This was supposed to be the year that the MVP gained his full vengeance. After Kevin Durant left the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors, Russell Westbrook was made the beloved centerpiece. Last year, it was by becoming the first person since Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for the season. This year, it was a new five-year 200 million dollar extension and the addition of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony that would propel Westbrook to redemption (not to mention he averaged another triple double this year too)! On paper, this year should have at least been better than the last two seasons for OKC.
After an unceremonious first-round exit to the Utah Jazz, Westbrook has some serious soul-searching to do. There is no denying he is an unique generational talent. He plays with the ferocity of a raging bull in a China shop; his style is head-down and ultra-focused on himself. This mindset has carried Westbrook to back-to-back historic seasons and an MVP trophy.
However, this ultra-aggressive playing style has led to his downfall numerous times. As a player that is consumed with winning and giving his all during each second of a game, Westbrook will surely fill up the stat sheet. His aggressive approach is a great quality to have, but it is missing some key refinements.
There has been plenty of times over the past two postseasons where Westbrook has either looked completely gassed or has made head-scratching late-game decisions. Last year, it was understandable that Westbrook was out of gas against the Houston Rockets. He didn’t have a second option in the same caliber as Playoff P as Victor Oladipo was a shell of who he is now. Oladipo averaged 15.9 points a year ago and this year he jumped up to 23.1 in Indiana. Nonetheless, Westbrook made poor decisions during that series that cost his team any shot at winning it.
This year Westbrook was just as aggressive, but supposedly had the help to back him. George averaged 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, and two steals while being named an All-Star. The Thunder’s third option was Anthony as he averaged 16.2 points and 5.8 boards. The trio never really clicked as they took turns taking air out of the ball and taking questionable shots.
While George had been a solid option for a majority of the Utah series, he was unreliable in some games, including the close-out game. Although Anthony under-performed heavily inhis worst season since his rookie year, the emergence of Steven Adams as one of the best young big men in the NBA should have helped the Thunder advance past the first-round as they were smacked around by a rookie-led Jazz team.
After another disappointing exit from the postseason though, there will be many questions that will linger throughout the offseason. Will George leave the Thunder in free agency? Will Anthony opt into his second-year extension or will he try out the free agency market as well? The fact that these questions are being raised speak to the uncertain nature of Westbrook.
After Durant departed for the Warriors two years ago, many questioned why he would leave Westbrook and the Thunder. KD, through direct quotes and accidental Instagram likes, has shown us one of the biggest reasons of why he left: It is extremely hard to play with Westbrook. While many people including myself criticized Durant for this move, it is easier to understand the reasoning behind it after watching Westbrook struggle the past two postseasons.
So the real question is where does Westbrook go from here?
Obviously, most of that will be decided once George and Anthony make their respective decisions. It is very telling that last year’s MVP has had this much trouble getting out of the first-round of the playoffs. Regardless of where you want to place the blame for the Thunder’s problems in the postseason, there is no denying that Westbrook has had an influence in it. Now that Westbrook is tied to Oklahoma City for four more years, his options to improve his situation are very limited especially since he is approaching the age of 30.
A big change that Westbrook must make is in his playing style. With George and Anthony likely gone this summer, the team will be left with a core of Westbrook and Adams. This duo has been particularly effective together, especially off of the pick-and-roll. Adams is the perfect compliment to Westbrook’s playing style and he’s one of the only players to steadily improve their game playing alongside him. Adams averaged 13.9 points and nine rebounds. Further developing their chemistry will be important in the Thunder’s chances in trying to make the playoffs again in a loaded Western Conference.
Perhaps the biggest adjustment the former Bruin needs to make is in late-game situations. Many times in the fourth quarter, Westbrook tends to go into super-isolation mode. This results in many ill-advised jump shots and bad possessions. If Westbrook can begin to trust in his teammates late in games and buy into a system, then he can elevate his game to another level. Becoming a level-headed player during crunch-time situations is the difference between great players and legends.
If Westbrook wants to become one of the game’s legends, he will need to embrace the inevitable offseason changes and become a more well-rounded player. Until that happens, it remains to be seen if Westbrook is capable of making this change. It is hard to change habits, especially if they’ve gotten you to where you are now. In Westbrook’s case, it’s brought him to unprecedented heights in the regular season. It’s time for him to channel that positive energy and translate it into sustainable postseason success.