Russell Westbrook: The most underappreciated player of his generation.
Whether it’s his unbelievable athleticism and ferocity on the court, or his bad shooting nights and turnovers, Russell Westbrook has been one of the main sports topics of conversation for years now.
Ever since his arrival to the NBA, Russell Westbrook’s strengths on the court was a sight to behold for season ticket holders and casual fans who viewed his super athleticism as a highlight reel machine. 23 year old Westbrook’s NBA stardom was put on display during the 2011–2012 season when the Oklahoma City Thunder ran through the western conference, he averaged 22 points in the 1st round sweep vs Dallas, 25.6 points in the 2nd round vs the Los Angeles Lakers in a series where most NBA fans remember Westbrook’s steal and circus ‘and-1 layup’ in game 5 eliminating the Lakers, to go with his 28 point performance. Played a tough 6 game series against the San Antonio Spurs in the WCF to reach his first NBA finals where a determined LeBron James, who was heavily criticized for his 2011 NBA finals performance vs the title winning Dallas Mavericks, wanted to make a statement and win his first NBA title. Russell Westbrook went on to average 27 PPGs, 6.6APG, 6.4 RPGs, including a thrilling 43 point performance in game 4. Miami ended up winning the series 4–1.
Russell Westbrook then reached the western conference finals in 2014, averaging 27 PPGs, 7 APG, 5 RPG, but ultimately lost to the title winning San Antonio Spurs in 6 games. Then a couple of years later comes the infamous 3–1 lead in 2016 western conference finals against the Golden State Warriors, a total choke fest by OKC with the help of a historic Klay Thompson game 6 performance when he dropped 11 3 pointers from his 41 points to tie the series up 3–3, it’s safe to say, Westbrook and OKC have been labeled the “just right there” club and did not get over the hump. Every sports fan knows when a player goes from All-Star to Superstar the standards become higher with each challenge. Russell Westbrook has been fairy criticized in the KD-Russ era with poor FG%, turnovers, and weird decision making down the stretch, but the criticism started to get out of hand after Kevin Durant left OKC in 2016 free agency to join the 73-win Warriors.
The 2016–2017 NBA season is one of the greatest stories in NBA history when it comes to having an enormous chip on your shoulder. Russell Westbrook’s OKC were a team that was written out of the playoff picture due to the departure of Kevin Durant, who was the cornerstone of the franchise, and this was warranted as OKC had 1 less superstar and barely had any shooting on the team, they were ranked at the bottom in 3 point shooting percentage during that season as well. Russell Westbrook challenged his doubters, a lot of doubters, and went on to average a triple-double for the season, an achievement that has been done only once by Oscar Robertson in 1961–1962, Westbrook became NBA MVP by putting up 31.6 PPGs, 10.4 APG, 10.7 RPG with 42 triple-doubles to carry OKC to the 6th seed, shutting all his doubters up in the process. The playoffs saw OKC eliminated in the 1st round (4–1) against the 3rd seeded Houston Rockets who were expected to advance to the 2nd round, a series that saw Westbrook record a 51 point triple-double in a loss, a playoff record to this day. Luka Doncic came close in the 2020 playoffs with his 43 point triple-double performance in round 1 against the Los Angeles Clippers.
The narrative starting picking up steam, ‘can Russell Westbrook advance past the 1st round without Kevin Durant?’ the first question that was posed after the 2016–2017 season. Blockbuster trades: The Indiana Pacers trade Paul George to OKC for Oladipo and Sabonis, the New York Knicks trade Carmelo Anthony to OKC for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a 2nd round pick. OKC now have their star players, their big 3, to contend for a championship, or so it seemed.
