The Thunder is riding another six-game winning streak, and the pendulum of fanbase overcorrection has swung back to the side of believing the team is never going to lose a game again.
Whether that happens or not — I’m of course not ruling it out — the team is now just two games out in the loss column from the San Antonio Spurs and the third place position in the Western Conference, a goal from the start of the season that just a few weeks ago seemed unreachable.
A big reason for that is Russell Westbrook, who put up a ridiculous 78 points in the team’s two games this week, not to mention the 20-assist performance the game before against the Cavs. Recently he’s looked every bit like the MVP that he was named last season.
The high level of play has drawn the attention of the national media. One such segment from ESPN’s “The Jump” has dubbed this season’s performance as “Westbrook 3.0,” including this quote from host Rachel Nichols:
“Westbrook has actually spent the past couple years quietly becoming one of the NBA’s most adaptable superstars.” Her narration then goes on to explain the way he’s changed in order to play next to [name redacted], quote-unquote solo last season, and then this year alongside PG and Melo, complete with a photoshopped image of The Brodie’s head on a chameleon’s body.
I respect Nichols quite a bit and am a fan of the show, but I fundamentally reject her conclusion here.
Russell Westbrook has not changed. He does not change. He’s one of a kind, and he’s always been unabashedly himself. Aggressive, stubborn, confident, competitive. Early in his career, if we’re being honest, those are the things that drove us crazy. Now, his consistency is what we love the most. It doesn’t matter if he’s lining up next to four fringe NBA players, as he did at times last season, or 11 superstars as he has done in the All-Star games. Russ gonna Russ.
Was there ever a time when he didn’t grab a rebound on one end and accelerate zero to 60 in the blink of an eye for a layup on the other end? When he wasn’t throwing down thunderous dunks or making crazy faces as he throws no-look passes? Even his faults are consistent. He’s always been a high usage player, an inconsistent three-point shooter, at times over-dribbling, stealing rebounds, counting stats, not caring defensively.
He’s always had legendary work ethic. [Name redacted] talked about it for years, Victor Oladipo spoke about it non-stop last season, and Paul George has mentioned it several times this season.
He’s always been fiercely loyal. Those in the national media might have been surprised by the back-and-forth between Russ and Paul George this week in the media, maybe even deciding it was character development for Westbrook. Nonsense. He would’ve taken a bullet for Kendrick Perkins, went to bat for Enes Kanter, and would do the same any day for Andre Roberson.
What has changed are the circumstances and the narrative surrounding him. Those that only catch the highlights or parachute in for the occasional nationally televised game get to set the agenda. Russ doing Russ things next to [name redacted] successfully for years was retroactively dubbed as “a star-crossed duo who couldn’t get along enough to win a championship.” Russ doing Russ last season with a lesser supporting cast and a franchise that would do anything to lock up his long term services led to the “ballhog who hurts his team” narrative. Russ being Russ while adjusting to two new star teammates who want to get their shots up this season is “my turn your turn.”
Those who have watched the games this season know of a simpler explanation. Westbrook just played poorly to start the season. Nobody will ever be sure of the exact reason, or whether it was an amalgam of having a newborn son, signing a huge contract in the offseason, some sort of hidden injury, or all of the roster turnover. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that the narrative of Westbrook “needing to change” likely would not have formed had he just made the driving layups and pullup jumpers that were practically gimmes for his entire career. Had he not carelessly turned the ball over or shook his head in frustration because of simple mistakes, suddenly there’s less pressure and therefore leading to less drama.
Did you think that sloppy play was going to continue for the entirety of the season? No way. Westbrook shaping into form was perhaps the most predictable and obvious development in the league this season. Why?
Because we know who Russ has been, is now, and will be. It hasn’t changed. Players and coaches coming into the Thunder organization are going to have to “adapt” to him, Rachel Nichols, not the other way around.
He’s not Westbrook 3.0. He’s Russell Westbrook: One of One.