Claiming that a lottery team has a real shot at winning a NBA championship generally draws a hardy guffaw. Throw an untested college coach on top of that and normally your audience would be rolling in the floor in gleeful derision. But the Oklahoma City Thunder are not your run of the mill lottery team, and Billy Donovan, with two NCAA titles under his belt, is not your typical untested college coach.
Most lottery teams also don't have Russell Westbrook, who is more prepared to lead this team (featuring a returning MVP in Kevin Durant and perennial All-Defense player Serge Ibaka) to a championship than at any time in his career.
The Westbrook we see now is different than the guy that took the podium stand on Media day last year.
Westbrook's Media Day interview, September 29, 2014:
That Westbrook we saw that day had no idea what he was in for during the past season. Here is your list:
- October 9th - Mitch McGary breaks the second metatarsal in his left foot during a pre-season game in Denver and misses the first 23 games of the season.
- October 12th - the Thunder announce that Kevin Durant has sustained a Jones fracture in his right foot and will undergo surgery and be out of the line-up from four to six weeks. Anthony Morrow was also injured during the pre-season and missed the first seven games of the season along with Jeremy Lamb who didn't suit up until game 6.
- October 30th - In the 2nd game of the season, Westbrook breaks a bone in his right hand, undergoes surgery on November 4th. He returned to the line-up on November 28th after missing 14 games.
- November 3rd - Andre Roberson sprains left foot and misses next 8 games.
- November 4th - Perry Jones injures his right knee and misses next 13 games.
- December 2nd - Durant returns a week earlier than expected but injures his ankle on December 18th and misses the next 6 games.
- December 17th - after returning for one game, the Thunder announce that Mitch McGary is suffering from inflammation in his left tibia and misses the next 6 weeks of the season.
- January 25, 2015 - Durant complains about pain in his right foot and sits for 4 of the next 6 games, returning to the floor on February 2nd.
- February 19th - Durant finishes his 27th and last game of the season in obvious pain and the team announces that the screw used to repair the Jones fracture would be replaced. His foot does not respond well and any hope of a return die when the Thunder announced on March 27th that his season was over and he needed a bone graft procedure to repair his foot injury.
- February 20th - the team trades Reggie Jackson to the Detroit Pistons for DJ Augustine and Kyle Singler at the same time Kendrick Perkins and Grant Jarrett were traded for Utah's Enes Kanter and Steve Novak. To clear roster space for Novak the team trades Ish Smith to the New Orleans Pelicans for a future 2nd round draft pick.
- February 27th - Westbrook takes an Andre Roberson knee to the head in the closing seconds at Portland, breaking the zygomatic arch bone of his right cheek. The injury required surgery and the Thunder said the injury would be reevaluated later in the week. Westbrook missed 1 game and then returned to the line-up sporting a protective mask.
Russell wore the mask for the next 16 games.
- March 17th - Serge Ibaka undergoes knee surgery and never returns to the line-up.
- March 20nd - Nick Collison twists an ankle and misses next 9 games.
- March 22nd - Andre Roberson twists an ankle and misses next 7 games.
- April 15th - Thunder season ends a mere tie-breaker from the playoffs and the team will have the #14 pick in the 2015 NBA Rookie Draft.
Westbrook's exit interview, April 17th, 2015:
Two weeks after Westbrook's exit interview, newly hired Thunder coach Billy Donovan put Westbrook's sentiments in a slightly different way:
"Here's what I think, when your in a highly competitive situation, you hear the word commitment used. Ok? And I just believe this in my heart to be true.There's three types of commitment.The first commitment is a verbal commitment, someone says they're going to do something. Well anyone can, that's the easiest commitment.The next commitment is a physical commitment, you know? When your physically committed to doing something.And then the third commitment is an emotional commitment and that's when you actually give of yourself to somebody else. That you are actually emotionally connected to somebody else and emotionally take responsibility to help others...to help somebody else develop and grow."-Billy Donovan, April 30, 2015
Somewhere between the expectations of September and the final disappointment in April, Westbrook said that he learned he could be a better leader and teammate, but is there any evidence to back that up? I believe the answer is found in the assist column of Westbrook's 2014-15 game log.
- Games 1 - 13, 1 game with 10 or more assists, 7.15 per game
- Games 14 - 38, 7 games with 10 or more assists, 7.84 per game
- Games 39 - 67, 17 games with 10 or more assists, 9.89 per game!
Russell finished the season averaging a career best 8.6 assists per game and recorded the 9.89 assist per game average in the last 28 games minus the offensive punch of former league MVP and four-time scoring champion Kevin Durant.
Westbrook also said he learned he had to become a better closer, and again, I believe there is evidence to back up his claim. The answer is more abstract, but in my opinion, still compelling.
Accountability breeds response-ability.
When Russell talked about the team losing close games in the last four or five minutes and said "Most of that was my fault," he took ownership of his mistakes and made himself accountable as the point guard to do a better job of helping his team close games the way they want to.
The close road loss to the Chicago Bulls on March 5th is a perfect example to illustrate Westbrook's point. The Thunder were ahead by one point with an opportunity to go up by three and Russell failed to get a contested shot off before the shot clock expired.
Russell's comment about the play:
"I was just trying to get a good shot... I should have passed it to Serge. That was a bad decision on my part. He was wide open. I should have hit him for an open shot."
NewsOK's Darnell Mayberry thought that being confident about calling his own number while sitting on 43 points was understandable, but Westbrook countered:
"I think that [even] if I’m 0-for-15, so that’s regardless of what’s going on. I’m always confident. My job is to instill confidence in my teammates."
Westbrook referred to that very thing in his exit interview when he said:
....that I could be a better leader when I put my mind to it and be able to go out and find ways to make my teammates better throughout a season regardless of however my game was going, whether I was playing well or not, to still find a way to take myself out of the equation and constantly keep helping other guys on my team...
Which brings me to what Russell called the most important thing he learned last season, how to become a better person.
Oscar Wilde once said that "experience is simply the name we give our mistakes" and Eleanor Roosevelt said that "people grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously" and added that this is how one builds character.
Character is defined as the way someone thinks, feels and behaves. Did Russell grow as a person last year, and is he instilling confidence in his teammates and helping them to get better like he said?
Coach Billy Donovan has not voiced any complaints:
"He knows his position and he knows the four other positions. That speaks volumes to just how cerebral a guy he is out there on the court and how much he sees. As a coach, that’s great because I can get a lot of feedback from him."
Donovan agreed with Thunder writer Nick Gallo that Westbrook's "intimate knowledge" of his teammates was also valuable:
"That’s very helpful to me in terms of what kind of pace we’re keeping our team on as it relates to adding different things. He has a good pulse of the team, he has a good pulse of the game and he has a good pulse of who are the guys who maybe need a little bit of extra attention and understanding of what we’re doing."
Russell's triple-double in his pre-season game against the Jazz is another good sign, but the best proof I can offer is from ... Russell.
Russell Westbrook Media Day interview, September 28, 2015:
I think the change we see in Westbrook is amazing. Rather than being brash, distracted and somewhat curt, he is confident, attentive, and insightful. I like this new and improved Russell and I truly believe he is ready.... really ready, to lead this team to an NBA Championship.
(And that nifty floater he developed over the summer and Billy Donovan posting him up won't hurt either.)