By David Bray
When Kevin Durant took his talents to the San Francisco Bay area this summer, signing with the back-to-back Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors, much attention was rightfully placed on the Warriors adding another top-five player to a team that won a record-setting 73 games last season. Left behind in Oklahoma City was Russell Westbrook, as the Thunder have gone from Title contenders to playoff hopeful in a tough conference in the wake of Durant’s departure. Without KD, Westbrook is going to have to take his intensity to a new level, which is saying something.
There are a handful of players in the NBA who are must-watch television, who, when flipping through the channels, are a reason to stay even if it’s not your team playing. LeBron James is one, Steph Curry is another, Anthony Davis is when healthy, Karl Anthony Towns is getting there, and Durant, Westbrook, and James Harden round out that top tier of exciting basketball players. The latter three started their careers together, drafted in three consecutive years, and taking OKC to the NBA Finals in 2012. Things were looking bright for the Thunder, but GM Sam Presti was quick to change things up.
Before the start of the 2012-13 season, the Thunder traded James Harden to the Houston Rockets. In the three seasons that followed, the Thunder failed to get back to the Finals and even missed the playoffs in 2015 due to the combination of injury misfortune and a rise in competition in the West. Fast forward to the 2016 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder had the defending champion Warriors on the ropes, holding a 3-1 series lead over them. However, Golden State refused to lose the series as their ridiculous three-point shooting ability heated up at the right time, eventually allowing them to win the series in 7 games. In July, Durant decided to join the Warriors rather than beat them, leaving Westbrook, the lone superstar, surrounded by interesting young role players.
We had a sneak peek at what a Durant-less Westbrook might look like in 2014-15, when KD was injured for a big chunk of the season. Westbrook put up great numbers and was a thrill to watch, but transformed into a maniac who needed to do everything himself, and OKC missed the playoffs. To be fair, the team around him is better now than it was two years ago, with the development of Steven Adams and the trade for Victor Oladipo from the Orlando Magic over the summer, but I still needed to see it to believe it. On October 28, 2016, Russell Westbrook made history.
Russ recorded 51 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists, good for the first 50 point triple double since Kareem Abdul Jabbar in 1975, in Oklahoma City’s overtime victory over the Phoenix Suns. The full highlights show a man determined to win, determined to get to the basket, but also looking for the open guy. At the same time, it was a dramatic win over a team that was in the draft lottery last season, a team OKC should beat, with or without Kevin Durant. Westbrook’s critics would argue that he was not very efficient in his triple double, attempting 44 shots, but only hitting 17, including going only two for ten from the three point line, and he missed five of his 20 free throw attempts. It may be the same old Westbrook, or it may be a mature superstar ready to carry a team on his own. It’s too early to tell, but it will be fun to watch either way.
Russell Westbrook scoring against Lebron James.