Last night’s Thunder-Blazes game was one of the best first-round NBA playoff games in recent memory. It was an exciting, back-and-forth, balls-to-the-wall showcase of some of the league’s premier talent, ending in what’s going to be remembered as one of the greatest buzzer-beaters of all time by one of the NBA’s most clutch performers. But the entire time, the only thing I could think about was how, if he was actually one person, alive today, and could somehow comprehend the game of basketball, Bill Shakespeare would absolutely love this Thunder team. Because Russell Westbrook is what makes them good, and he’s also what makes them bad.
In true Shakespearean fashion, Westbrook and the Thunder have one tragic flaw- pride. Pride in his game, pride in his team, pride in the fact that he stayed. That alone is enough to tell the story of the Thunder. Durant left, Westbrook stayed. It’s impossible to look at or talk about anything involving the Thunder without realizing that that’s the driving force behind everything. The All-NBA, MVP-caliber player chose to stay in Oklahoma City. Out of loyalty, out of spite, whatever the reason, Westbrook stayed, and now the Thunder have to pay the price. He’s becoming increasingly volatile, actively seeking out feuds, both on- and off-court, and dominates his team in a way that no player outside James Harden could dream of. Facing elimination, he once again hoisted up a billion awful shots and barely made any of them, ignoring his hot-shooting running mate and trying to dribble the ball into the core of the Earth. That sentence could be from any year he’s been alive and will be applicable for the rest of his career. Russell Westbrook will never change, results be damned. But he stayed and KD left.
That’s not to say he’s not still a good player. He is. His rickety shot has completely vanished (he just doesn’t know it, yet. Or he just doesn’t care), but in every other area of the game, he excels. He’s great at boxing out teammates to hunt for rebounds. He’s the best in the league actively seeking assists to prove he’s not selfish, taking the mantle from Rajon Rondo. No one’s better at yelling at opponents as his team falls further and further behind. And he just cares so much. That’s great. I care about movies a lot, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna be in Avengers Endgame and dating Emilia Clarke because of it. Like, we get it, dude. No one cares like you do and every possession is the last second of your life and if you don’t shoot a trillion times while ignoring teammates you and your entire family are going to be murdered by Kevin Durant’s legion of burner accounts. Just relax a little bit. Giving yourself an ulcer every game just to prove how badly you want it isn’t the way to do things as a 10-year veteran. Going half-speed sometimes will not only preserve energy for late-season games, but it might actually allow the rest of the
cardboard cutouts Thunder players to feel like they have an active role to play in their season, instead of whatever’s happing now. But Westbrook stayed and Durant left.
The loyalty to Westbrook is going to doom the Thunder, barring a shocking late-career evolution. In fact, it likely already has. Their salary cap situation is an absolute disaster for at least the next two seasons. They have no leeway to sign impact players and are stuck at the bottom of the draft. The only remedy would be to trade any of their big three, which would mean trading three players who chose Oklahoma City, spitting in the face of their recent narrative. Of anyone on the roster, Paul George and Jerami Grant are the only players to show real improvement this season, and George spent the second half of the season possibly seriously injured. Westbrook, Steven Adams, Patrick Patterson, and Terrence Ferguson stalled out at best and noticeably regressed at worse. Andre Roberson didn’t play, and even if he did, he’s even more obsolete than Westbrook is. And that’s the real problem with the roster- Westbrook is the engine that makes everything go but he’s driving the car directly towards a cliff. If this was 2001, the Thunder would still be perfectly happy. But in Today’s NBA™ bricking shots and banging your head into a wall and not running any real offense is a guaranteed way to lose in the first round for the third year in a row. He can’t shoot and will never be able to. But he’ll still take them because if he doesn’t, someone else will. And if someone else shoots, how will he get all the credit and prove to everyone how he was the reason for the Thunder’s success all along? But Russ stayed and KD left.
Replace Westbrook on this roster with whatever the average point guard looks like these days and they might still make the playoffs and surely lose in the first round. But they’d be tremendously boring. Because Westbrook adds a certain something that makes it impossible to turn away. Every game, he’s the brave warrior making his last stand. Every game, he’s staring down the forces of evil knowing that only he can stop them. Every game he’s rolling that boulder up the hill, one missed 19-footer at a time. It’s the burden he’s taken on because he refuses to ask for help, refuses to hang his head, refuses to relinquish his pride. It’s the spirit that keeps the Thunder going and makes them interesting. It’s also the spirit that will keep them from ever winning a title. But Westbrook stayed, and Durant left. And that’s all that really matters.