Russell Westbrook is surrounded by straw men. Sometimes they are his own teammates, standing at a remove in service of the show. Opinions vary as to whether it was Westbrook who rendered them motionless to begin with. Sometimes those straw men are merely arguments made out of painful disregard—a reduction of Westbrook to an idea, or worse: a stat line. Laud a man for his triple-doubles and he eventually becomes them.
It is almost impossible to extricate the overwhelming volume of what Westbrook accomplished on the floor this season from the limitations of the Thunder as a whole. It was decided at some point after Kevin Durant’s departure that Westbrook would act as the team’s infrastructure. He would activate opposing defenses and gut them with his drives. He would deliver the ball as needed to shooters or finishers. He would bring the ball up and pound it through the floor and cram it through the rim. The upper limits of possession usage buckled under the weight of his game. Kobe Bryant? Michael Jordan? Allen Iverson? No player in the history of the game has ever consumed as much of it as Westbrook, even by measures that don’t fully account for his assists.
A showing like that could never be seen as just another great season. Anything unprecedented is, in itself, conceptual. Westbrook is a test case. Westbrook is a principled debate. Westbrook is a science experiment. Westbrook is a g--damn artist. On some level, he’s accountable for playing the sort of basketball that elevates. Westbrook does that to a point, while also culling so much from the soil that little else could possibly grow around him. No one is clamoring for Andre Roberson pick-and-rolls, but the very failings that the OKC’s supporting cast will be blasted for are the kind that might have been alleviated with nutrients and a little sunshine. In their absence, no one could possibly expect the other Thunder to succeed in doing what they were never allowed to.;
This thread spirals. The reason Westbrook took 18 three-pointers (tied for most ever in a playoff game) in the final game of his season was because he so often looked up and saw four defenders in his path. The reason there were four defenders in his path was due to a wide range of unthreatening personnel. There is some truth to the idea that if Oklahoma City were to pay for versatility, it would be squandered alongside this kind of Russell Westbrook. If this really is his best self, the optimal team around him might look something like Houston’s. Westbrook doesn’t have a Lou Williams or an Eric Gordon, though we can’t pretend as if Williams wasn’t imminently gettable at the trade deadline or that Gordon wasn’t very much available at various points over the last few seasons. We also can’t ignore that Victor Oladipo will make more money next year than both combined. Something stalled in the development of what the Thunder acquired Oladipo to do.
Houston—in part because of the way Oklahoma City’s off-season unfolded—simply had more vision. The spacing of a shooter-stocked team running Mike D’Antoni’s offense cannot help but be immaculate. Everything that Westbrook did this season, by contrast, came while gasping. Any drive would involve swerving around multiple cheating defenders, who had no reason to respect Roberson or Jerami Grant or DamontasSabonis from beyond the arc. Everything Westbrook accomplished must be remembered for the way it captured a defense’s complete attention and, in so many cases, overwhelmed it.
Could Westbrook ever walk that feeling back? Is it really possible for him to just scale down from that kind of domination? The way the Thunder floundered whenever he caught a moment’s rest could only be frustrating. No one could blame Westbrook—as furious and commanding as any player we’ve seen—if those scant minutes made him feel powerless. The lesson of his postseason was that his team could not survive without him. It’s impossible to dig any deeper without projecting, but suffice to say that the record-breaking season works as a lead-in to a fascinating predicament. How does a team just go back to normal after this kind of earth-shaking event?
Reasonable people can disagree as to how much responsibility lies with Westbrook for the Thunder’s lack of secondary playmaking, but reducing everything to the chicken and egg of it all misses the vivacity of his work. We saw an unbelievable talent sprint so fast and dunk so hard he ran himself ragged for 86 games. Westbrook went and went, only to double-back on fumes in his attempts to save the unsavable. Every one of his games was its own sort of bleating masterpiece. Fans delighted. Hard-hearted pragmatists quivered. Westbrook exhausted every possibility and tapped into the part of sport that made anyone who watched him want to stand for something. By the end, there was nothing left.