Top 50 NBA Players: #4 Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook
Resume: 23.2 points (6th in league), 5.2 rebounds (career best), 7.4 assists (7th in league), 1.8 steals (9th in league), 34.9 minutes, 460 free throws made (4th in league), 575 free throws attempted (5th in league), 44% FG, and 80% FT… Team record in games played: 60-22… Playoffs: 24.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 3.0 steals, 34.0 minutes, 42% FG, 86% FG, 2-0 record (3-6 without)… All-Star, 9th in MVP Voting, 2nd Team All-NBA

“His game is about to change,” he said. “He will not have the same burst he had before. He’ll still be Russell Westbrook, but he’s not the old Russell Westbrook.”

That’s not cool. Those are the words of orthopedic surgeon Robert Klapper who spoke of Russell Westbrook’s recovery from a torn lateral meniscus. If Dr. Klapper’s prognosis is indeed correct that means that the Oklahoma City Thunder are in big trouble. It also means Patrick Beverly should be chained to a pipe in a dirty underground bathroom like he’s a piece in one of Jigsaw’s games, but that’s beside the point. I’m not a Thunder fan and I’m not a Russell Westbrook fan either, but if you love the NBA like I do you want to see as many good players on the floor as possible, all in perfect health. That’s why Derrick Rose coming back from an ACL tear is so exciting. That’s why my heart broke when Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles. That’s why I’d gladly give my ankles to Stephen Curry if they were healthier than his—I’ve only got a semester and a half of college left; after that my pick-up/intramural basketball career is going to start to become a distant memory. And that’s why Westbrook’s injury seems so unfair.

I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that when Westbrook comes back to the Thunder, likely twenty games or so into the season, he’ll look like the same guy he was before—breathtaking athlete, relentless when attacking the basket, impossible to stop in transition, always rocking goofy outfits, etc. He’s big enough to bully smaller point guards and back them down from the wing to the low post, and fast enough to blow by anyone. His burst and quickness when elevating towards the rim are so spectacular it almost doesn’t seem like real life. It’s like he’s moving too fast both laterally and vertically at once to be believable.  Whether you love or hate Russell Westbrook you should at least be able to admit he’s one of the most fun and most polarizing players in the league.

Mar 20, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) sets up to guard Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (11) during the game at FedEx Forum. Memphis Grizzlies defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in overtime with a score of 90-89. Mandatory Credit: Spruce DerdenUSA TODAY Sports

The stink towards Westbrook comes mainly because Kevin Durant is held in such high regard. It doesn’t seem logical that Durant, an offensive machine who led the league in scoring three straight years until last season, would take 102 fewer shots than his teammate Westbrook did last year. That differential makes you scratch your head and wonder whether the scale should be leaning in the opposite direction, but removing Westbrook completely from the equation certainly wasn’t the way to go either.

In the playoffs we witnessed a small sample size of what life without Russell Westbrook would be like for the Thunder. Prior to the meniscus tear, Westbrook hadn’t missed a single game as a member of the Thunder. He was a workhorse who played in all 439 possible regular season and playoff games up to that point in his career. The Thunder offense was so accustomed to seeing Westbrook and Durant on the court together that it couldn’t function without one of the two out there for more than the time it takes either one of them to rest up on the bench during a game. Kevin Durant, the 2nd best player in the NBA mind you, took on a burden that he clearly wasn’t ready for. Even though he put up outrageous numbers in the nine full games without Westbrook, the Thunder weren’t remotely close to being contenders for a title anymore.

With two stars on the floor the Thunder offense works. Even when Westbrook and Durant were flanked by Serge Ibaka (a good player who oh so greatly benefits from open looks thanks to the attention paid to the aforementioned superstars), Thabo Sefolosha (not getting any respect from defenders), and Kendrick Perkins (not getting any respect from defenders unless they are afraid of him), the offense works just because Westbrook and Durant were there. Their pick and rolls are deadly and they are each good enough to score late in the shot clock in isolation. But man, things got bowling shoe ugly when Durant was the lone wolf out there playing with a bunch of sheep. Even though he steals some of Durant’s shots, Westbrook makes the predictable and boring Thunder offense less predictable and definitely less boring.

How the Thunder will survive a month without Russell Westbrook in the loaded Western Conference is a mystery. The consensus seems to be that there won’t be much of a drop off with Westbrook sidelined. Maybe I’m crazy, putting too little stock in Kevin Durant, or putting too much stock in Westbrook, but this seems like a big deal to me. We’re talking about the 2nd best point guard in the league (this is according to my rankings; Tony Parker, Stephen Curry, Derrick Rose, or Kyrie Irving supporters might oppose that idea), and a player who might be the best shooting guard in the league if he played there exclusively. You don’t just move on from that and act like it’s no big deal. This is a very big deal for the Thunder. Kevin Durant might be trying out this new tough guy persona, but Russell Westbrook has played with an eff-you edge since he came into the league. Good luck replacing that and everything else for a month or so.