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Sounds of Thunder: The Year of Russell Westbrook, Part II - “We gotta win”

There’s winning, and then there’s everything else.

The individual stats don’t matter, only the big numbers on the scoreboard do.
© Kim Klement | 2017 Mar 29

“Gold medals aren’t really made of gold. They’re made of sweat, determination, and a hard-to-find alloy called guts.”
- Dan Gable

Possibly the single most amazing aspect of Westbrook’s game is the feeling that it has no limits. Just when you think he can’t do any more...he does something that has never been done before, and just when you think he can’t get any better... he raises his game another notch. The most points scored while recording a triple-double? That would be 57. The only triple-double accompanied by a perfect shooting night? Both of these were accomplished in the past 20 days.

Let us not forget, Westbrook IS the primary focal point of opposing defenses. He doesn’t have multiple All-Stars playing beside him, or a plethora of 3-point marksmen to distract a defense’s attention. When the Thunder take the floor, he is it. Stop Westbrook and you stop the Thunder, and therein lies the problem for opposing defenses, and what sets Westbrook apart. Even with every game plan geared against him and every eye trained to react to his every move, defenses have not been able to stop him. Last night’s ridiculous win over the Nuggets (Russ’ 3rd 50 point triple-double of the season) is the perfect example, as this tweet sums up so succinctly:

When Westbrook stepped up after Durant bolted, he knew exactly what he was signing up for. He was taking the helm of a team designed around the freakish skill-set of a potential 50-40-90 % sharpshooter, but without the freak. When Durant waited until July 4th before leaving the Thunder, he not only strengthened a team he couldn’t beat, but crippled the team he left because it left Thunder GM Sam Presti no time to gain any additional assets with the loss of Durant. By Independence Day, all of the top free agents were already signed, precious little left on the scrap heap. Another veteran presence in p.Serge Ibaka had been traded to Orlando prior to Durant’s departure for Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and Ersan Ilyasova.

What’s next?

When Westbrook asked Presti that question, he already knew the answer. Given time, Presti will structure this team to Westbrook’s strengths, but in the interim, Presti was forced to step back and retool with youth and, for this young Thunder team to have any shot at making the playoffs, for all intent and purpose, Westbrook would have to do everything else.

The first order of business for Russ would be to raise his own game to another level. Many of Westbrook’s detractors say other than the uptick in rebounding, that hasn’t happened. Not true.

Three-point shooting percentage is the highest of Westbrook’s career even at its highest volume ever, and the same at the free throw line. Obviously the rebounding numbers are up, but how can one not recognize that matching the previous season’s assist average, minus the scoring punch of Durant and Ibaka, is not just matching his 2015/16 output but is in fact a clear improvement?

Westbrook’s overall shooting percentage has dropped a not insignificant 2.9%, off of a heavy increase in shots taken, but in context, has come while carrying an entire offense for large stretches of the game and with every opponents best defender now focused on #0 rather than #35. Applying Westbrook’s 2015/16 shooting percentage to this season’s attempts and dividing by the number of games played it equates to just 0.68 extra misses per game. Russell’s raw number turnovers are also up, but his turnovers per 100 plays (TOV), is down:

Supporters of Harden’s bid for MVP want to avoid the turnover debate at all cost. Not only is Westbrook committing less TO’s per game than the bearded one, 5.4 to 5.8, but is destroying Harden in the turnover department when adjusted per 100 plays, 15.9 to Harden’s 19.6.

Much more on stats later, but suffice it to say, Westbrook has elevated his game.

Second on Westbrook’s to-do list was to improve as a leader. Following the Thunder’s injury-prone disaster of a 2014-15 season, Westbrook said the area he could improve the most was “that I could be a better leader when I put my mind to it.”

As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words:

A great leader make those around him better. Westbrook leads the league in AST%, the percentage of teammates field goals a player assists on while he is on the floor. A great leader earns the respect of his teammates. During a game this season, TNT sideline reporter David Aldridge quoted comments from a prior interview he did with Victor Oladipo in which Oladipo said that everything he had ever heard about Westbrook as a teammate was a lie.

