An NBA scoring title, an All-Star selection, the All-Star MVP and statistical performances that placed him in historic territory paled in comparison to the mental, emotional and physical impact Russell Westbrook had on the Thunder in the 2014-15 season.
All of those accolades and his career-high averages in points, assists, rebounds, steals and free throw attempts and makes made Westbrook one of the prime candidates for the NBA’s MVP award, where he finished fourth. Despite suffering a broken hand in just the second game of the season and then a fracture of the zygomatic arch in his cheek later in the season, Westbrook never let anything break his stride.
The Thunder faced adversity at every turn with injuries, lineup changes and trades, but Westbrook stayed the course, kept confidence high and trusted his teammates while also shouldering the load when necessary. Just one year after fellow All-Star teammate Kevin Durant performed similarly for the Thunder, Westbrook showed he was capable of being the leader the team could call upon every single night.
“It was just amazing to see the growth as a leader and a player,” Durant said. “His intensity and his effort every single night was what kept us going. I’m excited that I get to play with a guy like that again.”
Even teammates who haven’t been around Westbrook for as long have noticed a development in his leadership. All season long, Westbrook could be heard talking through strategies during practices, taking on vocal leadership responsibilities in on-court huddles and during timeouts. Even though his statistics were incredible, the larger impact Westbrook had was in the way he helped his team remain confident and aggressive even in trying moments.
“He was really leading the team this year and that’s something everybody on the team can honestly say they felt,” third-year forward Perry Jones said. “He did a great job and everybody just followed him.”
“Talking more, getting everybody more active especially during practices, pretty much stopping a little bit of practice to just go over want needs to be gone over,” Jones continued.
Of course Westbrook won’t be satisfied with the steps he’s taken over the past few years. In fact, more than ever, Westbrook was resolved to focus on very specific aspects of his game and leadership heading into the summer.
From studying film to understanding personnel, time, score and game flow, Westbrook hopes to help the Thunder finish off victories and handle crunch time at a higher level moving forward. Whether it is through his own offense, finding ways to get others involved or helping the team communicate better on the defensive end down the stretch Westbrook hopes his leadership can make another step heading into the 2015-16 campaign.
“I want to come back and be a better closer,” Westbrook explained. “We lost a lot of games within the last five minutes of the game and as a point guard, as a leader, I’ve got to be able to close games the way that we want to. Even if we make or miss shots that we want and close the game out the right way.”
“You have to read the game based on how the game is going, matchups, mismatches, who is hot, who is not,” Westbrook continued. “We’ve been working throughout the game and that’s just something that I can work on, reading the game. That’s just a part of learning and becoming better. Each year I learn something different and try to build it over to next year and learn a new aspect of my game and I think that is a huge part of not just my game, but our team.”
As for how that process continues to evolve, Westbrook will have a new man in the huddle, in the locker room and the film room to assist him every day. Although Head Coach Billy Donovan hasn’t had a chance to coach Westbrook yet, he said at his introductory press conference that he was extremely impressed by the Thunder point guard and wants to foster a system that allows Westbrook to simply be himself. As Donovan prepares to help put Westbrook in positions to succeed, he succinctly summed up Westbrook’s most important trait.
“He is obviously a fierce competitor,” Donovan said. “That comes out loud and clear.”