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Sounds of Thunder: Russell Westbrook will answer a career question this season

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Hopefully for the last time.

Thomas B. Shea @ USA TODAY Sports

Russell Westbrook put together an unbelievable season in 2016/17. I don’t know where history will rank it, but my guess is that ten, fifteen, or twenty years from now, Westbrook’s 2016/17 campaign will make everyone’s top twenty, maybe even top ten lists.

Obviously, breaking Oscar Robertson’s 50 year old triple-double record was impressive, but in the end, topping the Big O wasn’t the only reason Westbrook took home the league’s MVP honors. Ironically, it was Russell’s detractors that may have led voters to cast their ballot for number “0.” They tore at his 10.7 rebounds average by calling them a product of the Thunder’s system while forgetting that Westbrook was already regarded as one of the best rebounding point guards of all time. They picked at his 10.4 assist average, conveniently omitting it was the same as the year before with Kevin Durant.

Finally, they went after his league leading 31.6 pts/gm saying they were a by-product of his all-time 41.65 usg%. That led to what bit them and rendered their negative critiques moot.

MVP voters have a tendency to check stats and to verify the usg% claim one must look at the advanced stats table. From basketballreference. com, here are Westbrook’s advanced numbers for the past two seasons:

They are an enigma.

Per sportingcharts.com:

What is Usage Percentage?

A metric that estimates the percentage of his team's possessions a player "uses" while he is in the game. As players "use" more possessions, their overall efficiency tends to drop.

But Westbrook’s efficiency didn’t drop. In fact, in five different metrics, PER, AST%, OBPM, and VORP, his numbers rose to lead the league. Granted, his WS, or win shares, dropped, but without Durant and Serge Ibaka the team won 8 fewer games than the year before. Simply put, the less games a team wins, the less win shares to begin with but while we are on the topic of wins, the Thunder’s 47 win total was 4 better than pre-season projections.

Further, Westbrook’s BLK% went up, his TOV% improved, and his TS% didn’t change. By season’s end, most considered Westbrook the league's most dangerous man in the clutch and that with every single opponent knowing if the game was on the line, he was getting the ball. Period, end of discussion, here comes Russell, stop him if you can.

That’s what set Westbrook’s season apart. The team’s second leading scorer was Victor Oladipo at 15.9 pts/gm so there was no other real option at crunch time, but teams still couldn’t stop him.

Now we see this from summer workouts courtesy of Enes Kanter:

To which Mt. Dew responded:

“No one stops the Brodie”

That’s right, he still wants to improve.

Unfortunately for some, a season for the ages in which Westbrook’s assist numbers actually improved without an All-Star caliber player at his side, is not enough to drop a narrative that has plagued Westbrook since his days playing with Durant.

From Buddy Grizzard at basketballinsiders.com:

Can Russell Westbrook coexist with another star?

Anytime an NBA team has three of the top 10 players in the world, the reasonable expectation is that the team will win multiple championships. The Oklahoma City Thunder will be forever known as a team that was given that opportunity and failed to capitalize. The reasons for that failure will remain matters of debate for the foreseeable future, so it might be best to analyze it in terms of results.

After Game 1 of the 2012 NBA Finals, during which James Harden attempted only six shots, Harden complained about his lack of touches. The result was a rift in the locker room which led to a messy divorce that sent Harden to Houston in one of the most second-guessed trades of all time. With Harden gone, OKC’s remaining top-10 players — Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant — failed to return to the NBA Finals. As a result — since Durant’s goal is to win NBA championships — Durant sought greener pastures and found a championship formula in Golden State.

As a result of Durant’s departure, Westbrook was free to take as many shots as he wanted and pursue individual accolades such as MVP. But this offseason, the Pacers unexpectedly threw the Thunder a lifeline by offering Paul George in a trade. With George’s arrival, the Thunder — on paper — have the talent to compete in the stacked West. But can Westbrook coexist with another star player who needs the ball in his hands to be effective? During every previous opportunity, the combination has failed to produce a championship for the Thunder.

(Sorry Buddy, but it is a hobby of mine to take revisionist versions of Thunder history and rip them to pieces, especially passive-aggressive attempts at calling Westbrook selfish.)

Where to begin? After the first sentence the spin begins, and even it has some weaknesses, so that is as good a place as any to start.

Paragraph 1

True, the Thunder team that went to the 2012 NBA Finals had three players that would become identified as top ten players. At the time however, the negative narrative about Westbrook being a selfish player had already begun, and Harden was just beginning to make his mark. Durant was the only player considered in the "top ten" at the time, and the reasons for Oklahoma City’s “failure” to capitalize on the multiple championship promises of that season are not so much a matter of debate, but primarily record of fact.

2013 - After producing a season with a higher winning percentage (73.2%) without James Harden (71.2%), the Thunder’s post-season hopes derailed when Houston’s Patrick Beverly took out Westbrook’s meniscus tendon in the 2nd quarter of game 2 in the first round.

Reggie Jackson, Westbrook’s back-up, is not a top ten player and in just his second season wasn’t much more than a rookie at the time. No debate necessary, Westbrook’s injury is public knowledge.

2014 - Serge Ibaka misses first two games of Spurs series with left calf strain. Ibaka, the Thunder’s version of Gregg Popovich’s Achilles heel, was the team’s third leading scorer, and leader in both blocks and rebounds. After ten days of intense treatment and rest, Ibaka returned and the Thunder won the next two games to tie the series. Ibaka’s leg didn’t hold up however and the Thunder dropped the next two including the sixth game in overtime. Perhaps Grizzard missed that, it was only a big story in every publication with a sports section.... on planet earth.

