There is little doubt that Russell Westbrook is one of the top players in the NBA today. He has made lots of headlines recently due to his incredible month of March, highlighted so far by a record-tying 7 triple doubles. Tonight against the Clippers he has the chance to set the single month record and tie the single season record of 17. If it weren’t for Steph Curry and the unfathomably great Golden State Warriors, we likely would be discussing how Westbrook has locked up league MVP honors by now.
But just a few years ago, the conversation was dramatically different. When the Oklahoma City Thunder went to the NBA finals and lost to Lebron’s Heatles, the focus was on how detrimental Westbrook’s play was to the success of the Thunder. At that point, the typical analyst determined that Westbrook needing the ball in his hands only hurt the abilities of Kevin Durant, who was much more likely to be a perennial MVP and franchise player. Most people argued Durant and Westbrook could not co-exist, and went as far as to suggest that OKC should trade their (even then) all-star point guard. Now the argument could be made that while Durant is certainly the better pure scorer, Westbrook might in fact be the better basketball player.
So how did Russell Westbrook flip the script on how he is viewed? In my opinion, a large part of the issue lies with the media’s obsession with focusing on the now. At the time, it seemed Westbrook’s handling the ball too much was hurting OKC and their chances of winning. But what really was happening was the development of a superstar. When we get spoiled with the likes of a LeBron James or a Kobe Bryant, who upon entering the league ascend to superstardom, we forget that it is much more typical for a player to need to develop over a number of years to truly reach their potential. You might not realize it, but Westbrook (27) is actually younger than Steph Curry (28), who really only became a superstar in his age 27 season. So does it not make sense that when Westbrook was 24, he didn’t have the NBA completely figured out yet? It seems far more likely to me that Westbrook needed those games where he dribbled too much, took ill-advised shots and pushed the tempo too much to become the player he is today. Had we been able to step back and appreciate that Westbrook was a developing player, and not yet a finished product, we might have been able to understand and project how Westbrook could become the player he is today: the modern Oscar Robertson.
By Aaron Gillette