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Russell Westbrook: OKC’s Championship Hope

On Wednesday, May 29th, 2014, the Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves in the Western Conference Finals with the series tied 2-2. They were up against, quite possibly, the best team of the past decade, the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs were coming off two consecutive losses against the resurgent Thunder, who had just gotten their big-man, Serge Ibaka, back from a calf injury. With the Thunder leading 24-19 in the first quarter, Westbrook calmly dribbled the ball up the court. Then, with a quick crossover, he beat Kawhi Leonard and exploded towards the basket. The rest was history. He soared effortlessly above the rim and finished with a ferocious dunk. As he came down, he pounded his chest with rage and stared deathly into the eyes of the Spurs.

To understand this constant emanation of rage, Westbrook’s life of doubt needs to be put into perspective. From his earliest days, Westbrook’s ability and size was always questioned by high school coaches, colleges and NBA scouts.

Westbrook was born in Long Beach, California on November 12, 1988. He began playing basketball at the age of seven and would follow his father to Ross Synder Park, at the intersection of 41st street and Compton Avenue, to work on his craft. He fell in love.

Basketball became Westbrook’s backbone and provided that escape he needed from the rough streets of LA. He would play basketball during the day and watch his showtime Lakers dominate the NBA during the evening. Magic Johnson quickly became his favorite player. The playground basketball scene of LA combined with the flashy showtime Lakers would set the precedent for the type of player Russell would eventually become: A ferocious rim-attacking guard and an unyielding competitor.

Westbrook entered Leuzinger High School as a 5-foot-8, 140-pound freshman, where he would get his first exposure to the doubt that has chronically plagued him. He came in severely undersized on a senior-laden team. Playing time was difficult to come by. Westbrook and his father worked relentlessly on his game in the hope of landing a college scholarship. Dorrell Wright, who was a senior on that Leuzinger Varsity team and now plays for the Trailblazers, was quick to take notice. He said, “[Westbrook] was always the smallest one but he was always the toughest one.” That toughness, which has now translated into NBA stardom, was the driving force behind Westbrook’s relentless work ethic and playing style. Still, no schools were willing to dish out a scholarship offer on an undersized, unknown commodity with a limited skill set. Then, everything changed as he entered his senior year. He was now a 6 foot 2 point guard that had developed his skill set, especially his shot, which was the primary element that he struggled with. He averaged 25.1 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists that year and led his team to a 25-4 record.

The UCLA bruins saw a potential star in the making. Ben Howland quickly offered the now 6-foot-2 guard a scholarship offer after UCLA’s leading guard, Jordan Farmar, declared for the NBA draft. Westbrook would finally get his opportunity at stardom right in the spotlight of his hometown. He would finally prove his naysayers wrong.

As he entered college, this process took a little longer than expected. Russell was not yet that highflying, gravity defying point guard that has electrified the NBA. Instead, Russell was just the backup for Darren Collison and was primarily used for energy production off the bench. He averaged a measly 3.4 points, 0.8 rebounds and 0.7 assists in his first season. His lack of hype throughout high school was quickly justified. There was still doubt about whether he was a legitimate college starter and whether he had a future in the NBA. He needed more playing time to showcase his talents. His sophomore season presented just that opportunity. Lead guard Darren Collison went down with an injury and Westbrook was named a starter. That year, Russ averaged 12.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and earned PAC-10 Defensive Player of the Year.

NBA scouts finally saw enough to warrant him as an early first round pick. Westbrook decided to forgo his last 2 years of eligibility and enter the 2008 NBA draft.

Westbrook, who was drafted 4th overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder (then known as the Seattle Supersonics) in the 2008 NBA draft. For the first time in his career, Westbrook had the immediate trust of his team and coaches to dominate the ball. He would average 15.3 points, 5.3 assists and 4.9 rebounds as a rookie and would be named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team. He would improve on these impressive numbers year after year and would quickly cement his place as a top 5 point guard in the league.

