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Sounds of Thunder: The Thunder’s Long Road back to Contention, Part 4

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The final piece of the puzzle.

Failure is never fatal. But failure to change can and might be. John Wooden

Anyone paying attention to the Oklahoma City Thunder since July 4th, 2016 knows that Thunder GM Sam Presti has adopted this pearl of wisdom from the late, great John Wooden.

And in the upcoming months, monetary necessities will force even greater change. As shown by the first 3 parts of this series, Presti’s best option may be to take a young team and make it younger.

The drawback with this route, of course, is the long road back to contention. The upside is regaining invaluable cap space when the time comes to add a key player. In navigating this trapeze, though, Presti must guard against the temptation to go too far. My meaning here should be obvious, the Thunder must sign Russell Westbrook for the long haul.

The reason is simple..... he’s a winner.

In fact, this franchise didn’t start its ascension until Westbrook claimed the starting PG spot. In Durant’s first 99 games (before Westbrook was inserted into the starting line-up Nov. 29th, 2008) the team won a total of 21 games, or 21.2%. After Westbrook took over the starting spot, however, the team won 22 of its final 65 games in 2008/09, or 33.8%. The next season the team won 50 games, then 55, then 71% of their games in the strike-shortened 66-game 2011/12 season.

Yet, none of those ventures compare to what Russell accomplished last year with the patchwork line-up Presti assembled following Durant’s departure.

Staying Power

Personally, I think Westbrook signs the new Designated Player contract with the Thunder. One, because I cannot contemplate the possibility of him leaving. And two, because Russell doesn’t dance to the same beat as other superstars. After watching Westbrook play it doesn’t take a genius to realize how important winning is to him —but, unlike some, this urge doesn’t supersede loyalties.

If brighter lights and bigger venues appealed to Russell, last summer would have been the time to cut his losses and move on, but he didn’t. Many cynics scoffed at the notion that loyalty had anything to do with this decision, and claimed it was money that kept Westbrook in Thunder blue. It’s hard to fault their logic after years of watching a procession of franchise pillars say the right things when the lights are on, only to plot their escape behind closed doors.

However, there are two glaring flaws in their conclusion when it comes to Russell Westbrook. First, as stated, he’s a winner, and winners get paid no matter where they play. Second, Russell is almost as famous for saying the wrong things (from a PR standpoint) when the lights are on as he is for his triple-double outpourings. In a discussion with J.A. Sherman some months ago, I compared Westbrook to Popeye the Sailor stating: “I yam what I yam and that’s all that I yam.” So when he says OKC is where he wants to be, I believe him.

Staying means accepting a huge challenge, but that isn’t new to Westbrook. It will, however, mean showing even more patience in waiting for what he desires most—winning— and it means evolving as a leader.

Sauce for the Goose

Wooden’s aforementioned prophetic words don’t apply only to the Thunder organization and Sam Presti. They also apply to the players.... especially their star. For the young players that means honing their skills and improving every day; for Westbrook that means, again, adding another dimension to his leadership skills.

Watching Russ lead the 2016/17 “Young Guns” was like watching a big brother taking care of a younger sibling. A role he is well suited for. Just ask his younger brother Raynard. When Ray’s grades slipped during his freshman year in High School, it was Russ that took him aside and brought him back on track. When Ray recently graduated from college, his big brother was the first to congratulate his achievement:

Big brothers tie your shoes for you, fight your bullies, and give you a lift on the back of their bicycle. And that is how Russell led his team last year. He did it all. He took the tough shots, he battled an entire league, and carried the Thunder all season, demolishing the record of 38.7 USG% set by Kobe Bryant 2005/06 in the process. Ironically, the season Bryant set that record, the Lakers finished with the 6th best record in the NBA Western Conference and were beaten in the first round of the playoffs.

Even so, one man cannot wield such burden. Clearly, something has to change and that something is how Russell views his role as a leader.

This is not an attack on Russell as a leader. What he did this season was nothing short of phenomenal. Russell himself said he must improve his leadership skills in his end-of-season interview and this post is merely offering a way to do that.

From Big Brother to Big Daddy

I don’t believe in fate, I think things happen for a reason, and thus say it is no accident that Russell became a Daddy for the first time on May 18th. Fathers have a totally different perspective than big brothers. They say a man becomes a father the first time he holds his first child in his arms. That moment is undoubtedly the most sobering experience he will have in his life. The realization that this little helpless miracle is depending on you to survive is overwhelming.

I can’t speak for all fathers, but in the first moments I held my oldest son I truly, for the first time, accepted my own mortality. I suddenly realized I wouldn’t be around forever and it was imperative to teach my son to stand on his own and be able to take care of himself as soon as possible. To be ready for that day when the old man wasn’t there to hold his hand and help him cross the street, to fight his own battles and take on the world.

If Westbrook hasn’t had that experience yet, he will, and I think that is the moment he will become the leader he aspires to be. Because, dads don’t just tie your shoes, they teach you how to do it yourself, then expect you to do it, and they don’t fight your bullies for you, they buy you a pair of boxing gloves and teach you how to take them on.

Now, I’m not saying Westbrook needs to adopt any of his young teammates and I’m quite certain they can at least tie their own shoes, but Russell has to let them start fighting their own battles.

The best example I can recall which details this type of leadership is Will Geer’s character of “Bear Claw Grizzlap,” from Robert Redford’s 1972 movie Jeremiah Johnson. The movie is set in the Rocky Mountains during the years following the Civil War. Surviving a winter in that wilderness without the know-how was just as hopeless as a High School team going against the Cleveland Cavaliers. And just as life in the NBA, failure to learn in those mountains was not an option.

Westbrook needs to bring that “Grizz” for his young teammates to skin. Let them take the big shot with the score tied in the fourth quarter and time running out. First, so he can know they can, but more importantly, so that they know they can.

Sometimes, the most painful lessons last the longest.

The fact is, this young team needs to be pushed to their limits. Russ did all he could last season, but there were many times when the better option was giving the last shot to a younger player —and that means letting go. That means allowing them to fail, and that is harder than taking the risk yourself. That’s what I was referring to when I said a big brother will give you a lift on the back of his bicycle. A Dad, on the other hand, will take the training wheels off, and when the time is right, will turn loose and let you fall because he knows that is the only way you will ever learn to ride on your own.

There is only one way to survive this league: It’s time to let the boys ride.

The way that you wander,
is the way that you choose,
The day that you tarry,
is the day that you lose.

Theme song: Jeremiah Johnson