Russell being Russell, the sequel
Westbrook remains the same guy there he was here, though it frequently paid off for him here, while it hasn't remotely paid off for him there.
I can’t decide.
I can’t decide if it’s a good thing Russell Westbrook has not changed one bit or if it’s the opposite.
I can’t decide if Russell being Russell is all you can ask of the man or if it’s decidedly not enough.
Generous and selfish.
Selfish and generous.
Westbrook is all things.
There was the time, moved by his spirit, I wrote what might still be the favorite opening sentence of my life.
The great Fred Katz, now covering the Knicks for The Athletic, was unavailable and Westbrook had just signed the first of his break-the-bank deals. Kevin Durant had bolted, but Westbrook proved loyal and he, the Thunder and the city, too, were celebrating.
Westbrook walked through a crowd of thousands, slapping hands on his way into a press conference, wearing a smile you can’t fake, leading me to the story that included my sentence and the one that followed:
We are all capitalists and still there is no currency like appreciation.
So yeah, Russell Westbrook has 8.8 million additional reasons to be thrilled about his next year of basketball in Oklahoma City — and maybe more than a quarter billion over the next seven were he to stick around for the very long haul — but all of that seemed less important than the adulation flowing every direction Thursday inside Chesapeake Energy Arena.
In his basketball life, I struggle to believe Westbrook was ever any happier than he was that day, Aug. 4, 2016, in downtown Oklahoma City.
But if it was a memorable turn of phrase from a memorable day for the city, state, organization and Westbrook himself, he was still the same guy, almost 28 months later, who, having shot the Thunder out of a fourth-quarter comeback against Denver, refused to speak to the media for more than two hours and only then after returning to the court, still in uniform, for a postgame shooting session that stretched past 11:30 p.m.
That display led to a much bigger story on a bigger subject under the headline, “When things go sideways for OKC, Westbrook, denial is the name of the game.”
In it, I explained that when it comes to the NBA, you can find stats for things you didn’t know existed, stats you can hardly imagine, and still there were a couple you couldn’t find:
You cannot find Russell Westbrook’s shot-taking percentage, nor his shot-making percentage in those times he crosses half-court with the ball and, given the way he’s eyeing the basket, everybody on press row, the bench, in the crowd and watching at home feels and knows the same thing:
Russ wants to shoot.
It’s not even like he’s two guys.
Just one with myriad sides, each inextricably linked.
Westbrook loves playing the hero and is great at it.
When it all falls into place nobody’s more magnanimous, appreciative, even thoughtful and humble. Yet, all these years later, the only way he knows to reach and feel and believe he’s earned that status is to do it himself, smartly making every play, shooting, rebounding, assisting, or stubbornly making them, icing teammates out of the equation.
In both instances, it’s all about him
Everybody’s seen it since he and Durant became simultaneous stars in Oklahoma City. What nobody wants to do is talk about it.
“I’ll go back and look at the film,” then-Thunder coach Billy Donovan said the night after Westbrook shot OKC out of the game against Denver. “A lot of them were catch and shoot.”
No he didn’t and no they weren’t.
Donovan knew there was no changing Westbrook and, Monday, in his Laker exit interview, Westbrook proved the point again.
It was an eventful day in Laker land. Not only did the players offer parting shots, but the coach, Frank Vogel, departed entirely.
The way Westbrook sees it, he wasn’t given a chance.
“When I first got here,” he said, quoted by ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, who was on site, “the ability to be able to do what I’m able to do for a team and an organization wasn't given a fair chance”
It was a forgettable season.
Along with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Westbrook gave the Lakers three players on the NBA’s All-Time top-75 list, only for Los Angeles to finish 33-49, entirely out of the playoffs.
Westbrook didn’t help much, averaging 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists, shooting 44.4 percent, 29.8 percent from 3-point land and 66.7 percent from the free-throw line.
In 78 games — to Westbrook’s credit, he’s still an iron man — just four times all season did he post a 20 or better plus-minus. Seven times he posted -20 or worse.
He thought there was a disconnect between him and Vogel.
“I think it's unfortunate, to be honest, because I've never had an issue with any of my coaches before,” Westbrook said. "I'm not sure what his issue was with me … I can't really give you an answer to why we really never connected.”
The most telling passage from McMenamin’s story may have been this one:
The 2017 league MVP also said that LeBron James’ and Anthony Davis’ repeated intentions to “let Russ be Russ” in unlocking the best version of the former All-Star were disingenuous.
“Yeah, [they said it],” Westbrook said. "But that wasn't true.”
When asked to elaborate, Westbrook said it came down to the pieces being unable to complement one another.
“It's a combination of where we are on the floor, positioning, fit and challenge, trial and error, being able to play on the floor with each other,” Westbrook said. “Finding ways to be able to utilize us to the best of our abilities. It's that simple.”
What it sounds like is there’s a way Westbrook can be his best self, and he’d love to be his best self. There’s nothing he’d love more. But the first thing required to be that version of himself is to be the one around whom all things revolve.
It may be selfish.
It may just be reality.
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James and Davis are hardly blameless. Most of James’ and all of Davis’ career have overlapped with Westbrook’s.
It’s not like the player they’ve been watching all these years is any different than the player we’ve been watching all these years.
Maybe too, there’s a short shelf-life to making the organization of Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant your own personal fiefdom and getting positive results and that shelf-life for James has ended.
That and is Davis ever healthy?
He played 40 games.
James played only 16 more.
There’s lots of blame to go around and in Westbrook’s case, it’s like blaming him for being himself. Not that it’s not deserved. A superstar should have more than one gear.
His season’s over, but the drama for the long-time Thunder star and one-time savior is not.
Remember that quarter-billion he could make if he stuck around?
It didn’t require him sticking around, only signing his next max-deal before departing Oklahoma City, which he did.
He’s remains on the deal, with a player option for one more year that would pay him $47 million next season if he picks it up.
The Lakers may be stuck with him.
Or they could find him a new team for him and send him there or, failing that, pay him, waive him and eat the dough still owed.
Or Westbrook could shock us, walk away from his option, find a new destination with an organization that wants him to be himself, wants him to run the show, for whatever his market value remains, a place that will love him for choosing it, the way Oklahoma Citians loved him for choosing them.
Just maybe, there’s still no currency like appreciation.