The name Russell Westbrook evokes a lot of emotion out of a Thunder fan - you think of his energy and attitude, the unwavering confidence in his abilities. The perfect manifestation of his confidence and ability came in the magical 2016-27 MVP season but there were so many moments in which Russell proved why he is such a unique player. There was the 20-20-20 game in which he honoured a friend who passed a way in such a tragic fashion, Nipsey Hussle's death was commemorated in the only way that Russell knew how. There was the game-winner against the Denver Nuggets in which Westbrook dragged the Thunder back from thirteen points down in the last two minutes to win the game on a thirty five foot buzzer beater. In his eleven years in Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook made a lot of memories and did a lot of things of which he can be proud.
As a player, Russell Westbrook was not highly regarded coming into the NBA. He was second fiddle on a talented UCLA team and there were serious doubts about his fit in the NBA. As point guard for the Bruins, Westbrook displayed outstanding athleticism but there were concerns about his propensity to turn the ball over. It was considered a huge reach when the bespectacled Sam Presti took Russell with the 4th pick in the NBA Draft, but eventually Westbrook proved the doubters wrong. The Seattle SuperSonics had been a struggling franchise over the past few seasons but they now had a future with Westbrook and Durant. A historic franchise in the PNW was going to be revived by a hugely capable duo except for when the franchise changed. The Sonics were no more, and the Oklahoma City Thunder had been borne into the NBA.
Westbrook came into the Thunder on Ground Zero. The franchise did not have an identity but Russell Westbrook started to design the franchise like an Off-White garment. Every single dunk, steal and roar of emotion made the Thunder bold and confident. Oklahoma City was young, athletic and completely unapologetic about it. A guy who did not know where Oklahoma City was began to rep the city like he was from there. There was a loyalty to Oklahoma City displayed by Russell from the early days when the franchise had nothing except for potential. The only other person who could potentially compare to unwavering loyalty to a franchise would be DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors.
The Thunder grew as Russell grew. The Thunder incubated three prodigious talents in the form of Harden, Russ and Durant as Russell began to develop into one of the best point guards in the league. The player whose passing was derided coming out college found his passing vision which only added another layer to the energetic style of play that Russell embodied. The only way in which Russell's style of play can be described is pure energy. He is a frenetic blur of rebounding the ball and getting the ball up the court as fast as possible into a shot, he went from 0-60 in milliseconds. All of that speed coupled with explosive hops meant that Westbrook became a nightmare at the point guard spot, he could get to the rim whenever he wanted. At one point in time, Russell Westbrook was one of the most feared point guards in the league. There were serious debates about where Westbrook factored in the best point guard in the league discussions.
The 2012 NBA Finals were a baptism of fire for Russell. It proved to be the only time that the Thunder had made the Finals, and it showed. In the crucial moments, the Thunder were nosed out by the Heat which ultimately led to Oklahoma City losing the series. Westbrook was typical Westbrook in the series, equally brilliant and baffling at the same time. He would look like the best player on the Thunder at times as his emotions fueled his play but then would also have terrible turnovers and poor shooting performances. It was the Westbrook experience on the highest level, a true range of emotions in the form of layups, turnovers and jaw-dropping passes. From that point onwards, Russell went from being a prospective great into being a championship-tested veteran.
The first trip to the Finals looked like the first taste of the promised land for a young core of players who were extremely talented, a test run for a future dynasty. But everything changed with the Harden trade, the ceiling became lower and the Thunder's window became smaller. Oklahoma City were still contenders and have avoided the repeater tax which would have dealt a death blow to a young franchise in the long-term, but that loss of talent was important in the short-term. The Thunder could win sixty odd games like they did in 2013 but they did not have the consistent contributor whose production could be relied upon if one of the big two stars went down injured. The injury bug can strike whenever and it can happen at the most inopportune moment. For the Thunder, it killed their play-off chances. Westbrook going down in first-round limited the Thunder, it made playing teams like the Spurs much harder.
Westbrook's injury in 2013 was the first and only major injury of his career. The ACL tear cost the Thunder of another shot at a title and the clock began to tick. As the Thunder entered a stretch where the team was injury-hit, Russell began to show what he could do. The full capabilities of his repertoire was unlocked as Westbrook went on a tear without Durant. The stat line of 40/15/15 became normal for the Thunder as one man tried to will his team to the Thunder. The question that has dogged Westbrook during the early part of his career flipped, what could Westbrook do without Durant? The force of nature was fully released, the Thunder had two alpha guys who could get the Thunder through whatever.
Coming into 2016, it was clear that it was the Thunder's last stand. Durant was hitting free agency that season and Westbrook had the option to enter unrestricted free agency in the year after. Two lost injury years meant that the Thunder only have one chance left to get back to the promised land. Russell Westbrook had carried forward that extra gear which he established in 2015. The triple-doubles that flowed in the 2016-17 season began to trickle as Westbrook averaged ten assists a game and eight rebounds for a guard.
The 2016 NBA Western Conference Finals was viewed by the Warriors to be the true challengers to their crown. There was a lot of respect from the Warriors and Andre Iguodala said that the Thunder had a team that could seriously push Golden State due to their depth. In the 2016 Western Conference Finals, we saw some of the best basketball that Russell has ever played. Westbrook used his size to overwhelm Curry and his speed to get out in transition before the defence could wake up. At times, he was impossible to stop as his heart fuelled him. He did not let the game slip one inch as he knew that this would be the best chance to defeat the Warriors. The drive and focus to win is Russell but it creates a rollercoaster of emotion. While he was superb in the start of the series, his shooting faltered in Game 5/6. It let the Warriors back into the series and the Thunder could not close the door on Golden State.
