Russell Westbrook re-upped with the Oklahoma City Thunder yesterday, redoing next year’s deal, guaranteeing 2017-18 and adding a third option year. He could still leave in the summer of ‘18 but, at least for now, he’s Oklahoma City’s favorite son. The mayor even declared it Russell Westbrook Day. The Lakers and Celtics will need to look elsewhere this summer for their respective saviors, and the Thunder won’t have to agonize over whether they could endure a second straight offseason of losing a superstar for nothing. Honestly? They never had anything to worry about.
Two weeks ago, Westbrook was in Las Vegas with Jordan Brand for the introduction of the Air Jordan XXX1. Total disclosure, I was there too, as DJ Clark Kent and I would host a live Quickstrike episode around the shoe, where we would interview designer Tate Kuerbis and Westbrook. Beforehand, we all gathered in a makeshift green room off to the side of the Brooklyn Bowl stage, as Jordan Brand president Larry Miller greeted the viewers and introduced a short film.
Thirty years ago, that's me. The attitude, trying to prove myself, showing so much passion for the game of basketball.
The film, which included clips of Kuerbis and Westbrook and even Michael Jordan himself discussing the new shoe, also focused plenty on Westbrook, who will be the shoe’s primary endorser. Westbrook, who’d never seen it before, knelt on the couch facing backwards, poking his head out from the curtains to watch his own highlight-reel clips on the big screen. Then they cut back to Jordan. "Thirty years ago, that's me," he said of Westbrook. "The attitude, trying to prove myself, showing so much passion for the game of basketball. You see it in his play. You can tell he loves the game, he plays with energy and flair."
This certainly wasn’t the first time Westbrook had been compared to a young Jordan, but for Michael himself to do it, well, that was different. "That's crazy," he told us during his interview. "I really don't know what to say. To have the best player who ever played the game to say that about you as a player and as a person is something that is going to keep me striving."
Like the young Jordan, Westbrook will now have to do everything for his team to remain competitive, and like the young Jordan, he’s more than capable of it. Last year Westbrook averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals, and equaled Magic Johnson’s modern NBA record of 18 triple-doubles. He played with—plays with—an intense ferocity that leaves stunned defenders in his wake, and occasionally leaves teammates just as shook.
Playing without Kevin Durant, a no-doubt top three player, will hurt, but hell, he’s done it before. Durant played just 27 games of the 2014-15 season, a season in which Westbrook led the league in scoring at 28.1 ppg, adding 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds per. The Thunder went 45-37, not quite good enough to make the playoffs in the hypercompetitive West.
One of the driving themes behind the design of the Air Jordan XXX1 was the concept of “defiance,” which the brand felt suited Westbrook perfectly. Westbrook agreed. He acknowledged that defiance was something that drove him to this point and continues to drive him. “Staying with it, staying focused, staying consistent,” he said. “Trying to find ways to keep that edge, keep being competitive, trying to find ways to work my way up the totem pole."
To have the best player who ever played the game to say that about you as a player and as a person is something that is going to keep me striving.
At 27 (he turns 28 two weeks into the season) Westbrook will be starting at the bottom again, without Durant and Serge Ibaka, two of his longest-tenured Thunder teammates. He and 35-year-old reserve Nick Collison are the only two players remaining from the Thunder’s debut season, with Westbrook as the undisputed on-floor leader.
It would be foolish to say that this is how Westbrook wanted things to play out—despite the difficulty at maintaining a balance with Durant when it came to possessions and shots, the partnership had paid on-court dividends, a Finals appearance in 2012, falling one game short of another last year. Maybe another year under coach Billy Donovan would have been all they needed to break through. Now we’ll never know.
But Durant is gone now, and it’s Westbrook’s team once and for all. He got his own team without having to go anywhere, was able to remain loyal to the franchise that drafted him 4th overall out of UCLA in 2008. And if defiance is indeed a defining character trait, he’ll have to dip deeply into it and play at an MVP level every night just to keep the Thunder competitive. It didn’t necessarily happen the way he wanted it to, but Russell Westbrook ended up in the right place. "There is nowhere else I'd rather be than Oklahoma City,” Westbrook said yesterday. Why would he ever want to go anywhere else?