The Oklahoma City Thunder would also enjoy combined success as a team and would become perennial playoff contenders in a historically competitive Western Conference within two years of Westbrook’s arrival. After being eliminated in the first round by the Lakers in 2010 in their first playoff appearance, the Thunder would reach the Western Conference Finals in 3 of the next 4 years. With the dynamic duo of Westbrook and Durant, the future looked bring for this young franchise. Dynasty aspirations were well within reach.

Going back to the fateful day on May 29th, 2014, the Spurs would go onto beat the Thunder and win the series. They would eventually win the NBA championship over the defending champion, Miami Heat, by a record margin of 14.5 points per game. Headlines of the Spurs dominance were heralded around the country. No one was talking about that OKC team anymore. This was the same team that was full of potential just a few years ago. Now, the conversation was about their repeated failures and inability to break through.

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This this Thunder team is to ever win an NBA Championship, it’ll have to be via Russell Westbrook (Photo Credit: Joe Murphy-NBAE)

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant would both be 26 years old by the beginning of next season. Durant had only 2 years left on his contract. Were their days of playing together numbered? Was that coveted championship dynasty just a hopeless ecstasy? These questions may seem stationed in the perspective of a prisoner of the moment, but these questions revealed the growing tensions in Oklahoma City. The MVP prowess of Kevin Durant was unquestionable, but after failing to reach the NBA Finals in consecutive years, the national media needed someone to point the blame at.

Naturally, the target became Russell Westbrook: A man that critics love to doubt and a kid that was written off his entire life.

For the past few years the media has labelled the success of the Thunder as a product of Durant’s dominant rise to stardom. They labeled Durant as the alpha dog and Russell as, merely, his metaphoric Robin. Yet again, Westbrook found himself in the middle of a media storm, in which his abilities, style of play and character were all doubted. Critics of Westbrook yearned for Durant to take more shots, which meant less shots and more facilitation from Westbrook.

The critics could not be more wrong.

This is not the way Westbrook plays basketball and it never has been. To take away his basic personality as a fearless attacker and an unconscious, high volume shooter would rob the Thunder of any possible chance at a championship run and it would deprive the NBA of the most athletic and competitive point guard to ever play the game. What the media and the critics didn’t understand is that the Thunder need Westbrook just as much, if not more than they need Durant.

Westbrook has been the heart and soul of that team since his arrival and that ferocious competitiveness that he provides is a prerequisite for any team that has championship aspirations.

Yes, Kevin Durant is the reigning MVP and he may go down as the most prolific scorer the NBA has ever seen; however, Westbrook deserves a lot of the credit for the praise that KD has warranted. In the 2013 playoffs, in which Westbrook went down with a torn meniscus, Durant had arguably the two worst games of his career in games 4 and 5 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals. Over the course of these two games, Durant averaged 24 points on just above 30% shooting from the field, 72% on free throws and a total of 11 turnovers. These numbers are astonishingly bad especially for a superstar of the highest order. The Grizzlies absolutely shut Durant down, which led to the early playoff exit for the Thunder. This was the Thunder’s earliest exit since 2010, when Westbrook and Durant were just NBA sophomores.

Just ask the Bulls and the Lakers, who are home to two of the greatest competitors ever: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Durant simply doesn’t have it in his genome to be that fiery competitor.

Russell on the other hand is a straight up killer. He doesn’t want to be your friend, he doesn’t want to put on a fake smile and dance with you before games. He goes into games to dominate his opponents, to prove to the world that he is the most unstoppable force in the game of basketball.

It is clear what Westbrook brings to this team offensively, defensively and in terms of leadership. On the offensive end, he is consistently in attack mode, which keeps defenses on their heels. This opens the floor up for Durant and leads to more easy opportunities for the Thunder. In the 2014 playoffs, the OKC Thunder handled the Grizzlies in 7 games, just a year after losing to them in 5 games. The only difference between these years was the presence of Russell Westbrook. The pressure he forced on the Grizzlies defense led to a much better performance from Kevin Durant from the previous year. In games 6 and 7, Kevin Durant averaged 34.5 points on 56% shooting. Clearly, Durant was exponentially better with his running mate, Westbrook, on the court.

