When Russell Westbrook had dinner with Kevin Durant a week before free agency opened in the summer of 2016, he asked Durant what he could do differently, how his game should evolve, how he could change.
Their partnership was wonderfully successful on the floor, and built on mutual respect off it, but with the rocky patches screaming louder than the smooth ones, Westbrook understood an evolution was going to be necessary for Durant to buy back in.
Durant left, and Westbrook did change — because he had to. He produced one of the most physically and mentally taxing seasons in NBA history, dominating the record book and setting a record for usage rate. With the fully engulfed solo act, and Durant bailing, some wondered if stars even wanted to play with Westbrook.
When the Thunder landed Paul George hours before free agency last summer, Westbrook had his second chance. The Thunder were on the clock the moment the trade call went through, with George’s free agency floating on the near horizon and not-so-low rumblings of glitzier pastures as the threat. But Westbrook had his shot at redemption, to change again and prove he can fit, that he can co-exist and that a team can thrive with him at the front of it all.
Then the Thunder added Carmelo Anthony for good measure, and Westbrook was looking at an offensively stacked roster, one like he hasn’t played with since he and Durant and James Harden were 22-year-olds figuring it out on the fly.
Westbrook and the new-look Thunder are four games in and fully aware of the required patience to work through the growing pains of such a roster overhaul. And as they begin to carve out an identity, it’s becoming clear to everyone involved: For the Thunder to reach their potential, Westbrook has to remain Westbrook.
“We came here for you,” Anthony said he told Westbrook. “We came here because we believe in what you can do and what you bring to the game, and we don’t want you to stop doing that. We want you to be that player, we want you to be that person, and we’ll fit in.”
There have been times already this season where the process of adjustment has been obvious for the reigning MVP. Maybe it’s the Oklahoma hospitality rubbing off on him, but Westbrook has, at times, gone out of his way to try and accommodate Anthony and George, trying to make them feel comfortable. Last season, there were only two full games when a teammate took more shots than Westbrook. There have already been two this season when both Anthony and George out-attempted Westbrook. Last season, Westbrook took 1,009 more attempts than the next closest teammate, Victor Oladipo. This season, Anthony has attempted 17 more shots than Westbrook, George 12 more.
The past two games, Westbrook has led the Thunder in attempts.
“We’ll do a great job of fitting in around him,” Anthony said of Westbrook. “I think he’s taken that advice, and as you see the last couple games, he’s been playing like the Russ that you guys are used to.”
It’s not simply about the shots, though. Westbrook was at his absolute best on opening night against the Knicks, and he took only 12 shots. He controlled the game and put the Knicks on their heels, possession after possession. He was efficient and selective, using his aggressiveness to draw and divide the defense, making it easy for George and Anthony. It’s about the balance in between, and when Westbrook strikes it, he’s as good as any player in the world. Some can make too much about roster hierarchy, who the alpha is, who the Batman and Robin is. Westbrook is a true alpha in every sense and is most comfortable in the driver’s seat. He is the engine that drives the Thunder and the more aggressive he is, the more opportunities Anthony and George will see.
Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George combine for 71 points in Oklahoma City’s big win against New York.
Between Westbrook, Anthony and George, there have already been a number of private conversations, both at practice and away from the floor, about playing together, working together and maintaining their own stylistic marks on the game. They all want the same thing. They all have the same goal in mind. And while playing together as a cohesive unit will be critical in getting them there, none of the three really view dramatic change to be necessary. Especially because for Anthony and George, Westbrook is going to run the show.
“His role is for him to be himself,” Anthony said, “And we’ll figure it all out.”
Westbrook, along with James Harden, reinvented the point guard position last season with the amount of offense they used. The Thunder spent last season studying Westbrook and embraced the idea he will generate virtually everything within the offense. They identified the type of players that would fit with that style. George was Target A. Anthony, they felt, could adjust alongside Westbrook to play more of a spacer catch-and-shoot role. They could stay themselves, but blend it all together.
“With our group being new, I think they all want each other to be who they are and why they’re all special players in this league,” coach Billy Donovan said. “Russell’s got great encouragement from his teammates and he’s at his best when he’s playing aggressively.”
Westbrook will change this season, because that’s the natural progression. There have already been signs. His passes per game are up, touches per game down. The roster is different; the team more balanced and rounded. He (probably) won’t average a triple-double again. He (probably) won’t register a usage rate above 40 percent again. His 2016-17 campaign was unique, unleashed out of one part necessity and one part spiteful vengeance. This season Westbrook is trying to find a higher place, and the only way Anthony and George can help him find it, is if he takes them there.