball, the Thunder were playing four-on-five the entire season on offense, simply because of Andre Roberson’s inability to shoot. Westbrook played with Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Domantas Sabonis as well who, just like Oladipo and Roberson, are all either 25 years of age or younger. He was the only veteran on his team in an era where most competing teams have two to three All-Star caliber players in their starting lineup.
In addition to all of this, the Thunder displayed some of the worst bench production in the league. Yet, Westbrook led his team to the playoffs where they eventually fell to a Houston team loaded with offensive weapons (the series was much closer than the 4-1 final line). These statements alone should tell you enough about how he will become the best player in the league, but I will continue.
In that series against Houston, the Thunder outplayed the Rockets four times, but only took one of those games and lost the series convincingly (Game 1 was a blowout). The Thunder outscored the Rockets by an average of five points a game when he was on the court, but were outscored by over 50 points per 100 possessions when he was off the court.
The Thunder now have Paul George, who will give Westbrook exactly what he didn’t have last year: a consistent starter and premium catch-and-shoot player. Having him on the wing is significant because George was second in the league in catch and shoot points per game last year. Westbrook’s game is built off of penetrations that allow him to score or kick out to teammates. For most of last year, he did not have a single consistent spot-up shooter to work with. This season, the Thunder will have George, Patrick Patterson, and Raymond Felton new to the roster. They also still have Doug McDermott and Alex Abrines, who are key sharpshooters that did not get too much of an opportunity last season. I emphasize these players because they will allow Westbrook to fix his two glaring flaws (if you can call them that): turnovers and 3-point shooting.
Westbrook is constantly criticized for his high turnover ratio, but this is expected with the amount of time he has the ball in his hand. With catch-and-shoot players threatening on the outside, however, Westbrook will be tough to defend when playing his game. He will not have to make risky plays, because defenses will not be focused on just him. If defenses try to contain him, Westbrook will have no problem passing the ball. As for 3-point shooting, Westbrook shot a career high from that range last season. This year, he will have more space to operate and is no longer the only threat to score. He as at the peak of his basketball ability, and now has a roster that complements his game perfectly.
The claim that Westbrook will be unable to succeed with George is fair. George is nowhere near the superstar that Durant is, and Westbrook could not win with him, so how could he win this year? Durant got sick of playing with Westbrook, so how can George possibly get along with him? Would it be crazy to say that maybe Durant was the problem for the Thunder?
By the end of Durant’s tenure, Westbrook was slowly taking the team over. It is obvious that Durant was AND is the best scorer in the game today, but Westbrook was dominating the floor in all aspects. He outplayed the two-time MVP on defense in a series against the Warriors. He dominated on the boards, played solid defense, and scored his fair share. When he did struggle, Westbrook got his teammates involved. The 3-1 lead that the Thunder had on the Warriors was due largely in part to Westbrook’s play. Durant’s departure unraveled the greatest all-around season of basketball in the modern era. Westbrook was seen as selfish for trying to be the star, but after seeing all the talent he displayed last season, was he wrong?
Westbrook has always had the ability. He has always had the athleticism. His skillset is now fine-tuned. He already had an entire year of unleashing fury and proving to the world that no one can stop him on his day. Now, it is time to win. People never saw coming what Westbrook accomplished last year. Those same people will be shocked when he puts the Thunder back in contention for an NBA title and becomes the league’s undisputed best player.