If the Thunder didn’t have Russell Westbrook on their team right now, there’s a pretty good chance they wouldn’t be up 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors. Hell, if the Thunder didn’t have Russell Westbrook on their team right now, there’s a pretty good chance they wouldn’t even be in the Western Conference Finals, and you could even make the argument that, at this point in time, they would have a completely different team surrounding Kevin Durant and wouldn’t be as good as they are today. Westbrook is the heart and soul of the Oklahoma City team so, without him, who knows where they would be?
But despite that, there was actually a time when the Thunder were torn over whether or not to select Westbrook, who played his college ball at UCLA, with the fourth pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, and O.J. Mayo went first, second, and third that year in the draft ahead of Westbrook (welp) and the Thunder weren't sure if they should take Westbrook or Brook Lopez at No. 4. And according to the team’s former coach P.J. Carlesimo, who was with the franchise in 2007 and 2008 when they were still the Seattle SuperSonics, he actually pushed for the team to take Lopez over Westbrook. He talked about it during a “One Awesome Story” segment on ESPN Radio’s Russillo & Kanell on Wednesday and ‘fessed up to the mistake he almost made.
You can listen to Carlesimo tell the whole story in the video above. You can also read a transcript of the portion of the story that features Carlesimo talking about the Westbrook vs. Lopez debate below:
It came down to Brook Lopez or Russell Westbrook…We went back and forth and we really liked both of them. It wasn’t like half the group didn’t like this guy, half the group did. We liked both of them a lot for obvious reasons. We needed a big in the worst way. We certainly needed a point guard, too, but the conventional wisdom is always bigs are harder to come by. But I think back to even, during that year, Earl Watson, now the coach of Phoenix, he was our point guard. Him and Luke Ridnour, they’re playing point guard for us, and Earl came to me a couple times, and UCLA is one of those places—Carolina, there’s a couple others—where players go back and they play a lot against each other. So you walk into UCLA’s gym, the old gym where John Wooden conducted practices, you go into that gym and there will be 10 or 15 NBA guys playing there in the summer. Now, it’s in L.A., of course, but a lot of UCLA guys. And Earl told me for years, he said, ‘Coach, the best player there wasn’t Darren Collison. It wasn’t the other guys they had playing point guard.' He said, ‘It’s Russell Westbrook.’ And he didn’t start as a freshman and then he was a Defensive Player of the Year as a sophomore. He said, ‘This kid is unbelievable.’ Earl was bubbling over about how good he was and how great he was going to be for [former UCLA basketball coach] Ben Howland even before that year started.
So fast forward, we worked them both out, and we loved both of them. We liked Russell and his confidence. He’s a delightful guy. There was a really good story the other day—I hope it was on ESPN.com [Ed. note: It was. See here.]—about how different Russell is off the floor and on the floor. People don’t really know him. But he’s a delightful personality, he was an excellent student. There was nothing not to like about both of them. And as we got closer and closer to the draft, I’m the one fighting for Brook. I think Brook’s going to be a multiple year starter. I thought he would be a multiple year All-Star, and he still may be. I just thought, ‘This is a guy that’s going to start in the league for 10 or 12 years. You can build around him.’ Better offensively, but I thought he could become a more dominant rebounder. I knew he could block shots. He’s up to almost two blocks a game. You just have to make that an emphasis with him. But he was such a good shooter and I thought he could be a pick-and-pop, pick-and-roll player because he shoots it so well in the pick-and-rolls and then you could pound it down to him.
I remember debating with [Thunder GM] Sam Presti and [Thunder assistant GM] Troy [Weaver] and those guys, [then-head coach] Scottie [Brooks]. I said, ‘Big guys don’t come around. We’re not going to get a guy like this. This is a 10 or 12-year starter. Put him with Kevin [Durant] and we’re halfway home already. We got two of the best young bigs in the league.’ But Sam, I remember him saying to me—and again, it wasn’t like it was cut and dry, we went back and forth—I remember Sam’s words like it was yesterday. He said, ‘You know what scares me? I just think this kid [Westbrook] can be so special that if we don’t take him, we’re making a mistake.’ Almost like Michael Jordan and [Sam] Bowie back then [in the 1984 NBA Draft]. It’s not just that he’s good. He’s going to be transcendent good. He said that, and as we got closer to the draft, obviously he had the last call, and they drafted Russell.
Lopez was eventually selected at No. 10 by the Nets. Can you even imagine how differently things could have worked out for Westbrook, Durant, and the Thunder as a whole if Carlesimo had gotten his way?
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