Then Durant left and we saw the true values of Russell. KD leaving was the end of an era, the Thunder was thrown into uncertainty. There was no guarantee of future success for Westbrook, the Thunder did not have another All-Star that was acquirable and the roster was designed for two players to carry the load. If Russ chose to leave nobody would have blamed him instead he took the hardest road, he chose to stay with a small-market NBA franchise that did not have the roster which could win a title. He embraced a re-tool in which he would be the leader and the Thunder would be dragged to the post-season by sheer bloody determination. Lee Jenkins' Sports Illustrated profile emphasized Russell's mind-set, this was his city and he was going to win where was drafted.
Nobody quite knew what to expect about Russell Westbrook being the sole star on a team. A lot of people predicted that the Thunder would be lost in waves of inefficient basketball where Westbrook solely focused on hunting his own stats. A lot of people expected that a person who presented an outwardly surly and combative image to fail as a leader. These talking heads failed to take into account Russell the person. Westbrook as a person is different to his public image. He has only allowed glimpses of his personality but from these glimpses we can see that the man is caring, loyal and the ultimate team-mate. You hear a lot of stories from guys like Steven Adams or Enes Kanter that Russell treats his team-mates like brothers. You hear about Westbrook personally, he is a homebody with a passion for fashion, he's the guy who gives his shoes away to kids so that they have something to take away from the game. The media problems and his disdain for the media has somewhat over-shadowed the real person that Westbrook is.
The 2016-17 season by Russell Westbrook is one of the most magical seasons that I can remember as a fan. He did everything for the Thunder as he brought the team to play-offs seemingly single-handed. It was exciting watching Russell run the show, he would steal the ball and dunk the ball as hard as possible on the other end of the court. Westbrook would slice into the paint and somehow find a miraculous pass to the corner for three. There was all of the hysteria about the triple-doubles as Westbrook re-wrote history and took a sledgehammer to previous expectations. Before that season, a triple-double was a rarefied statistic. Players did not put up twenty triple-doubles in a season, that was unheard of until Russell made it possible. A triple-double was possible in every single game and a triple-double was necessary for winning, the Thunder just were not simply good enough otherwise.
Lost in all of the triple-double hysteria was that Westbrook became the clutches player in the league. Over the entire season, Russell scored the most fourth quarter points in the league and had this LeBron-like ability to take over games that the Thunder had no business winning. Westbrook won games by finding another gear in the fourth quarter that other teams simply did not have. He had a run of buzzer-beaters from Dallas to Orlando to Denver in which he was dragging the Thunder to wins when they were thirteen points down with only three minutes left on the clock. He rightfully won MVP for being his idiosyncratic self.
Westbrook's time in Oklahoma City has created so many memories and means so much to the franchise and the city. A fledgling franchise would have seriously struggled without Russell's loyalty and entertaining style of play. The Thunder would likely be another small-market team struggling for attendance and national media coverage. For Oklahoma City, Westbrook means something different. Before the Thunder, Oklahoma was never mentioned at all by anybody. It was just another fly-over state and the only time when it was mentioned was in relation to the tragic bombings. Russell Westbrook's confidence put Oklahoma on the map as a town which had a brash, exciting sports franchise that was leading the way. Over the last few years, you hear from interviews with just random people on the street that Westbrook is an adopted son of Oklahoma. He has fully embraced the community and has been fully embraced by the people of Oklahoma. He made the place an attractive place to stay when Paul George chose to re-sign last year.
On a personal note, Westbrook means something different for me. He is my favourite player and the reason why I got into watching basketball. I never watched basketball growing up, in the United Kingdom soccer is the number one sport. Basketball is not widely followed as the games occurs in the small hours of the morning. I started watching basketball games by chance, I was flipping through the channels after my school exams looking for something to watch. I had settled on watching the Western Conference Finals in 2016 and immediately I was captivated. The way that the players moved the ball and the speed of the game was so different to watching a game of football. I was hooked by one specific moment.
I remember the moment vividly, Russell had grabbed a rebound off a Warriors' miss and found himself in transition. There was nobody up the court for Westbrook to throw the outlet pass so he turned on the after-burners and pushed up the floor. He had Iggy by his side harassing the ball all the way up the court as Westbrook accelerated with the ball. He drifted rightwards before cutting back towards the rim and throwing down a thunderous dunk. The player wearing Number 0 sneered before pounding his chest with his left arm as if to motivate himself. I was hooked by the athleticism and the emotion displayed by this guy, it felt similar to seeing soccer players scoring goals but the athleticism was way more. I had never seen someone dunk a ball before and I couldn't quite believe that a guy who is 6'3 could jump that high and throw the ball down so hard.
At the same time of watching the NBA Western Conference Finals, Playstation had made NBA 2K16 available on Playstation Plus. I wasn't expecting much, I had never really got into sports games like Fifa before. It was only because it was free that I gave 2K a punt. I didn't know much except for LeBron, Kobe and the Thunder, out of those Russell was my favourite so I spent a lot of time playing as a Thunder. That is where my fandom comes from, I became a Thunder fan because of NBA 2K and Russell Westbrook.
It is going to be hard to see him move onto Houston after only ever seeing him in a Thunder jersey. I would have loved for him to stay as a Thunder player for life but obviously that is not always possible. It felt the same as when Liverpool lost Luis Suarez, it hurts like shit but I wished him the best for his future. All I hope now is that Russell manages to win a title in Houston, he fucking deserves it.
Thank you Russ for everything and good luck in Houston