During that same game, color commentator Chris Webber talked about how patient Westbrook is with his young teammates, and pointed out that he had not seen Westbrook so much as roll his eyes when one of his young charges makes a mistake. When Colin Cowherd declared unequivocally that nobody wanted to play with Westbrook this summer, teammate Enes Kanter did not hesitate to come to his Captain’s defense:

After Presti made the strongest move to date to transform this to a team built for Westbrook, newly acquired Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott had this to say:

So much for the “nobody wants to play with Westbrook because he is selfish” narrative, and so much for the Westbrook can’t do it without Durant myth. They do and he can.

To inspire poise a good leader has to exude it, especially under pressure, and Russell has done so in spades. The Durant story distraction hasn’t phased him, the responsibility of leading hasn’t changed him, and the immensity and attention garnered from averaging a triple-double all season hasn’t broken him. Cowherd and Co. say, “not an MVP,” and Westbrook responds by doing things never before seen in the league.

When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s 34 year old home run record in 1961, he almost had a nervous breakdown. His hair fell out, his health suffered, and at one point he even reached a limit an anxiety limit so high he wanted to give up the chase and sit out of games. Maris wasn’t even charged with the task of carrying his team every day the way Westbrook is. He had all-time greats including Micky Mantle, Whitey Ford, and Yogi Berra sharing that load and yet Maris almost succumbed to the pressure in an era devoid of both the internet and social media.

Thirty-seven years later, when Mark McGwire was chasing Maris, he broke down and almost wept in a late season interview because the pressure was so intense and at the time of the interview, McGwire’s Cardinals team wasn’t even in the playoff hunt.

On the flip side, Westbrook breaks Robertson’s 55 year-old triple-double record, the Holy Grail of NBA records, rarely acknowledged it along the way, and barely broke a sweat doing it. To hear Russell tell it throughout the season, he was just doing what he has always done, whatever it took to help his team win.

That’s insane. His team needed a historic season from him just to be competitive in the West, so Russ just went ahead and did it? Fifty-five years and no one has been able to “just do it,” and Westbrook did it with the Durant drama feeding a media frenzy throughout the entire season, with only 3 teammates playing beyond a rookie contract, 3 true rookies, and a veteran contingent that boasts a grand total of 12 seasons averaging 10 or more points collectively, with eight of those 12 produced by Oladipo and Kanter, whose respective hand and wrist injuries forced Westbrook’s two “primary” scoring weapons to miss a combined 25 games. The remaining experience belongs to Taj Gibson, Westbrook’s teammate for less than 2 months and a contributor to another game missed.

That’s 26 games missed, a span in which the Thunder went 12 and 14. If those guys stayed healthy and the Thunder won at the same clip as they had in the other 51 games, OKC could have 48 wins right now and be set to host the first round of the playoffs. On top of all that, Steven Adams, newly signed to a 4-year extension in the off-season and expected to have a break out type season, has struggled with issues with his right hand, both ankles, and has worn an ice pack on his back the entire season. The ankle and back issues have clearly limited Adams mobility at times, and the hand has led to a season with as many lost ball turnovers as his 3 previous seasons combined.

The numbers don’t lie, in a rebuilding year hampered by injuries to key players, Westbrook has turned up the juice whenever it was needed. After dropping 6 of 10 games during Kanter’s absence, Russell cranked out 16 triple-doubles in the Thunder’s next 21 games to reach 41 and tie Roberston’s record. Again, when needed, Russ just did it and did it at a pace that were it extended over an 82 game season would have produced 62 triple-doubles!

And what did the lad that came to UCLA as a fall back when a higher profile player backed out of his commitment say about the Big O’s unbreakable record? The same lad that was unable to dunk a basketball until his senior year in high school and was told before the beginning of the season he would not be able to lead his team to the playoffs? He said what he has always said...

“We gotta win”

Therein lies Westbrook’s secret. Giving his team whatever they need to win. That is all that counts and if the record falls along the way, so be it...we gotta win.

#WhyNot

Part III - Then We Will Fight in the Shade