OKLAHOMA CITY — Thirteen days ago, I wrote this column in which I made predictions on Kevin Durant’s future with the Brooklyn Nets.
I thought it would be a good exercise to do a similar column on Russell Westbrook’s future with the Houston Rockets. If anything, it will be a fun way for me to look back on this piece five years from now to see just how wrong I am.
3) Russell and Mike D’Antoni Will Butt Heads
If you haven’t already, go listen to Adrian Wojnarowski’s latest “Woj Pod” with Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni. Is it just me, or did D’Antoni not sound very excited about parting ways with Chris Paul?
“Chris Paul was incredible,” D’Antoni said. “I think Chris is going to have his next three years at a very high level.”
That’s good for Thunder fans who wouldn’t mind to see their first local basketball crush stick around in OKC. But what about exchanging Paul for Westbrook?
“I would have loved if we all stayed intact and come back and try it again,” D’Antoni said. “And now we’re going the other way. You have to be able to switch gears and go with what’s presented as a coach. I’m enthusiastic for both ways.”
D’Antoni is no stranger to having talented players thrust upon him before. His Los Angeles stint from 2012-2014 was fraught with players incompatible with the scheme and disgruntled stars.
Even OKC’s old friend Carmelo Anthony clashed with D’Antoni in New York thanks to, among many things, not seeing eye to eye.
Forgive me if I don’t think that Westbrook and D’Antoni will get along that well in a basketball sense. Westbrook does things his own way, but he is walking into a situation that is not his. This is James Harden’s team.
Oh speaking of Harden, remember when he told the press that he knew what needed to be done following Houston’s elimination at the hands of the Warriors? Indulge me as I go full conspiracy-mode on another D’Antoni quote from the “Woj Pod.”
“I just found from my Olympic experience, if the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work.”
Logical mind thinking: He’s referring to doubters who believe Westbrook and Harden can’t coexist on the floor. As the man said, if superstars want to play together, they will make it work.
Conspiracy mind thinking: He’s upset Harden wanted Westbrook over Paul on the roster. Rawr, player empowerment is ruining my NBA!
2) Russell Will Say Something That Will Upset Thunder Fans
This is under the assumption Westbrook will say anything outside of normal player speak, one word answers or how he plays at a high level. Westbrook rarely gives into the temptations of sound bites.
But if Houston hits the ground running, Westbrook will have a mic in his face a lot — and rightfully so. That is where Westbrook will say things to the tune of:
- He hasn’t had this fun playing basketball in years.
- The system in Houston is like nothing he’s ever played in.
- Westbrook being surrounded by shooters will please him immensely.
This is going to hurt to hear those things for many in Oklahoma.
Remember the reactions of the fanbase whenever Kevin Durant praised the playing style of Golden State in the summer of 2016. Outside of Durant’s burner accounts, he never said anything directly bad about the Thunder. The indirect shots, however, ate at the fanbase.
With the 11 years of good will from Westbrook and an understanding that some dark days are ahead, Thunder fans will understand if their hero enjoys his new success. But once we get into December-January or the All-Star break, the strain may be too much to bear for OKC fans. Some sound bites similar to those above from Westbrook will be the slings and arrows of the Thunder’s outrageous fortune.
OKC may not even be mad at Westbrook anyway. They could take anything Westbrook may say this season and find anger with management/coaching for:
- Not providing Westbrook a more successful or fun environment to play in.
- Not allowing for a more successful system of basketball to be played.
- Not surrounding Westbrook with shooters.
1) Westbrook/Harden Is Going to Thrive… In the Regular Season
If you have listened to the “OKC-82 Podcast” you will have heard my thoughts on what I believe Westbrook needed to improve most, prior to his trade.
No it wasn’t shooting or limiting turnovers. It wasn’t even playing off the ball more. It was simply to improve his mindset during the most important moments — the playoffs.
In OKC’s three consecutive first-round exits, Westbrook picked a personal crusade with an opposing player. In 2017 it was Patrick Beverley. 2018 was the random Westbrook/Ricky Rubio battle. 2019 was all about Damian Lillard.
The Thunder’s chances of success in 2018 and 2019 were greatly diminished thanks to Westbrook’s insistence of trying to prove he was better than another particular player. Westbrook’s tunnel vision would cloud the team game concept.
Now the regular season is a different story.
Westbrook and Harden will flourish together. It will take some time to gel and for Westbrook to integrate into the Rockets’ system, but the wins will come. Plenty of them. Houston is proven and the excitement Westbrook brings will translate to early success.
The problem has rarely been the regular season for Westbrook. He’s averaged a triple-double for three straight years. With him surrounded by shooters and another MVP-caliber player in Harden, Houston will wow the NBA world.
Postseasons are where Westbrook found recent trouble. Until Westbrook moves past the tunnel vision that has haunted him the past three postseasons, it is unwise to bet on his team in the playoffs. Not to mention the issues that can come from two MVP’s only having one ball to share.
He has the capability to do all these things as a top player in the entire world. It will be fun to see play out.
Brady Trantham has covered the Oklahoma City Thunder for The Franchise since April 2018 and for Thunder Digest since 2016. He hosts a Thunder podcast with Madysson Morris “OKC-82 Podcast” which can be found on all podcast outlets, and is a featured co-host on the Franchise Thunder Insider’s Show on Saturdays from 10-12, in addition to weekly guest spots on “The Franchise Drive” on Tuesdays and “The Franchise Morning Show” on Wednesdays. Follow him on Twitter @BradyDoesSports