- Russell Westbrook and the Thunder are a mess right now. Will Russ eventually make the haters look ridiculous or will he validate their criticism? All eyes are on Oklahoma City.
Everything you need to know about Russell Westbrook's career was on display in the 2016 playoffs. It began when Oklahoma City went down 2–1 to the Spurs in the conference semifinals. In Game 3, Kevin Durant went 10 of 18 for 26 points, while Westbrook went 10 of 31 in a four-point loss. It was horrendous. But then, OKC came back to win the next three games and stun the Spurs, and Westbrook had 28 points and 12 assists on 12 of 21 shooting in Game 6. That story continued against the Warriors the next week. OKC went up 3–1, and it peaked in Game 4 when Westbrook finished with an outrageous 36/11/11 stat line—then after Game 5 came the postgame snickering about Steph Curry's defense, and he finished that series shooting 36% on 76 shots over three games, in three straight losses.
This is the Westbrook rhythm. Every time it looks like he's about to be consumed by his flaws and validate a decade's worth of criticism, he will go off and make the haters look ridiculous. Then, every time it looks like he's turned a corner and become one of the five best players in the league, the cracks will begin to show, and it all falls apart.
Two months after that playoff run, as the entire sports world looked on, Kevin Durant left to play with the point guard Westbrook had been mocking. Then Westbrook came back the following year, looked incredible, and won the NBA MVP—before, of course, losing a one-sided playoff series to James Harden, the MVP runner-up. That series ended with Westbrook spinning out of control and launching 18 threes in a closeout game. Again, the Westbrook rhythm is undefeated.
All of this is to say that since throttling the Warriors 10 days ago, the Thunder have lost three very winnable games—to the Pistons, Mavs, and Magic—and now sit at 8–12 in ninth place in the West. And given the history here, now is probably a good time to buy some Thunder stock for the next few weeks. OKC has serious issues and so does Westbrook, but he's not going down this easily. So that's where we start.
First, let's discuss the MVP. I voted for Westbrook to win it last season, and I've noticed a disturbing trend emerging early on this year. As the Thunder have stumbled out of the gate, a number of Harden supporters have come out of the woodwork thumping their chest, trying to convince you that the first quarter of the new year proves that everyone got it wrong when they gave the MVP to Westbrook last year. Do not listen to these people.
It's true that Harden has been unbelievable in Houston this year. While Westbrook has struggled, the Rockets just went 13–1 through November and Harden averaged 34.9 PPG to go with 10.1 APG. It's also true that supposedly overmatched OKC cast-offs like Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis are thriving in a system that affords them more freedom, and all this is happening while supposed stars like Carmelo Anthony and Paul George struggle to find their footing next to Westbrook. You know what else is true? This year is not last year.
If last year's MVP were given to the player who's literally creating the most value, Steph Curry should've won. If we were giving it to the best player, LeBron James should've won. If we were giving it to the player with the best numbers, Harden or Westbrook should've won. Kawhi Leonard might have been the candidate who did the best job approximating elite value in all three categories—statistics, value, talent in a vacuum—but his number tailed off down the stretch. Harden's did, too. LeBron stopped playing defense for two months. Curry was penalized for an uneven start and a loaded Warriors roster. And in a race for a regular season award, Westbrook was having out-of-body experiences at least once a week for the final two months.
One night it was 57, 13, and 11 with a mind-blowing game-tying three before beating the Magic in overtime. Another it was 37, 13, and 10 against the Mavericks, including 12 of the final 14 points and another game-winner. In the final two weeks of the season, he put up 45 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in a three-point win against the Grizzlies. Then it was 50 points, 16 rebounds, and 10 assists, with yet another game-winner to clinch the sixth-seed and eliminate the Nuggets from the playoffs. The value of the triple doubles was overblown and the rebound-padding was corny, but don't let critics pretend that Westbrook's season was anything less than legendary. Watch this clip. It would've been petty and pedantic to vote for anyone but Westbrook.
Harden voters will sneer and tell you that the most incredible Westbrook moments came against bad teams that Houston would've dominated. As Daryl Morey complained this summer, "the criteria seems to be shifting away from winning." That's an acceptable argument. But Houston went 4-7 against above-.500 teams after the All-Star Break, so it's not as if Harden was living a dramatically different story on an elite team. If winning mattered most in last year's MVP race, Kawhi was the correct answer.