Before Carmelo Anthony put his ego aside in 2019–2020 when he finally accepted himself as a role player, he was still in his superstar mindset in 2017–2018 when he was asked if he was willing to come off the bench in pre-season press conference, in which he replied “Who me” and that’s were the nudge began for OKC’s big 3 with a lack of decisiveness from Billy Donovan and the main players about roles on the team, when to rotate, who gets the ball more, their defensive set in clutch time, etc. This played out throughout the season into the playoffs where the Utah Jazz utilized the indecision going on and unleashed a rookie Donovan Mitchell on Carmelo Anthony who was picked apart defensively, Paul George was the 2nd option on the team who did not perform in game 6 of that series, an elimination game, and dropped 5 points while Russell Westbrook dropped 46 points in a loss. OKC were yet again eliminated in the 1st round.
The narrative now translated to a statement saying: ‘It has become clear that you can’t win with Russell Westbrook’. The in-depth context is always left out for the click baits, views, and entertainment, and even with the analysis from NBA ‘experts’ it does not seem to be logical when it comes to Westbrook driven topics. To reiterate, no-one is excluded from criticism, and this can be said in the 2019 1st round playoffs when Russell Westbrook was taken out by Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum who clearly were the better players that series, while Westbrook and Paul George did not play well at all for a team expected to make the 2nd round, but this does not indicate that the narrative is true. During the 2018–2019 season, Westbrook had a decision to make by either doing what he does with a high usage rate and PG13 being the 2nd option, or switching it up by making PG the guy who runs the offence. Westbrook deferred to Paul George all season in order to make him drive the team forward and benefit every player on the floor, this made Paul George become a better player by having the best season of his career with an All-Star appearance, and being placed as top 3 player in the MVP race, he put Paul George in a position to be individually successful and incredibly increased his star status. Does that make Russell Westbrook a bad teammate? does it make him a selfish teammate? It does not look like it.
OKC decided to blow it up in 2019 free agency by trading Paul George for … well … the farm which consisted of: Shai Gilgeous Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, 4 unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick, and 2 pick swaps, to join a better player than Westbrook in Kawhi Leonard. While Russell Westbrook joined James Harden when he was traded to the Houston Rockets for Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026, pick swaps in 2021 and 2025.
The narrative was narrowed down to ‘Westbrook could not win with Paul George’ with no context again, no proper analysis, and just for the sake of clicks and entertainment. Paul George had a way better team, a 2 time finals MVP in Kawhi, two 6th man of the year players in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, a strong defensive and offensive team, and an experienced coach in Doc Rivers, with all the expectations being to reach the NBA finals or at least the WCF. This is where we can additionally assess the narrative being constantly brought up, and so the Los Angeles Clippers face the Denver Nuggets in the 2nd round of the 2020 playoffs, they go up 3–1 against Denver with their sights seton the franchise’s first western conference finals appearance. Well, the Clippers ended the series with one of the biggest 4th quarter meltdowns in NBA history with Paul George having 10 points (4 of 16 shooting) and 0 points in the 4th quarter of game 7 (checkmate Sam Presti). What about the narrative now?
The narrative shifted to ‘The Rockets should have kept Chris Paul instead of trading for Russell Westbrook’. Whether you believe Chris Paul staying would be a better option is completely hypothetical, and it obviously can be said about the Westbrook being the better fit, but nothing is definitive, you can’t base the past on the current situation. Russell Westbrook was very unlucky pre-bubble by ending up contracting covid, and in the bubble by having a hamstring injury which kept him out of routine practices and 4 games in a tough series against OKC, clearly not in his best shape. The effects were also shown against the Lakers, not saying that was the main issue, he was not good in that series and the Rockets as a team were sloppy, but at the same time LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on a mission to win the title and even Chris Paul would not have eliminated a tough minded defensive and offensive team that went 12–3 in the western conference playoffs.
He has had his highs and lows throughout his career as multiple hall of famers have gone through as well, but he has also been one of the most highlighted sports figures of his generation. This is all about appreciating Russell Westbrook and what he has done up to this point in his career, appreciating his greatness through his hustle, drive, determination, and will to win. The criticism is warranted due to his flaws, but the narratives that were constantly created are not warranted. Down the line, NBA fans and sports fans in general will appreciate this man for what he has contributed to basketball.