There is a dangerous game being played with Russell Westbrook after he renegotiated and extended his contract with the Oklahoma City Thunder to the tune of $85 million over the next three years. Despite still having the option of re-entering free agency in 2018, just one year longer than he previously could, he has become the new arbiter of the unselfish team player archetype, antithetical to Kevin Durant, his former co-conspirator who spurned his home for the past 8 years to form a soul-stealing guillotine of a ball club in Golden State.
While Kevin Durant’s metamorphosis into the selfish, short-cutting archetype has been a bit more sloppy, what is going on with Westbrook is, at the very least, short-sighted. Now, there are plenty of admirable elements accompanying Westbrook’s decision. This is by all means a move rooted in loyalty. Westbrook has a deep affection for the city of Oklahoma City, telling them “you guys have basically raised me.” He also hungers to take on the almost Herculean task of righting the ship after Durant’s departure, a quality typical of the game’s most revered players. Westbrook in 2016-2017 is going to be the team’s focal point, a walking poster in a shooting guard’s body playing the point guard position. The sheer spectacle of him dragging the Thunder toward the playoffs will seem to reinforce the lionization of his character.
But all of this does not distract from the type of player Westbrook has been for much of his career, a divisive player who seems to represent the fundamental divide in basketball fandom. Either you love his relentless energy and pursuit of the rim or you wish he would just slow the game down and set up his teammates like a point guard is supposed to. Since the Thunder made the playoffs in 2010, Westbrook has taken on the lion’s share of the blame for the team’s post-season disappointments. Before James Harden was dealt to the Houston Rockets in 2012, the commonly held belief was that the Thunder would finally reach their potential when they moved Westbrook off the ball and let Harden run the offense. Just after Durant’s departure, Bleacher Report ran a story where Westbrook’s style of play was blamed as partially responsible. For every post-season elimination, there is a Westbrook smear campaign driven by a playoff moment where he either should have dished to Durant in crunch-time or should not have taken a certain shot.
This is not to say Westbrook is not wholly undeserving of the talk; his judgement at the game’s most heady position has been a constant source of justifiable criticism. But the criticism of his ability to play in a way conducive to team success is a crucial part of Russell Westbrook the NBA player. It is the underlying thread to his packaged narrative, the most important chapter in his NBA story. His new identity upon signing the extension as the league’s darling will inevitably run into his previous one the next time Westbrook takes an ill-advised three with a minute left in an important game or misses a wide open man in the corner. He is the undisputed franchise player now, and it would be silly to expect more leash to come with the greater responsibility.
It would be one thing if this new spin was a resolution of Westbrook’s past identity, the former unselfish star rumored to have eyes on Los Angeles calling a small market home, but it is impossible to separate his new extension from Durant’s departure. After all, the Thunder would not have had the room under the cap to offer Westbrook his extension had Durant not left. It also made the most sense for Westbrook, who will now be able to lock into more annual salary and enter free agency in 2018, the year after the league’s lock-out where the NBA labor market will be easier to gauge.
This is not a clean narrative conclusion to Westbrook’s career arc so much as it is a reflexive response to the void of unselfishness left by Durant, a band-aid to be placed on the open wound of NBA purists who yearn for the made up days of NBA stars who did not want to team up. So stop making Westbrook the new counter to your dislike of Kevin Durant. Neither player deserved it.
Spark Sports Analyst