At the start of 2016, Russell Westbrook was ejected from a regular-season game against the Dallas Mavericks following a scuffle with J.J. Barea and then Charlie Villanueva. The Thunder were on fire that night, blasting the Mavericks 108-89 and the team were 25 points ahead late in the first half when Westbrook was ejected. It was a classic representation of the unabashed fire the Thunder's star guard prides himself on playing with.
Confrontational. Intense. Angry. Savage. Alienating. These are the labels that analysts and fans have given Westbrook as a result of his one of a kind demeanor. There are misconceptions about how his personality is perceived by his teammates. Serge Ibaka and Westbrook certainly had their clashes during their time together. Kevin Durant too, but that's just part and parcel of being teammates 82 games and more per season. Whilst clashing is bound to happen at times with an alpha dog nature of Westbrook's variety, it is part and parcel of playing 82 games and more per season together.
Because Westbrook's "killer" mentality can often cause confusion because of similarities with other fiery competitors such as Kobe Bryant or the Greatest of All Time himself, Michael Jordan, it is easy to assign guilt by association. Jordan and Bryant's intensity as competitors alienated their teammates, particularly Bryant.
The Black Mamba had famous feuds with Chris Mihm, Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard and of course the most famous of all; Shaquille O'Neal. Their fallout was so bad at certain points that O'Neal reportedly gave Bryant death threats during their time together.
Michael Jordan was no angel in the locker room either. Jordan once punched his teammate in the face, a man who now happens to be current Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, after being guarded by him in practice. Jordan also feuded with Jud Buechler and Bill Cartwright, and Will Purdue was another teammate who was on the receiving end of a punch from his superstar teammate after setting an illegal screen repeatedly in practice.
This is where the misconception in the Westbrook comparisons come into play. Whilst he has clashed with teammates at times (and who hasn't?) there is nothing on the level of a Jordan or Bryant.
The only teammate in Westbrook's tenure as an NBA player that is worth mentioning? Reggie Jackson. The reasons for this are also vastly different. Jackson quit on the team when he believed he was deserving of becoming a starter in the league in 2014-15 prior to his trade to the Detroit Pistons.
Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins were so frustrated with his conduct that they froze Jackson out on the court by refusing to pass the ball to their point guard at the time. Jackson's trade request prior to the deadline did not help his relationship with his teammates, but his steadfast refusal to play in the season's home opener against the Denver Nuggets, even though he had been medically cleared was the beginning of the end. Westbrook's response toward Jackson is perhaps one of the best clues to his personal make-up - above competitiveness, Westbrook demands loyalty. Jackson's passive aggressive behavior throughout the season irked Westbrook greatly, creating the rift. Westbrook is always fiercely defensive of not only himself but more importantly his team, but once Jackson made his intentions known, from Westbrook's perspective, he was a man on the outside looking in. You are either on Westbrook's team, or you are nowhere.
This became clear in Westbrook's contract extension announcement, which was an outpouring of an emotion for the state of Oklahoma and a sign of the loyalty the player has developed with his not only his franchise, but his city and teammates:
"I'm really excited about moving forward with this group of guys," Westbrook beamed as he sat alongside General Manager Sam Presti at the presser on Thursday. A lot of players around the league count multiple players from opposing teams and particularly rivals among their best friends.
"The Brodie" however? Never heard a mention of that besides the long rumored reunion between he and former UCLA teammate Kevin Love with the Los Angeles Lakers which never happened, so that talk is dead in the water. His true and closest friends? Teammates Steven Adams, Nick Collison and Andre Roberson, while a budding bromance with Enes Kanter continues to thrive.
Not to mention (per Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical) that Westbrook has been training down the house this summer with his new backcourt partner Victor Oladipo in Los Angeles after inviting him to train with him. If Westbrook is "putting on an act" until he bolts town, he's doing an incredible Oscar-worthy job of it.
Presti and the Thunder have crafted a team that in Durant's now permanent absence blends well around their star guard. His increasingly good chemistry with those on the roster means he can run devastating pick and roll combinations with several teammates. In particular Kanter, Adams and even Roberson, who had success doing so with him in the postseason which also meant Roberson wasn't able to be left alone by defenders.
Oladipo will enable the Thunder to put out a potentially devastating backcourt, and if Westbrook can be unburdened enough offensively that he can put in good defensive work they could terrify athletically on both ends. That's a very, very scary thought for opponents.
Without Westbrook's former partner now in Golden State, it'll be solely down to Westbrook to carry the team off the floor. That means responding to the media, copping the entire brunt of public criticism and being the sole face of an entire NBA franchise. It's going to be fascinating to see how he handles that. So far? He's started brilliantly.
Russell Westbrook arrives: pic.twitter.com/RazUEpfL9i— Royce Young (@royceyoung) August 4, 2016
He's the true alpha now, but if these sides of Westbrook start to show more those labels he has had pinned on him throughout his career might be starting to change for a truly one of a kind player.