We might not be prepared for the Russell Westbrook we're about to get
He was never anyone's Robin
Not everyone is perfectly suited for promotion. Plenty of NBA players have performed admirably -- even exceptionally -- as sidekicks, only to falter as a franchise's primary face. For some, the pressure proves too much. Others simply prove they were never quite good enough.
Then there's Russell Westbrook, misunderstood since Oklahoma City drafted him in 2008, and undoubtedly, circumstantially miscast. Russell Westbrook, who just resigned with the Thunder for three years and north of $85 million, is no Robin nor Barney Rubble, no Art Garfunkel, Arsenio Hall nor Ed McMahon. And he's hardly a Teller, silently performing whatever magical task that Penn mandates, as the chattier frontman gets to claim the credit.
Russell Westbrook is a leading man of lethal capability and questionable conscience, and he needed to be unleashed.
Now that's happened, as his uneasy alliance with Kevin Durant has been professionally -- and perhaps permanently -- severed, with Durant not only fleeing the Thunder for the cozy comfort of Stephen Curry's considerable shadow, but irritating Westbrook with what increasingly appears to have been a clumsy, passive-aggressive, conflict-avoiding exit.
Westbrook was a bit more direct during his press conference Thursday, as the Thunder announced his three-year, $85.8 million extension.
Did Durant's departure sting?
"Sting for who?" Westbrook replied.
Well, not for the league.
This doesn't sting in the slightest.
Whereas Durant hitching himself to the league's all-time regular season squad has the potential to be a ponderous storyline, mostly for the constant comparisons to what Golden State achieved without him, Westbrook's defiant stand for Oklahoma City should satisfy from start to finish. Yes, that finish may come in the first or second round, as Westbrook has been left to rally a challenged roster.
But that really isn't the point. For however long it lasts, it should be fascinating theater, a player whose resolve was not broken by a broken knee or face, and should only be strengthened by a broken relationship.
Westbrook's been dumped.
NBA fans should be pumped.
The hardest-playing star in the league is poised to play even harder.
While many may cite Scottie Pippen in 1993-94 as the closest historical precedent -- taking over the Bulls' central role with Michael Jordan swinging and missing in the minors -- this should be far more fun. Pippen played brilliantly as the Bulls surprised with 55 wins, but he still did so deferentially, at least until Phil Jackson called a play for Toni Kukoc in the playoffs.
On a per-36 minute basis, Pippen's two-point attempts actually dipped (14.2 to 14.1) from the previous Jordan-focused season. He did average more three-point attempts per 36 minutes, up from 1.1 to 2.6, but his scoring average made a relatively marginal increase (from 19.6 and 17.4 the previous two seasons, up to 20.7).
There's another parallel between them: Pippen had just turned 28 when that season started, while Westbrook will do so just two weeks into this one. So both were in their prime. But their personalities are nothing alike. Does anyone believe that Westbrook's shot attempts and scoring average will increase only incrementally?
Recall 2014-15, when Westbrook -- playing without the injured Durant for all but the first game -- averaged 24.1 shots and 31.4 points after the All-Star break, in addition to 8.6 rebounds, 9.9 assists and 5.3 turnovers. His usage rate was a preposterous 38.1 -- for context, consider that Kobe Bryant's highest-ever was 38.7 in 2005-06, and only over 35 in two other seasons.
But even that seems like a gross underestimate. There couldn't have been a single possession in which Westbrook wasn't centrally involved in the play. Even if he was merely sneering.
So that's what we are about to get, only now we're getting it at a time when Westbrook knows that Durant won't be getting back to steal any of his shots or shine. We're getting it at a time when he feels spurned, his partner in a championship chase choosing to send a text message to advise him of their split.
This season, every night Oklahoma City plays will be Westbrook time, him squeezing the life out of every set, for better and sometimes worse. Maybe some prefer the spectacle of players shopping around their services to other suitors in early July. I'll take angry, uninhibited Westbrook, for six or seven or eight months, in the role that better suits him.
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