By Max Cohen
The 2016-17 NBA season for Russell Westbrook was unlike any season for any player ever. Every night the game plan was for Russ to get a triple double, leading hopefully to a Thunder win. That plan worked more successfully than people imagined, but this season is different. Westbrook doesn’t need to go out and average a triple double because he has another top 15 player on his team. Currently, Russ is 0.3 rebounds away from averaging a triple double. Why? I couldn’t answer that, but because of last season Russ probably thinks he has to for the team to win. Obviously, I am not an NBA player, but as a person who has played a good amount of basketball over my life I can say that if for a long period of time I was told to go out and shoot the ball every time I got, then one day my team said, “change your game,” I wouldn’t be able to do it so quickly. That’s what the Thunder, and media thought Russ could do. Completely change his game over one offseason to make new teammates comfortable. I think changing your mentality is hard for NBA players that have been so used to one thing. Even when Kevin Durant was in Oklahoma City, it was the Durant and Westbrook show. After they got rid of James Harden, Durant and Russ were never surrounded with great talent. For five years now, Westbrook has had a gunner’ss mentality and hasn’t been told to do anything different until this summer.
Although I do think Russ needs time to adjust, it is something to take note that his ex teammates are thriving after leaving the Thunder. Over a third of the way through the NBA season and Victor Oladipo is the frontrunner for Most Improved Player. His three point percentage is up from 36 to 42, and he is averaging nearly ten more points than last season. When you watch Oladipo play, he looks like an entirely different player and, at least looking back at last season, Russ may be to blame. Other players that have seen tremendous growth from last season to this season are Domantas Sabonis and Enes Kanter. Both have higher field goal percentages and Sabonis is averaging six more points per game while Kanter averages three more rebounds per game. All of this points out a particular trait from Russ, which is an ability to make teammates better. This is an important characteristic for all basketball players to have, especially great ones. Lebron obviously makes his teammates better (see Mike Miller or Shane Battier), Steve Nash made his teammates great (see Amar’e Stoudemire or Leandro Barbosa). For Russ, this doesn’t seem to be the case. Along with not making his teammates better, Kevin Durant left for some reason. It may have been to win a championship, but his team was up 3-1 to the eventual champions so Oklahoma City was definitely a viable option to win a championship. Durant most likely did not enjoy playing with Westbrook and although I do not like Kevin Durant, he is one of the thirty best NBA players ever, and his decision should mean something.
As Russell Westbrook continues his NBA career it will be interesting to watch what he accomplishes and how he does it. In a recent article on theringer.com, Justin Verrier compared Russ to Kobe Bryant, and I think this is more on the nose than some may think. Both players have a shoot first mentality. Both players are elite scorers. And both players do not care what others think of them. Kobe’s talent paired with the deep pockets of the Lakers lead to five championships over his career. Russ is not on the same talent level of Kobe and his team doesn’t spend like the Lakers, but if he can change his game just a little, like most fans and media thought he would, I think he can win multiple championships. It all depends on how Russ wants to be Russ. If he continues to be a shoot first, play aggressive all the time player, he may suffocate the talent around him. But if he can become a point guard that has a high basketball IQ and knows when to choose his spots, Russell Westbrook can become a revered basketball player rather than one that causes people to ask; Is Russell Westbrook good?