It has become obvious to most anyone who has spent time around Russell Westbrook that he doesn’t like being crowded.
He’s a neat freak who despises clutter, so when it comes to personal space, Westbrook is looking for every opportunity to get some breathing room. He stands a step back in the team line during the national anthem, avoiding any potential shoulder-to-shoulder contact. During breaks, he always takes his seat on the very last chair on the end of the bench. After shootaround, he shoots in a corner of the practice facility, by himself. He arrives at the arena some three hours before home tipoffs, going through his warm-up without any teammates on the floor with him.
This season, Westbrook and the Thunder decided to move his postgame media availability away from his locker — one that sits alone in the locker room without a teammate on either side — and to the middle of the room in front of a whiteboard to keep reporters from hovering around his locker. When Westbrook makes his way in for any interview, Thunder Director of Basketball Communications Matt Tumbleson will announce, almost like a procession is commencing, “Make way for Russell, please.”
And Westbrook will stand in place, sometimes awkwardly, until a hole is formed with ample space to walk through without touching anyone.
“He used to get frustrated and go sideways, but he’s able to now sit down, snap out of it, come back.”
Thunder F Nick Collison, on the changes he saw in Russell Westbrook
When Kevin Durant decided to join the Golden State Warriors on July 4, Westbrook spoke with Thunder general manager Sam Presti and immediately asked, “What’s next?” The answer was to consider signing an extension, a move to stabilize the organization and create a road map forward in a post-Durant world.
But before he made up his mind, Westbrook needed some space.
Officially, it was a month to the day after Durant left that Westbrook re-signed with the Thunder, but in reality, the decision was made a couple of weeks before that. Westbrook, now looking at forgoing his pending 2017 free agency, had a decision to make that he wasn’t anticipating. He didn’t speak with any reporters about Durant’s decision; he didn’t chime in on social media (outside of a now infamous Instagram post of cupcakes on July 4). He needed some time. He retreated to Los Angeles with his family and weighed the situation.
Paired with Durant’s exit, a draft-night deal sent fellow franchise “founding father” Serge Ibaka to the Magic in exchange for young guard Victor Oladipo, and now the Thunder were suddenly facing a crossroads. Either Westbrook was going to sign an extension or they were going to trade him and begin a complete teardown and rebuild. As other league executives buzzed about the possibility of Westbrook being available, the Thunder fielded calls but never remotely considered trading their star. They needed an answer first. They knew it would be firm and would be final.
No back-channel maneuvering, no fence-straddling. That’s not Westbrook’s style.
“He just needed a little time to think because his free agency was pretty much sped up,” Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver said. “It was, ‘Well, now I’ve got to think about this. This wasn’t something I was planning on thinking about because I didn’t think this was gonna happen.’ We just gave him a little time to reflect, and even with it being a short window, he felt comfortable where he was in his career and his life, and he was, ‘OK, let’s tackle these years and move forward.'”
A large factor in what Westbrook had to consider was what his new role would be.
Not only would he be taking on the burden of playing as a solo star, but all the details that were delegated to Durant as the de facto face of the franchise were also about to fall to him. What was once a dual leadership of the organization was now Westbrook’s alone — a young superstar tasked with shepherding OKC’s even younger roster.
That will be evident during the playoffs at the postgame podium, a place traditionally set for Durant and Westbrook to work in tandem as almost a self-assigned policy becoming a place where Westbrook will now face questions likely alone, win or lose.
It’s all part of the adjustment for Westbrook, a bit of a loner by nature, keeping his entourage tight — mom, dad, brother, wife, dog and, soon, son — and preferring a night at home with his wife, Nina, to one out on the town. Durant was always more gregarious, with a private room at his former Bricktown restaurant reserved for team gatherings after games.