But style points matter, too, and they should. If people want to reduce every MVP argument to questions of efficiency and strict statistical value, they should go watch baseball. Basketball is brought to life by players who amaze you, and for a solid seven months last year, it was impossible to have a conversation about the NBA without flipping out over the madness of Westbrook and everything he was trying to do in Oklahoma City. Then, as the season unfolded and other MVP candidates began to look ever-so-slightly mortal, Westbrook's season got even wilder. He did everything short of hitting game-winners over every single media voter until they handed him the trophy. That's why he won.
This season presents a whole different challenge. Westbrook won MVP during a strange year in which the NBA's three best players (LeBron, Curry, Durant) were marginalized for various reasons, while others were equally excellent but less spectacular. He deserved it within that context, but it was still basically an outlier. The tricky part is now that the perception of him has changed regardless. Among fans and media, Westbrook is treated like one of the five best players in the entire league, the Thunder give him that kind of freedom (and money), and for at least the next few years the basketball world will grade him on that curve. It will be interesting.
LeBron, Curry, Durant, Kawhi, Harden—give these guys All-Star help, and a 50-win season is a foregone conclusion. But in OKC this year, even with Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, and Steven Adams, 45 wins and another sixth or seventh seed is a real possibility.
The Thunder can't get easy shots. They can't move the ball. The defense is uneven, and Billy Donovan can't seem to reach any of his players to fix these problems. In some ways, watching this team struggle to meet expectations has been a testament to Kevin Durant's talent.
Take Paul George. In theory, he's probably the closest thing the NBA has to a second Durant. He's a rangy small forward who can hit threes, score against anyone, and guard multiple positions. But he's maybe 15% less gifted as a scorer, and that's the difference between an All-Star and a Hall of Famer. It's also the difference between a perennial 55-win Thunder team and what we've seen from Oklahoma City thus far. And as the Thunder sputter away, there are people who want to blame George or Carmelo, but it's becoming harder to ignore Westbrook's central role in the problems.
A normal player like Oladipo, or even an All-Star like George, can't just score on demand. But that's often what's required next to Russ. Too many OKC possessions begin with Westbrook probing the defense for 8-10 seconds before hitting a wing and expecting that player to manufacture offense out of thin air. George hasn't been able to do that very effectively this season. Durant, amazingly, made it look routine.
It doesn't help that Westbrook is making it abundantly clear he's the alpha male in OKC. Watching him against the Magic on Wednesday night was almost surreal. He was like a caricature of himself. He entered the fourth quarter down 20 points, and he proceeded to take 10 shots, six of them threes, almost all of them contested. He made most of them. He finished with 20 points in the quarter. But he ignored his teammates for almost the entire time, and seeing those awful shots go in sort of made the whole display even more depressing. OKC lost by 13, and Westbrook finished the night staring into the distance on the bench. (Compare this video in Orlando to last year's Magic game and the post-MVP hangover metaphors begin to seem uncomfortably literal.)
Again, it's always been true that as soon everyone expects Westbrook to fail, he succeeds. But now that Westbrook's won MVP and inserted himself into every conversation about the best players in basketball, the definition of success has changed. OKC has enough talent around Westbrook to be dominant for an entire season, not just for three or four-game stretches. Forty-seven wins isn't good enough anymore. When the Thunder struggle, it's a reflection of their best player and the limits his game imposes on the talent around him. It wouldn't happen with Curry, or LeBron, or Harden, or Kawhi, and Durant's not in Oklahoma City to cover for all of this team's blindspots.
So let's see how Westbrook responds. OKC still has the length, athleticism, and scoring, to compete with anyone in a playoff series. Westbrook can still outplay any guard in the league. But this year and beyond, that MVP award guarantees that he'll be more scrutinized than ever if he struggles. People will make fun of his game, laugh at his stat-padding, wonder if he's become the most overrated player in the NBA, and as long he's considered one of the best players in the league, all of it will be fair. It's like a market correction. Westbrook deserved his MVP, but until he evolves, he deserves the criticism, too.