NEW YORK — Russell Westbrook emptied the water bottle over Paul George’s head before beelining for the Thunder locker room, eager to join an already raucous celebration. It was Oklahoma City 114, Brooklyn 112 on Wednesday and Westbrook—who handed out the assist for George’s game winning bucket and made a key deflection in the closing seconds to force the Nets into a desperation heave—was ready to join the fun.
There is a side of Westbrook the public sees, the fearless scorer, the relentless competitor, the walking triple double. That Westbrook is a seven-time All-Star with an MVP and a couple of scoring titles in his pocket.
There is a side of Westbrook you don’t see, the person, the teammate—and know very little about. Much of that is by design. Westbrook has been the subject of dozens of glossy magazine profiles, but rarely reveals much. His media scrums often last a few minutes, or less. His appearance on the Tonight Show this week was little more than an infomercial for his clothing line and sneaker deal. Thunder p.r. gets countless requests for one-on-one’s with Westbrook—and he declines nearly every one.
There is a shell around Westbrook, one hardened by a career of criticism. He was too inconsistent to be a big-time college player. He was too headstrong to be an NBA point guard. On draft night, in 2008, the Thunder were shredded for tabbing Westbrook fourth overall. A year later, pundits were pleading with OKC to take Ricky Rubio in the ’09 draft—and move Westbrook to the two. Even when the Thunder started to win, playoff failures were often pinned on Westbrook’s shoulders.
“He was shaped by a lot of things that happened early in his career,” former Thunder forward Nick Collison told The Crossover. “Here was a guy, 22, 23 in playoff games, and all the sports shows crushed him at different times. I think that really molded him to understand that what the media says doesn’t affect him either way. Think about it—how many young players who get to the conference finals [in 2011] have that kind of heat on them?”
Westbrook’s reputation took a hit again in 2016, when Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. How could Durant leave a rising team on the brink of a championship? Had to be Westbrook, a high usage rate, analytics nightmare. Thus, the "Is Russell Westbrook a good teammate?" narrative was born.
“That’s crazy,” Collison said. “Him coming to play and compete every night is almost underrated. The consistency of him, the durability, the production—being there night after night and competing, as a teammate, there is really nothing more than you want. He’s gotten so much better from a leadership level, how he talks to teammates … it’s like school, where you have the cool guys everyone gravitates towards. He’s always been one of those guys.”
Paul George didn’t know Westbrook well when he was traded to Oklahoma City in the summer of 2017. George was the laid back fisherman. Westbrook was hyperactive, with fashion interests. The relationship, George told The Crossover, “clicked right away.”
“Him opening the city up, opening the team up, he just made me comfortable,” George said. “On the court, he just made the game easy. I played in Indiana, where the last couple years, I was in his position, where he was, trying to make plays for everybody. When I got here, the game was way easier. I just connected with him. The bond was formed immediately. We respect each other. I love everything that he brings on and off the court.”
Similarly, Dennis Schroder didn’t know much about Westbrook before Oklahoma City acquired him last July. “I thought he was insane,” Schroder told The Crossover. “How he approaches the game—it’s incredible.” As a teammate, Schroder says, Westbrook has “helped me a lot.” Added Schroder, “You respect him so much, when he says something, you don’t want to let him down. He needs guys he can trust, and you want to be one of those guys.”
Is Westbrook a good teammate? Around Oklahoma City, everyone has a story that offers evidence that he is. Billy Donovan cites the efforts Westbrook made with Domantas Sabonis, an ex-Thunder forward who struggled defending pick-and-rolls as a rookie. After one particularly bad game, Donovan says, Westbrook was at practice early, grinding through pick-and-roll drills with the rookie.
Indeed, Westbrook’s connection with George grabbed headlines—George’s decision to sign a four-year deal with the Thunder last summer effectively saved the franchise—but Westbrook has developed his strongest bonds with role players. Westbrook considers himself an underdog, team officials say, and he goes out of his way to push those who had the same label. Enes Kanter, who rehabilitated his image in Oklahoma City after a toxic finish in Utah, has a strong bond with Westbrook. Hasheem Thabeet connected with Westbrook. Schroder has, too.
“People see the intensity and the spirit that he plays with,” Donovan said. “Unfortunately, people don’t see everything that happens behind the scenes.”
There are high expectations in Oklahoma City. Wednesday’s win pushed the Thunder to 16-7. They have the NBA’s top ranked defense—even with wing stopper Andre Roberson still sidelined—and an offense anchored by two dynamic stars. The side of Westbrook you see is putting up numbers. The side you don’t is pushing Oklahoma City for more.