Yes, the Thunder won this series because Durant played like the superstar he is, but like we saw the prior year, Durant is guardable as a lone superstar, as are many other superstars. Jordan needed Pippen, Lebron needed Wade and Kobe and Shaq needed each other. Just like that, Durant and Westbrook need each other if they hope to deliver that first, all elusive championship to Oklahoma City. Westbrook, however, will need to take over the reigns as the alpha dog of the Thunder.

This year, he finally got his chance. With Durant sidelined for most of the 2014-2015 campaign, Westbrook has ascended into greatness with a statistical season that the NBA has not seen since Oscar Robertson in 1965.

This year Westbrook has averaged 26.2 points, 8.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 6.6 rebounds. His PER, which is a rating that attempts to boil all of a player’s contributions into one number, is 29.2. This only trails Anthony Davis’ PER of 31.1. Of the NBA’s 50 greatest players ever, 45 of them never posted a PER greater than 29 for an entire season. Westbrook is unique. He’s shown it through his stats, his ferocious competitive spirit and his ability to lead his team.

Russell Westbrook is a monster right now, and it isn't because of the mask. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Russell Westbrook is a monster right now, and it isn’t because of the mask. (Photo Credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

His play in February has been even more impressive. He averaged 31.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists, while leading the Thunder to a 9-3 record and within 2 games of the Spurs for the 7th spot in the Western Conference. He became only the 2nd NBA player ever (the other being Oscar Robertson) to average 30 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists in a month. He put the Thunder on his back and catapulted himself into serious MVP contention.

Lets not forget his All-Star Game performance either. He wanted the MVP award in this game, and he went out and got it.

This historic triple-double run isn’t just a display of Westbrook’s freakish athletic ability; it’s a display of his versatility, his grit, his fight and his competitive fire. If you’re a sports fan, you’ll admire Westbrook’s will to win. In the final month of the regular season, Russell is going into games, without much of a supporting cast and literally doing everything in his power to get the win.

The dude is literally a beast. There isn’t a player in the NBA that looks forward to guarding Russell Westbrook. He’s arguably the most athletic point guard in NBA history. His lightning quick first-step, combined with his strength and explosive power make him one of the most difficult covers in the league. He he has an aggression to his game that we have never seen out of another player. He has no mercy.

If Russell Westbrook is on the floor, your team will always have a shot at winning the game.

As great as Durant is, he has never matched Russell’s statistical production. He is also not the defender that Westbrook has proven himself to be. Durant has shown time and time again to be a prolific, all-time great scorer, but he has also showed his inability to lead a team on his own. He does not quite have the same fearless mentality of Westbrook and so many other greats like Kobe and Jordan.

Kobe Bryant has repeatedly complimented Westbrook’s game and has even gone, as far as to say that he’s the closest to Bryant in terms of intensity. Bryant said, “He just plays with a rage that’s not very common.” It’s this rage that sets Westbrook apart from Durant and so many others in the NBA. He displays the same ferocious rage and confidence of transcendent superstars, such as Kobe and Jordan. He may not be blessed with the same skill set as Durant, but when he’s been given the keys to team, he’s shown his ability to dominate and fearlessly compete.

For years, the media has ripped Westbrook and unfairly bashed him for holding Kevin Durant back from achieving another level of individual greatness. If anything, Russ is proving that it is actually the other way around.

If the Thunder have any hopes of winning an NBA championship with this historically loaded western conference, they need both Westbrook and Durant to be superstars. Westbrook, however, has to be the Batman to Durant’s Robin.


By: Hasrit Sidhu

1 Comment

  1. hey

    February 24, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    cbhn.com

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