Russell Westbrook finally wants to change – but can he?
After 11 seasons of stubborn stardom, he’s seeking a new beginning in Houston
n his last night out as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Russell Westbrook decided not to dress up. Thirty minutes before he was due on the red carpet for his Why Not?? comedy show at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, phones began flashing with news of the trade to the Houston Rockets. Inside the venue, a buzz rose from the capacity crowd of several hundred fans, then turned into a stunned, painful roar: The sound of an ill-fated love affair coming to an end.
Westbrook skipped the red carpet and canceled all interviews on this Thursday night in July. He arrived backstage wearing an orange T-shirt, green shorts and all-black sneakers, his humdrum outfit like a white flag from the NBA’s most eclectic fashionista. After the show began, Westbrook shuttled between his front-row table and a secluded area stage left, fielding a steady stream of phone calls. According to several people who were backstage, Westbrook mingled comfortably with the comics and his ever-present crew of childhood friends, looking relaxed and a bit wistful, enjoying the farewell moment without thinking about his upcoming transition.
On stage, comedian Lance Woods eased into a story about hanging out with Westbrook and Kevin Durant – boos wafted forth when KD’s name was spoken – while both played for the Thunder. “We all talking, me, Russ and KD,” Woods said. “And then Russ was like, ‘When’s your next show?’ I said, ‘Ima be in the Bay Area soon.’ And KD said, ‘Me too!’ ”
Westbrook doubled over with laughter. The crowd erupted. Woods let the noise die down, then decided to address the elephant in the room: “We already know that Russ finna go somewhere else…” The audience rose to their feet for a standing ovation that went on and on, until Westbrook stood up from his table and waved, a humbled expression on his face.
Woods said, “Russ gave this city everything.”
It wasn’t enough.
For all his individual accomplishments – one MVP, two scoring titles, three full seasons averaging a triple-double – Westbrook’s game stalled out in a blizzard of clanked jumpers, fourth-quarter fiascoes and, in the 2019 playoffs, a Damian Lillard dagger to the heart. Since Durant fled to Golden State and Westbrook began piling up historic numbers, the Thunder have lost in the first round of the playoffs three straight years. Now, with Paul George also abandoning Westbrook and the Thunder declining to rebuild around their mercurial point guard, it’s clear Westbrook needs to change more than his jersey to win a championship.
The problem is, Westbrook has always resisted the idea that he needs to change. As much as his athleticism and snarling ferocity made him a superstar, Westbrook’s stubborn “Why Not?” attitude is what made him Russell Westbrook.
Weeks away from his 31st birthday, can Westbrook become more than a rocket-launched battering ram? Can he dial down his trademark anger and reckless abandon to make more calculated late-game decisions? Can he become a good enough 3-point shooter to win a championship with James Harden in Houston? Or did we see the best of Westbrook in Oklahoma City?
There’s a difference between changing how you play and changing who you are. That’s what Westbrook is trying to figure out — and it’s the biggest challenge of his career.
The fans at Cain’s Ballroom showered Westbrook with love all night for remaining loyal to Oklahoma, for building a franchise identity from scratch with his passion and will. The only hiccup of the evening came when a local comic, Yasamin Bayatfar, told a profane joke about God and got booed off stage.
As Bayatfar fled for the exit through a secluded backstage hallway, she felt a hand on her arm. It was Westbrook.
“Hey, listen,” Westbrook said, “I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but you can bounce back from this. If you get knocked down, you have to get back up again. I fail all the time, and then I get back up and show ’em the next time.
“Do you know how many times I’ve failed?”
Two new Rolls-Royces – a black Ghost sedan and a gray Dawn convertible – rest atop veined Calacatta marble floors on the second floor of the Post Oak Hotel in Houston. The Rockets kicked off this season with a media day at team owner Tilman Fertitta’s $350 million property, where you can land a helicopter on the roof, charge a Bugatti to your room, and order room service for dogs such as chopped filet mignon or banana “a la bark.” The two Rolls parked down the hall from the ballroom set aside for interviews begged a comparison to Westbrook and Harden: James is the big, smooth Ghost, moving at his own pace but always arriving with a splash. Russell is the drop-top Dawn with two suicide doors, an exhilarating combination of speed and luxury … until it rains.
