“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” ~ Sun Tzu, The Art Of War
When Kevin Durant announced to the globe that he was turning his back on the only franchise he’d known, the speculation began immediately. The question was not if, but when Russell Westbrook would follow — either Thunder general manager Sam Presti would move the five time all star for whatever he could, or Oklahoma would wave goodbye to the last of its relevance when Russell headed off for greener pastures of free agency in 2018.
But Russell Westbrook, as he’s done his whole career, shocked the world. Exactly a month after Durant’s infamous Player’s Tribune article, here was Westbrook, beaming from ear-to-ear, signing up for two more years in Thunder blue and white.
In the darkest hour of the transplanted franchise, Westbrook was the rock, the hope that fans could cling to. It was widely thought that while Durant was Oklahoma City’s best player, it was Westbrook that was the heart and soul of the team; the very thought of losing both was too much to bear.
“Loyalty is something I stand by,” explained Westbrook after signing the extension, the inference pounding loud and clear.
And even those who weren’t Thunder fans, the thought of Westbrook, angry and unfettered, rampaging across the league was a decadent delight. We’d seen his onslaught while Durant was sidelined two years ago; what dizzying heights would the combustible guard touch this season?
“Move swift as the Wind and closely-formed as the Wood. Attack like the Fire and be still as the Mountain.” ~ Sun Tzu
By the fourth game of the season, the league was already on notice: Westbrook overpowered the Phoenix Suns with a 51 point triple double; more insane than the 51-13-10 was the 44 shots it took Russ to get there.
Who the hell takes 44 shots?
How the hell can you get your mind around a 50 point triple double?
Russell Westbrook did. Never before has the league seen anything like him.
And now here he is, fourth quarter, staring down the mighty Clippers. Los Angeles were a well oiled machine; the Thunder a cadre of mismatched parts. But as the game winds down, Westbrook turns up: he drains jumper after cold-blooded pull up jumper in the final minutes to snatch a victory in Los Angeles. His final line is a microcosm: his 35 points led all scorers, but he jacked up seven threes, missing them all. Every one of his 6 rebounds and 5 assists were vital, just as his many of his 10 turnovers were the result of cringe inducing gaffes. But the Thunder won, running their record to 4-0.
Westbrook was the lone commander, and the Thunder faithful needed him to win, so they won.
Welcome to the Westbrook experience.
“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt.” ~ Sun Tzu
The scowl hasn’t left his brow.
It’s never easy, right?
6-1 became 8-6. The cheers turn to murmurs. The feel good story became a somber reality.
Doesn’t make anyone better.
Not a true point guard.
Look at his efficiency.
For the past eight years, Westbrook has absorbed the slings and arrows from critics. This year, it’s no different.
But it IS different.
It’s no secret that OKC had its problems late in games last year; as the head of the snake, Westbrook took the brunt of the criticism. This season, he’s flipped that trend. Through 19 games, Westbrook is leading the NBA in fourth quarter scoring with 10, pouring in a full third of his 31 points per game in the final frame. And while the first 36 minutes of the game are a mystery box (he’s a 43.5% shooter for his career, making a paltry 30.3% from downtown), he’s been locked in during winning time: Westbrook is shooting 47%, including 40.5% from three.
But it’s more than just numbers. It’s the roar from the throat of the Chesapeake Energy Arena when he bulls through the lane and finishes over a seven footer. It’s the crackling energy that builds as he rockets down court, a one man fast break, attacking the rim with blood in his eye and bad intentions. It’s the thrill of knowing he can clank three pointers all night, but have the guts to stare down his defender and drill their soul out as the clock winds down, as he did against the Wizards and again versus the Hawks.
“Treat your men as you would your own beloved sons. And they will follow you into the deepest valley.” ~ Sun Tzu
8-6 has become 14-8, and game by game, the growth of players like Victor Oladipo and Joffrey Lauvergne is readily apparent. A mark of a contender is a top 10 offense and defense; over the last 10 games, the Thunder stand 10th in offensive rating (107.1) and 9th in defensive rating (102.9). It’d be foolish to label this year’s team as contenders, but simply fitting that profile has to be a point of pride for OKC.
In the age of analytics, where player tracking data and shot charts can break the game down to the millisecond, Westbrook’s voraciously high octane, high volume style is an anachronism, a blur of an homage to Iverson and Kobe with the fro. No one else plays so hard, so fast, so relentlessly. Westbrook is first or second in the league in shots per game, turnovers, assists, free throw attempts, assist percentage, player efficiency, and, of course, triple doubles. The 6’4” point guard is 7th in total rebounds, grabbing more per game than Kevin Love, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Demarcus Cousins.
Can he maintain this breakneck pace? Will Westbrook’s body stand up to the punishment of 82 games? History says no, that no mere mortal can push their engine into the red non-stop without consequence. The enormity of the numbers Westbrook puts up nightly — 31 points, 10.9 rebounds, 11 assists, 5.6 turnovers — would be ESPN headline worthy for anyone else in the league for one game. The fact that he’s doing it nightly is hard to wrap one’s head around.
But watch Westbrook catapult himself skyward and rip a rebound away from Porzingis, or hear the roar as he detonates to the rim with a game-winning left handed dunk, and you start to wonder if he actually IS human.
The flaws don’t hide from plain sight. He’ll routinely take quick jumpers early in the shot clock, or wild forays in the paint that don’t have a prayer, and you’ll wonder what kind of synaptic misfire could lead to such decisions. And some of his turnovers are similarly terribly; while the depth of turnovers isn’t necessarily egregious in light of his enormous usage
But for every bad shot, there’s a handful of uproarious slams or jaw-dropping how did he even finishes through contact. For every pass to the third row, there are laser accurate dimes to his roll man or cross court masterpieces to his shooters. If Steph Curry is a surgeon and Chris Paul is a technician, then Russell Westbrook is a performing artist whose medium is hand grenades and sledgehammers; he’s a contradiction of moving imagery that you either feel in your soul or you just don’t get.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, everything changed on July 4th, 2016. The contender they had spent years honing was now a hardwood memory. James Harden, then Serge Ibaka, then finally, Kevin Durant. One by one, the stars winked out in Oklahoma. Yet, there’s Westbrook, the fiery sun god of the OKC universe, his kinetically charged gravity keeping his squad in orbit, the lone ronin with a homestead worth fighting for.