With all due respect, James Harden would like to put to rest this notion that Russell Westbrook is traveling into uncharted waters this season in Oklahoma City Thunder with All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony flanking him.
Westbrook, the reigning Kia MVP, has been here before, Harden insists, a star serving as the connective tissue for two other stars.
Harden, Westbrook and Kevin Durant were young guns in Oklahoma City six seasons ago, the bright core group of a franchise poised for years of title contention in the rugged Western Conference. They were the faces of a new generation and an organic super team in the making.
Their post-practice shooting games were the stuff of legend, three young stars all bound for greatness. That trip they made to The Finals in 2012, where they fell to the Miami Heat’s star trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was just the beginning.
“We were all talented and we had that work ethic so we knew something positive would come out of that,” Harden said. “We didn’t know it would get to this level. I think all three of us are at the top and doing our own things individually and in our own way. But we knew it was something special.”
If he is able to repeat anything close to that … it’ll be crazy, absolutely crazy. Because that was a once-in-a-lifetime season."
Fast forward to the start of this season. The Thunder open up tonight at home against the New York Knicks and the destinies of Durant, Westbrook and Harden have been fulfilled … albeit apart rather than together.
Durant won a title with the Golden State Warriors in 2017, earning Finals MVP honors along the way. Westbrook averaged a triple-double (the first time in 55 years that happened) while breaking Oscar Robertson’s single-season triple-doubles record (42). Night after night, he was turning himself into a must-see attraction for fans everywhere. And Harden, the leader of a Houston Rockets team with designs on challenging the Warriors, finished as the runner-up to Westbrook in the MVP race.
It’s easy, then, for Harden to reflect on what his good friend Westbrook can do for an encore.
“Do it again,” he said. “Get back to the grind and do it again.”
That’s easier said than done.
“Come on, numbers wise, guys just don’t do this all the time,” Boston Celtics center Al Horford said. “So I don’t expect it and I don’t think there is anything wrong with not matching those numbers. I know LeBron does it every year, basically, and that’s impressive in its own right. But I don’t expect Russell to average a triple-double again.
“If he is able to repeat anything close to that … it’ll be crazy, absolutely crazy. Because that was a once-in-a-lifetime season.”
Can Westbrook change his game?
Navigating the balance with George and Anthony, developing the sort of chemistry he and Harden and Durant once enjoyed, is the top priority for Westbrook. And moving from the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff field in 2016-17 and into the air held by the Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Warriors ranks ahead of any individual goals anyway.
Sharing the load, the way he did earlier in his pre-MVP days, is the priority now. How that affects Westbrook’s game remains to be seen.
But make no mistake, it’s on the minds of all involved.
“I say it all the time, I wanted to make this game easier for him,” George said. “Ultimately, making him better at what he does is difficult to do for a guy that averages triple-doubles. I mean, how do you top that? But I think all of our games complement each other. And I don't want him at any point to feel the pressure that he has to do everything or that it's all on his shoulders.”
That feeling was inevitable last season, when Westbrook toiled for the first time without Durant, who preceded him in bringing MVP hardware to Oklahoma City in 2014.
It’s fun to watch, no doubt. ... But it takes a toll on you. Its tough on the body to play that way every night. Trust me, it happened to me."
Westbrook’s MVP narrative started the day Durant left the Thunder for Golden State via free agency in 2016. It gained steam with every breathtaking Westbrook performance, every triple-double that followed.
By the time Westbrook’s tank went empty, during a first-round playoff loss to Harden and the Rockets, two things were clear: Westbrook would soon claim that MVP, and operating as a one-man wrecking crew in today’s NBA is not sustainable.
Thunder GM Sam Presti set out to rectify the situation by trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for George on July 6 and, later, engineering a trade for Anthony on the eve of training camp, sending Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott and a second-round draft pick to New York.
“Something had to be done,” said Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Tracy McGrady, who knows a thing or two about trying to tote the load the way Westbrook did last season. “You do it because you’re great, you love the game and you’re never satisfied. And when you’re built like that and you love to compete … you’re young, hungry and ambitious, you want it all.