2015 - Two words: Jones Fracture, end of debate.

2016 - The only season possibly up to debate, but the “multiple” narrative is dead — again.

Stat fact - 22 for 62, 35%, including 4 for 19, 21%, from three-point range vs 38 for 63, 60.3%, including 9 for 22, 40.9%, from three-point range. Durant’s shooting numbers for games 5 and 6 of the 2016 WCF vs his line in the Warriors entire 4 game WCF’s series against the Spurs. In those 4 games against the Spurs, Durant averaged 15.75 attempts/gm vs double that in games 5 and 6 the year before. Interestingly enough, in games 3 and 4, both Thunder blowouts over Golden State in 2016, Durant averaged 19 shots/gm.

Read into that what you will, but Westbrook being selfish and not letting Durant get his shots was NOT the problem in that 2016 WCF against the Warriors.

Paragraph 2

This paragraph isn’t spin, it’s fabrication. If Harden said anything about his touches after game one, I can’t find it. The only thing I did find was an old article from Bleacher Report in which the writer gripes about Harden’s lack of touches after game 2 and encourages Harden to speak out, but no quote from Harden.

The truth is that Harden’s touches did go up after game 1 ... and the Thunder lost the next 4 games, ending the series. Personally, I attribute that more to Scott Brooks not adjusting when the Heat moved Chris Bosh to the 5 spot and losing the rebounding war the rest of the way, but there is no denying that other than the first half of game 2, James Harden was a ghost in the 2012 NBA Finals and, when he did shoot, he stunk up the joint. In games 3 and 4, with the series in the balance, the bearded one went 5 for 20 and didn’t break out of his shooting funk until after game 5 was out of reach.

There was no evidence of any rift that led to a messy divorce (in fact, Harden has frequently lamented how the team’s run together ended too soon), But there was a massive no-show in the Finals, rumors of wild nights on South Beach, and a shot at picking up a draft pick that could solve a long time front court issue to consider. Besides, what does a trade made 5 years ago have to do with Westbrook co-existing with another star? Nothing, that’s what.

Paragraph 3

As a result of Durant’s departure, Westbrook was free to take as many shots as he wanted and pursue individual accolades such as MVP.”

Did you read that? WESTBROOK WAS FREE!!! Free to take as many shots as he wanted!!! Free at last, free at last, thank Durant for leaving, Westbrook was free at last!!! Sounds like a bad parody of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Does anyone have any idea how many more attempts it took for Westbrook to keep up the 10.4 assist average he had from the season before when a starter that hit 50% of his shots and another that hit 48% of his shots were replaced by players that hit just 46% and 39% of theirs? Does anyone remember Russell’s answer about his thoughts on winning the scoring title 2 seasons ago? I’m tired of being nice, he called it ‘shit.’ The Thunder didn’t make the playoffs and he called his first scoring title excrement because "individual accolades" come second to winning.

When Durant went out in 2014/15, Westbrook matured more as a leader and a point guard in the final months of that season than in his previous 6 seasons combined. We may never know the real reason Durant bolted. He and his inner circle have offered more excuses for that choice than Cher changes hairstyles, but we do know that one of Durant’s current teammates called the 2016 Thunder the best team in the playoffs and it was Durant that didn’t bring it home before bolting to the team that beat him.

That choice reflected on Durant and not Westbrook’s ability to play with another All-Star and if one of them has a fetish for individual accolades, my money is on Grizzard’s hero.

Case in point, the newest versions of Nike’s KD10’s.:

The Cupcake
nike.com

and these:

??????
shoeplace.com

The latter seems innocent enough..... until you look inside.

Narcissistic much?
shoeplace.com

Whoa.

SB Nation’s Michael D. Sykes, II called the latest version of the KD10 petty. Nah, the Cupcake version was petty, these bad boys are down right disturbing.

“Step away from the design table KD, everyone loves you, everything is okay.....”

It all really comes down to this. Since that 2012 season, Westbrook has put together seasons of 60, 59, 45, 55, and 47 wins. That equates to a 65% winning percentage. Only one of those teams missed the playoffs, and the one contender that wasn’t derailed by injury came within a game of beating the winning-est team of all-time and getting back to the Finals with a key player whose commitment level was seriously in question. Sure, Durant has a ring, but it took another top 5 player and 2 top 20 All-Stars by his side to get it done.

Isn’t it time to take a step back and look at the latest KD10’s and ask ourselves exactly who on the Thunder bench had the real problem playing with others?

The answer to Grizzard’s question about Westbrook co-existing with another star is simple. He co-existed with his best friend growing up. Khelcey Barr, a player that had college scouts drooling by the age of 14. He co-existed with Darren Collison, Kevin Love, and Arron Afflalo at UCLA, and he co-existed with the NBA’s best on two gold medal national teams.

In their 8 years together, my guess is that Westbrook bent over backwards to get along with Durant, and I can think of only one small on-court rift between them compared to 2 screaming matches between Mr. Narcissistic Rage in sneakers and Draymond Green, less than a month apart, this past season alone.

Yet Westbrook is the one saddled with the selfish label. The one stuck wearing the black hat. SMH

Russell Westbrook and Paul George will more than just co-exist. After the summer of workouts George has put together, they will thrive, and hopefully put to rest once and for all the negative narratives that have plagued Westbrook throughout his career.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

(all stats unless, unless otherwise indicated, courtesy of basketballreference.com)