What's the Next Question for Westbrook and the Thunder
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Russell Westbrook may have successfully evaded The Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel’s questions with his infamous “next question” response. But after another disappointing first round exit, the polarizing guard and the Thunder are now confronted with a question that must have an immediate answer this summer: What’s next?
Back in February, the Thunder were sitting at third in the West before the All Star Break. They were 37-20, just a couple of games behind the Denver Nuggets (39-18) and within a striking distance from their former star Kevin Durant and his current team, the back-to-back champion Golden State Warriors (41-18).
It was all good in the hood.
Paul George was making a strong case in the MVP discussion. Westbrook was being praised for taking the backseat as his newly re-signed co-star took the lead role.
It looked like they were about to put an end to their “unfinished business.”
But something went wrong along the way.
George suffered a shoulder injury and was never the same again. Westbrook, by default, had to shoulder the heavy load again. ‘Wreck it Russ’ the triple double machine was back. But behind those impressive numbers were disheartening losses that zapped whatever momentum they built earlier in the season.
They went 12-13 after the All Star break as they hobbled their way to the playoffs.
Despite their late season struggles and a lower seeding, they were still pegged as the favorites to win against the Portland Trail Blazers. Why not? This was the same Portland team they swept in the regular season and were dealing with the recent loss of their starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a season-ending injury.
But Damian Lillard already had enough.
Lillard owned Westbrook in the series and the Thunder were on the receiving end of a 37-foot dagger that will go down in history as one of the shots of all time.
Lillard’s brilliant series was glorified while Westbrook’s flaws were magnified.
Westbrook’s “rock-the-baby” taunts were met with “Westbrick” mocks.
His shot selection was questioned. Portland’s defense mocked his shooting by goading him to take open jumpers, which he constantly bricked.
He struggled with his shot, making only 40 out of 111 attempts. His best shooting game in the series came in their lone win, a 33-point performance on 50 percent shooting from the field in Game 3. But overall, he only shot a ghastly 36 percent in the series.
Westbrook only made 29 percent of his three-pointers this season. Inside the arc, his shaky jumper was even more abysmal from 3-10 feet making only 14.3 percent of his attempts and was worse when you extend the range to 10-16 feet, making only 12.9 percent.
When Kevin Durant left, Westbrook famously rapped to Lil Uzi Vert’s “Now I do what I want.” A year later, he was given the free reins in Oklahoma with a 205-million, five-year extension. The organization bent to his will.
Since then, Durant has won two rings and is going after his third.
On the other hand, Westbrook has an MVP and three historic triple double seasons to show. He has great individual accolades but, remains short on team success.
4-12 playoff record.
0 playoff road wins.
3 first round exits.
In the first season of the hit TV series ‘Game of Thrones,’ Cersei Lannister once told Ned Stark: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There’s no middle ground.”
With Westbrook now in his 30s and his athletic gifts starting to show wear and tear, he’ll be soon threading the fine line between survival and winning faced with a question of wants and needs.
He’s only left with two options: continue to do what he wants and fade into the sunset without a ring or do what’s needed to be done to win one. There’s no middle ground.
A defiant Westbrook vows to do what’s necessary.
“There used to be a conversation that I was a ball hog,” Westbrook said during his exit interview. “Now, I lead the assists for the past three years, or whatever it is. That’s getting squashed out. Now, the conversation’s about shooting. Next year, I’m gonna become a better shooter. After that, it’ll probably be, f---, my left foot is bigger than my right one. Who knows?”
Westbrook always find a way to deflect criticisms with a knee-jerk reaction. But even if he holds true to his vow to improve on his jump shot, will that be enough to lift the Thunder out of the first round?
At the start of the decade, Westbrook was part of the Thunder’s young core that was the envy of many NBA teams. Oklahoma City laid down the blueprint in building a contender through the draft, which Golden State perfected resulting in three championships in the last four seasons.
Back in 2012, the young nucleus of Westbrook, Durant and James Harden was enough to bring them to the Finals opposite the then Miami Heat’s Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
But while they lost Harden and Durant along the way, Thunder GM Sam Presti was creative enough to extend the Thunder’s playoff window by holding on to Westbrook and building around him. But the results so far have been discouraging. Making the playoffs isn’t the ultimate goal. At the end of the day, it’s the number of banners and rings that matter.
Now, they’re entering the last year of the Billy Donovan experiment.
Presti is standing pat with his beleaguered coach.
“I wouldn’t expect anything to change,” Presti said at his own exit interview. “There’s nobody that works harder than him.”
The Thunder are holding on to the promise of the early part of the regular season where Donovan seemed to figure out how the George-Westbrook puzzle would fit next to each other.
With only a small amount of money coming from their trade exceptions to spend in the offseason and the 21st pick in the Draft that is almost certain not to yield an immediate impact, the Thunder’s hands are tied.
Last summer, George’s decision to stay put was celebrated like the city had won a championship.
The Thunder headed into the season full of expectations.
Now, they are heading into a summer full of questions.
Are they still all-in with the Westbrook-George experiment?
If the answer is yes, they have to find a way to improve this roster.
If the answer is no, what drastic steps is this organization willing to take?
The small market team that has somehow managed to survive the exodus of Harden and Durant to stay afloat in the strong Western Conference has only two options: shake up or shape up? There’s no middle ground.
So what’s next for the Thunder?
Westbrook’s “next question” definitely wouldn’t be the right response.