“But it’s hard to do. It’s hard to do what Russ did because he plays so (expletive) hard. Every single night he expends so much energy. That’s not good for longevity. It’s fun to watch, no doubt. Fans love it. We all love to see it. But it takes a toll on you. Its tough on the body to play that way every night. Trust me, it happened to me.”
Versatility a strength now for OKC
With George and Anthony around to help share the responsibilities, McGrady said there is perfect opportunity for Westbrook to take a step back while improving at the same time. Thunder coach Billy Donovan will have more options to work with and Westbrook won’t have to carry as heavy a burden as a scorer and playmaker.
“I don’t think there is any doubt it will be scaled back a little bit because he has other great players with him,” McGrady said. “He had to do that last year. If he didn’t, they don’t win, point blank period. Once KD left, that was a big hole to fill, man. Oladipo couldn’t fill it. I thought he was going to be better. I was disappointed in his play because he’s talented as hell. I thought he would bring more. But Russ had to do that, he had to grind like that. Having Melo and PG with him changes everything.”
Westbrook and George in a pick and roll with Anthony waiting to shoot on the other side of the floor is a wrinkle the Thunder didn’t have last season. Three elite players with the versatility to play all five positions allows the Thunder to match up and cause mismatches their personnel could not last season.
It's enough for guys like Paul Pierce to bet on the Thunder as a legitimate championship contender this season, even with the Spurs, Warriors, Rockets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics on most people’s lists.
“You need minimum three All-Stars to win a championship,” said Pierce, an analyst for ESPN, said on a Monday media conference call. “What other team outside of OKC, Golden State, and maybe Cleveland can produce three All-Stars? So they have the criteria that you need to win a championship.”
Pierce was in the Westbrook role, of sorts, as the incumbent star in Boston, back when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in Boston and led the Celtics to a championship in their first season together (2007-08).
He understands, probably better than most, what sort of sacrifices needed to be made for this to work.
“You've got guys that can play multiple positions,” said Pierce, who spent the last few seasons of his career with the Nets, Wizards and Clippers. “You can put Russ at the two. You can put ‘Melo at the three, four or five. You can also put George at the two, three, four. So they really have the versatility to match up with anybody in the NBA.”
For Westbrook, it's team first
What about fears that the chemistry between Westbrook, George and Anthony won't develop or happen so slowly they all recede into bad habits? All a waste of time, says Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale.
“Billy Donovan is a hell of a coach. He manages egos well, and that’s going all the way back to his days at Florida with those championship teams he had,” Fizdale said. “He made it work with Russ and KD. It wasn’t that it wasn’t working with those guys. They took Golden State to the brink with that team. So let's be real about this. Once they figure out quickly that they can help each other and start sharing the game and not taking a step back as individuals, they’ll be fine.”
Donovan, for his part, has done his best to clear up any misconceptions about what drives Westbrook and how he plays the game. That’s something his coaches, teammates and Thunder front office personnel have done without fail over the years.
Westbrook’s record usage rate last season was out of necessity and not necessarily about a guy playing to his stat-stuffing alter-ego, as some critics suggested. He did it all because he had to and the Thunder needed that from their lone star.
"Clearly for us last year, somebody creating and generating a shot for himself or someone else, it was Russell,” Donovan told ESPN. “But obviously now with Carmelo and Paul being here, I think it's about making the right play and right decision.
"Russell's never been like, 'Hey I want the ball, give me the ball.' He's never been that way. He's always trying to figure out what's best for the team and I've always admired that and respect that as a coach.”
Whatever is said, what’s done is what matters. And ultimately, the onus falls on Westbrook, now that he’s ended the suspense about his future with the franchise by signing that five-year, $205 million extension.
You don’t want him to change, too much.
You need to him to keep his edge, to keep that fire burning.
“If you’re Russ or any guy in that position, I think the only thing you can really focus on is winning,” said Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley. “Just win as much as you can. There’s nothing else to prove individually. And I think that’s what he’s out to do, he’s said as much.
“Russ will be the same player he’s always been, which is relentless. But in those games, in certain situations the ball could be in Paul’s hands or Carmelo’s hands. And the thing that worries us all is he’s going to have more energy now. He doesn’t have to do it all, so it’s going to be tougher on us all to figure out new ways to try and slow him down.”
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