If you were to poll NBA fans on which individual player they're most excited to watch this year, Russell Westbrook might very well win. For the first time, Westbrook is entering the season as the Oklahoma City Thunder's lone star. The presumption, based on how he played when Kevin Durant was hurt two years ago, is that this is going to embolden him. He will barrel his way to the basket over and over. He will put up otherworldly stat lines. He might lead the league in scoring, and he'll almost certainly lead it in usage.
For these reasons, Westbrook has become a prime MVP candidate in a year where the race for that particular award seems wide open. Here's what has to happen for him to take home the hardware:
1. He has to be himself
This is the easiest part, but it's not necessarily simple. Westbrook's style doesn't seem conducive to an increased workload -- he is constantly attacking the basket, taking contact and hitting the floor. Other athletic guards have changed their games after a few seasons of wear and tear or a major injury, preferring to use floaters or mid-range jumpers to protect their bodies. Westbrook, though, hasn't slowed down at all, even after three knee surgeries.
"I don't know what to say," he said in a recent interview with GQ. "I don't know how to be cool. You know what I mean? That's not in my nature. I only know how to play one way. I can't, like, decide to turn the switch on and off. I'm not good enough to do that."
The fury you see when Westbrook is pushing the ball in transition, grabbing a rebound in traffic or screaming after a dunk? That's who he is and why he's effective. Westbrook has won the last two All-Star Game MVPs by just doing what he always does. His challenge now is sustaining that spirit for a full season and staying healthy when there won't be any possessions where he can defer to another superstar.
2. He has to be a little different
If Westbrook does what he did for 39 games without Durant in 2014-15 -- he averaged an insane 31.4 points, 9.2 assists and 7.9 rebounds while using more than 40 percent of Oklahoma City's possessions, per ESPN's Kevin Pelton -- then he might be able to drag his team to the playoffs. His team would be more dangerous, though, if it had a more diversified attack.
Westbrook has evolved into one of the premier playmakers in basketball. While the criticisms about his shot selection still haven't gone away, anyone assessing his game must acknowledge that he averaged 10.4 assists last year, good for second in the league. It's almost impossible to keep him out of the paint, and, once he's in there, he throws crisp passes to open shooters and cutters. This season, the Thunder need him to take this to another level.
Not only does Westbrook need to be a dominant scorer, he needs to make his teammates better. Some of that will happen naturally -- defenses will load up on him, and he will find open players. The rest of it can come from him serving as a decoy and empowering guys like Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and Cameron Payne to make plays. Westbrook has room for growth when it comes to managing the game and helping other players find their rhythm.
Also: Westbrook is known as a gambler on defense, and his effort level on that end waxes and wanes. It would help his case for MVP if he became a more conservative, consistent defender.
3. A little help from his friends
Fair or not, MVPs almost always come from teams that finish with an elite record. No one expects the Thunder to win as many games as the Golden State Warriors, but for him to win the award, they'll need to find an identity and outperform expectations. Westbrook can't make all of that happen himself.
Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan has a role to play here, playing around with pieces that were mostly assembled to complement the Durant-Westbrook duo. Can the Thunder finally get more ball movement and player movement in their offense? Can Oladipo or Adams become a secondary star? Can they build on what they did in the playoffs last year, with all of that switching on defense and those terrifying fast breaks?
As much as Westbrook's MVP chances depend on his own production, they also depend on players like Andre Roberson, Kyle Singler and Alex Abrines stepping up. Oklahoma City has more depth than people think, but there's no guarantee that everything will come together.
4. A little help from his enemies
Westbrook can have an MVP-caliber season and not win the award, even if the Thunder reach 50 wins. It would help his case if the Warriors didn't win 70-plus games this time and if neither Durant nor Stephen Curry put up their normal per-game stats because there is so much firepower around them. It'd also help if LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers don't take the regular season too seriously, and if James Harden and the Rockets are disastrous defensively.
Right now, Westbrook's story is as compelling as anybody's. The question is whether that will still be the case in the eyes of voters in April.