Changing roles aside, negotiating an extension was simple between Westbrook and the Thunder. He didn’t really ask questions about the existing roster or quiz Presti on potential future targets. Westbrook liked the team the Thunder had in place, and he trusted the front office. At the time, Steven Adams and Oladipo were headed for restricted free agency the following summer, and every potential big free agent left in the pool had signed somewhere a month before. Westbrook didn’t really care. It was about the Thunder, and it was about where he wanted to be.
Westbrook played all of last season rocking a fiery mohawk, a hairstyle befitting of the way he plays. But when he showed up to sign his extension, he had a fresh buzz cut, flashing back to his UCLA days. Understated. Clean.
Staffers took notice of the new look, but Westbrook’s message was clear as he individually reached out to many of them: Things might be different around here, but don’t worry, I’ve got this.
Head equipment manager Marc St. Yves, an NBA lifer with nearly 40 years of experience, was one who didn’t need much convincing, telling people in the organization in August, “We’re going to be good with this guy.”
The most notable thing changing was Westbrook himself. He set up an offseason weeklong workout with newcomer Oladipo in Los Angeles and has made it a point to organize countless team dinners.
At media day in September, the new Westbrook was striking: a jolly, bouncy, media-friendly player who was ready and willing to say yes to everything.
After spending last season rejecting every one-on-one media request, Westbrook did at least five on media day alone. His energy was obvious, jabbing and joking with his new teammates and diverting the expected tension of the first official day back at school without Durant into a positive, forward-thinking scene. It was intentional, to set a tone for the season.
“With Kevin leaving, everyone was looking for a direction. Everyone was unsure what this year was going to be like,” Nick Collison said. “And he came in the first day and was like, ‘Here we go.’ No one was dwelling on it, no one was talking about what kind of season we were going to have or what kind of team we were going to be. It was just, ‘Let’s go, let’s get to work.’ And everybody was like, ‘All right, let’s get to work.’ That was really big, and I think our whole entire organization needed that direction.”
The season ahead was going to be a test, both physically and mentally for Westbrook. Collison, who has been Westbrook’s teammate longer than anyone, had doubts he could carry it on throughout the season, particularly the responsibility of being the solitary superstar leader.
“I wasn’t sure if that would be able to last, but it has,” Collison said. “He’s sustained it the entire season. That’s just who he is now. He feels real at ease; he feels secure in who he is as a player and his place in the organization, and he’s comfortable in that leadership role.”
Westbrook is largely the same guy, keeping to his same pregame routine, same parking spot and same snarky attitude. He approaches each game with the standard bravado and competitive fire he always has. What has changed is the circumstance and environment around Westbrook, to which he has adapted.
For example, Westbrook has always shown up early to the Thunder’s practice facility, the 8:30 a.m. slot reserved for him to get in a workout and some shooting. After a rough game early in the season for Domantas Sabonis, the Thunder’s 20-year-old rookie, Westbrook instructed him to start showing up to join him. They worked on shooting; they worked on pick-and-roll chemistry and positioning, defensive coverages and callouts. It was a change for Westbrook in his standing shooting slot. In the eight previous seasons, at 8:30 a.m., the other side of the court was reserved for Kevin Durant. Now it was a rookie whom Westbrook had taken under his wing.
“When he sees things on the court that we need to correct, he does it,” Collison said. “He holds guys accountable if guys aren’t focused or locked in. He’s got a good sense of where we are as a team, like our level of play or focus. You see it a lot in practice and in games. He still gets frustrated.
“He used to get frustrated and go sideways, but he’s able to now sit down, snap out of it, come back, say something to build some confidence and help the team.”
That’s a significant change for Westbrook. It was only a couple of years ago when he had an outburst on the court with then-teammate Thabo Sefolosha and had to retreat to the tunnel to cool off during the third quarter, returning to the bench only after assistant coach Mo Cheeks calmed him down. As Collison says, part of that was simply maturation, but it was also Westbrook recognizing his new role. His competitiveness is sometimes his greatest flaw, overstepping its bounds and bleeding into sound decision-making.
To some, Westbrook is an acquired taste.
