To say this past summer was a tumultuous one for Russell Westbrook would be an understatement.
The Thunder could taste the Finals. There they were: Game Six of the Western Conference Finals against Golden State, up seven points with under five minutes to go. Then, the collapse happened.
Over the next five minutes, Golden State chipped away at the Thunder lead one basket at a time. Swarming defense and costly turnovers by Russell Westbrook down the stretch gave the Warriors the opportunity they needed to steal the game away. And steal it they did. Golden State outscored Oklahoma City 19-5 in the final five minutes to shock the Thunder on their home floor 108-101. Golden State would go on to win Game Seven, eliminating the Thunder, while advancing to their second consecutive Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Meanwhile, the Thunder were not only left heartbroken, but also forced to deal with the impending free agency of one of their star players, Kevin Durant.
And that was only the beginning.
July 7, 2016: Kevin Durant signs with Golden State for $54 million over 2 years.
The sudden departure of Durant sent shock-waves throughout the NBA world, while also sparking questions about how Westbrook would respond. Could Westbrook carry a team to the playoffs while being relied on so heavily? Would Durant’s departure negatively impact Westbrook’s play?
Fast forward seven months, where having doubts about how Westbrook would play without Durant seem ridiculous. The Thunder superstar is in the midst of a historic season, carrying his Thunder team into a playoff spot almost single-handedly. Through 38 games, Westbrook is averaging a triple-double with 31.2 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 10.4 assists. To put those numbers in perspective, no one has averaged a triple-double over an entire NBA season since Oscar Robertson did so in the 1961-62 season, at a time where he was physically superior to the majority of his opponents. Further, Westbrook has 17 triple-doubles this season, whereas the rest of the league has 27 combined (10 of which belong to James Harden).
The dominance Russell Westbrook displays night-in and night-out cannot be overstated; he single-handedly gives the Thunder a chance to win on a nightly basis. Russell Westbrook’s usage percentage of 41.4% indicates how his team relies on him to play a role in nearly half of his team’s possessions. Rather than let Durant’s departure negatively affect his play, Westbrook used it as a way to further himself as a leader, a leader Oklahoma City desperately needs.
Nearly halfway through the 2016-17 season, it’s safe to say the void Durant’s departure left in Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder has been filled. Westbrook continues to silence critics by refusing to let his Thunder slide out of a Western Conference playoff spot, playing with an unseen level of energy on the court, and putting up triple-doubles like it’s his day job. When Westbrook is locked in, no one can stop him; defenders can only hope to contain him.
Russell Westbrook and the Thunder’s heartbreaking summer is quickly becoming an after-thought.