The Rockets are in championship-or-bust mode. Westbrook, the biggest gamble in recent franchise history, is supposed to be their missing piece. He was the No. 1 topic of media day, but as interviews proceeded before a crowd of reporters and cameras, none of the Rockets seemed willing to say that Westbrook needed to “change.” There were synonyms and subtle references, but overall it felt as if the front office had sent a staffwide email with the subject line: DO NOT TRIGGER RUSS BY USING THE WORD ‘CHANGE.’
Which made sense. Westbrook is famously stubborn about sticking to the method that took him from unheralded high school recruit and questionable draft pick to one of the league’s most electrifying players, with a record-setting $205 million contract that will pay him $47.1 million in 2023. The method is built on rock-hard confidence, playing all-out every game, and answering every doubt with, “Why not?”
It also made sense because nobody knows how Westbrook and Harden, childhood friends who played together for three Thunder seasons before Harden went to Houston and became Harden, will fit together on the court. The analytic Rockets shoot the most 3s and take the fewest midrange shots in the NBA. Westbrook is the worst 3-point shooter ever with at least 2,500 attempts, and famous for a midrange pullup “cotton shot” that’s the ultimate no-no for mathematical minds such as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
So, yeah, there were unresolved issues at media day.
“You need Russell to be Russell. We don’t want to change him,” said head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He’s an MVP. That’s who we need. We need his bravura to be Russell. That’s good enough. There will be things that we will have to push to the left, push to the right …”
I was curious about a Wall Street Journal article where Morey had said the Rockets want to “enhance” Westbrook’s game. Does that mean fewer cotton shots? More short-corner 3s? I raised my hand and asked Morey, how do you enhance Russell?
“We’re not here to change anybody,” Morey replied. “But I think if you look historically, pretty much every guard that’s worked with Mike has had their career year. I think that’s going to be a little tough with Russell, giving that he’s had some pretty —”
Morey halted that train of thought, his microchip brain perhaps calculating the impossibility of Westbrook surpassing the 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game in his MVP season of 2016-17, or his league-leading assist totals the past two years.
Or maybe Morey, inventor of the “true shooting” statistic that measures scoring efficiency, was thinking about Westbrook’s 50.1 percentage last season — 145th among 185 NBA guards who took at least 100 shots, and well behind not only sharpshooters such as Stephen Curry (64.1) and Lillard (58.8), but a certified bricklayer like Ben Simmons (58.2).
“— I do think every guard has played better under Mike. So that’s what I meant by that,” Morey concluded.
I asked Harden if Westbrook needed to change anything about his game, since both of them are much different players now than when they last ran together in Oklahoma City – along with Durant – in 2012.
“Nope. Nope,” Harden said. “Because I can play off the basketball, I can catch and shoot, I can be on the wing, I can be in the corner, I can be wherever he needs me to be, and vice versa. Russell played off the basketball, whether it’s previously with myself or USA basketball … when you’re a basketball player, you figure it out.”
Westbrook was last to come to the podium, his boxer’s body packed into a red Rockets uniform. He’s a twitchy guy, as if his explosiveness and obsessive-compulsive tendencies are bubbling beneath the surface. As he sat down and looked at the dozens of cameras and reporters, he did not seem entirely comfortable. Later, he would call the session a “strange” environment. For the first time since being drafted at age 19 by the Thunder, he was living in a new city, wearing a new uniform, facing new questions. Change, like it or not, had arrived.
He immediately interrupted the first reporter – “Who am I speaking with? What’s your name?” – before allowing him to proceed. As the session continued, Westbrook leaned on the word “sacrifice” when talking about sharing the ball with Harden, and focused his comments on championship goals.
When someone asked what he had to do to be successful playing off the ball, he bristled, ever so slightly. Despite his reputation for wanting to control the action, Westbrook often deferred to George last season, taking fewer shots and helping George record perhaps the best season of his career. But that still wasn’t enough.
“You know what?” Westbrook said. “I think it’s interesting just for me, because I impact the game in so many different ways, and I’ve proven that for many years, and that’s why I’m not worried, because I don’t have to have the ball to impact in the game. I don’t have to score, I don’t have to do anything. I can defend, I can rebound and I can pass. I can lead.”
“When it comes to me and James playing together, who’s going to have the ball and who’s not going to have the ball, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t have to prove I can score 30 points, I’ve done that before. I don’t have to prove I can get ten assists, I’ve done that before. I don’t have to prove I can get ten rebounds, I’ve done that before. My goal is to win the championship. So whatever it takes to be able to do that, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
One thing it will take is better 3-point shooting. In last season’s devastating playoff loss to Portland, the Trail Blazers practically invited Westbrook to shoot from behind the arc. Injured center Jusuf Nurkic, who had mocked Russ as “Westbrick” during the season, wore a “Got Bricks?” T-shirt to a playoff game.