“I think a lot of the stuff that happened early in his career when he was getting roasted in the media, things like that, that was tough for him, but he learned that none of that stuff matters,” Collison said. “He’s gone from guy that’s trying to prove himself in the league when he first got here to a guy that’s just trying to win.”
There have been several critical points for the Thunder and Westbrook this season, but the one Weaver zeroes in on happened in the first week. The Thunder had started 4-0 and surprisingly topped the Clippers in L.A., led by a furious Westbrook surge in crunch time. After the game, Westbrook took exception to a Los Angeles reporter asking questions about surpassing expectations with the undefeated start.
“That’s where they went wrong,” Westbrook said defiantly.
A night later, the Thunder had their first meeting with Durant, an uncomfortable, tension-filled game in Oakland in which the Thunder were blown out. It sort of seemed as if maybe the fairy dust was about to wear off and the Thunder were headed for a reality check. It was absolutely vital, at least in Westbrook’s mind, to bounce back in the following game, a home matchup against the Timberwolves. The Thunder blitzed Minnesota by 20.
“I said after that, ‘We’re going to be really good,'” Weaver said. “[Westbrook] was just … different.”
People around the Thunder are adamant that Westbrook’s historic season hasn’t been a daily talking point within their walls. They aren’t as impressed with the raw numbers as they are with the statement he made on Aug. 4 and the season he’s spent backing it all up. There’s no question his triple-double season is one for the record books. MVP or not, it will be the individual accomplishment that’s remembered from the 2016-17 season.
“Russell has old-school principles and a futuristic game,” Presti said. “He’s innovated the position.”
Westbrook has earned the accolades and respect of not only his peers but also the legends of the game, such as Michael Jordan, who came to OKC to induct Westbrook into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. Opposing arenas have started “MVP” chants for him and cheered rebounds and assists as he neared his NBA-record 42nd triple-double of the season. People are appreciating the guy they used to criticize. Like so many things, it’s just a different situation for Westbrook to adjust to. And it just means there could be more to come.
“Russ is going to be so much better next year,” Weaver said. “He’s been good — well, been great — but he’s going to be so much more comfortable. This is the first year he’s had to try this shoe on. Next year he’s going to be so much more comfortable in these situations. What’s funny is, he’s playing phenomenal this year, but I don’t know if the numbers or the season are going to be as good, but I expect him to take a pretty big jump next year.”
There could be a preview of what the new-and-improving Westbrook will look like in this postseason, as he puts the chase for triple-doubles and NBA history behind him. And he’ll also put behind him the micromanagement the Thunder have had on him all season. Westbrook ranks 18th overall in the league this season in minutes per game (34.8) and hasn’t played more than 40 minutes in any regulation game yet this season.
It has all been with an eye toward the playoffs, to have Westbrook as fresh and ready as possible when the games matter most.
Westbrook carries a reputation of fearlessness, but he does fear one thing, Presti says — not competing, not giving everything and wondering whether there was still something left in the tank.
With the stakes raised in the playoffs, Westbrook isn’t afraid of how the Thunder play. Because he is who he is, he thinks they’re good enough to win the title, but if he pours everything into it, he can live with the result if they don’t.
It was only a few minutes after Westbrook had nailed a miraculous 36-footer in Denver, capping the night he recorded his record-breaking 42nd triple-double with his first buzzer-beating game-winner. He walked into the visiting locker room and stood in front of his team.
“Coach, before you get going, I want to say something,” Westbrook said. He wanted to thank his teammates, his coaches, the video coordinators, the interns, the medical and training staffs. Down the line he went, thanking everyone in the room. He told them he loved them.
“Everyone has a hand in this,” he said. “And I thank you so much.”
There’s no crowding Westbrook anymore. He’s experiencing a freedom as he never has before, and he’s finding his voice. He’s comfortable and content, both personally and professionally. He’ll become a father in May. What kind of dad will he be?
Weaver thinks for a second. And then he laughs.
“Overbearing,” he says, repeating it three more times.