I asked Westbrook: You’re on record as never changing your approach. Is that the same coming into this totally new situation?
“Definitely,” Westbrook responded. “The ‘Why Not’ mindset is something I live by, something that I’ve always stood by. The organization, the people here, the No. 1 thing they’ve always told me was, just be myself. They don’t want me to change who I am, because that’s the reason why they brought me here. And I’m not going to change who I am. I feel like my mindset is what has gotten me to this point.
“But,” he continued, “there is ways to be able to adjust through your mindset and adjust to new teams, adjust to different players, and I’m able to do that and sacrifice certain things.”
Adjust. Enhance. Play better. Figure it out. Whatever it takes.
Westbrook knows failure. He knows that he has to bounce back.
Imagine Westbrook still ferocious, but not reckless. Imagine him still attacking the rim, but kicking out to the shooters that he lacked in Oklahoma City. Imagine him harnessing his anger in crunch time, instead of succumbing to it.
Imagine Harden advising him to calm down and Westbrook thinking, why not?
I wanted to ask Westbrook how he bounced back from his Oklahoma City ending, when he taunted and celebrated over Lillard only to have the Portland point guard wave an entire OKC era into oblivion with his iconic buzzer-beater. I wanted to ask, were the Thunder really ready to move on from Westbrook before George asked for a trade? Was Westbrook? How did it feel when Durant’s brand ambassador said, “No one wants to play with Russ”? How does it feel to be doubted all over again?
Calls, texts and emails to Westbrook’s agent and manager were not returned. His people asked the Thunder not to grant my requests to interview his former teammates and coaches. The Rockets’ media director declined my interview request. I asked Westbrook himself as he came off the floor of a Rockets preseason practice, after trying to butter him up by mentioning his kindness toward the lady comic. As soon he heard “Can I talk to you about —” Westbrook’s eyelids fluttered and he took a step backward. “No one-on-ones, chief,” he said.
All of which makes sense. Why would a player as stubborn and prideful as Westbrook, after years of dismissing criticism with statements such as, “I’ve been blessed with the talent to not give a f—,” want to admit that he has to change the engine of his success?
“Usually what makes you great, it also becomes some of the challenge sometimes,” Morey told me during media day.
Perhaps Westbrook came to Houston because they promised not to change him. “Mike [D’Antoni] lets you do whatever you want,” said Rockets guard Austin Rivers. “Mike lets you do whatever. I mean, in all seriousness, Mike’s fun to play for just because he gives you a lot of freedom, but it comes with a lot of responsibility. And I think that’s why he gets the best out of players.”
Kendrick Perkins played with Westbrook for five seasons. He experienced what made Westbrook special: “When he steps on the court, he just has a killer mentality. People don’t understand, the thing is with Russ, either you go match his intensity or you gonna get left behind. And that’s when you see the Russell Westbrook of old who used to try to take over games and certain situations by himself.”
Perkins doesn’t expect Westbrook to change. He expects him to improve.
“I know Russ,” he said. “Russ has looked himself in the mirror. I know what kind of competitor he is. I know for sure Russ was working on his game, and he’s gonna come back better. I guarantee you he will. His shooting percentage is gonna be better, everything is gonna be better. People not gonna even remember last season or them playoffs the way Russ gonna come up.
“Let me tell you something,” Perkins continued. “When was the last time Russell Westbrook really had anything to prove? When KD left. And what did he do that season? He won MVP. This dude carries a chip on his shoulder, he hears the s— that everybody says about him. And when he’s coming in to the Rockets with something to prove? I guarantee you, man, it’s gonna be scary.”
Earl Watson, who backed up Westbrook at point guard in 2008-2009 and coached against him with the Phoenix Suns, said the next stage of his development is the nuance of late-game decisions in the pick and roll. “I would never say Russell doesn’t have the ability to change,” Watson said. “You don’t want him to change. You want him to grow. He has the ability to grow, to get better and adapt, to continue to evolve mentally. Now it’s time for him to build on the levels of the game within the game.”
Time may be running out for Westbrook. He’s had at least four knee surgeries in six years, including one this offseason that sidelined him for early preseason practices and games. He’s approaching the age where athleticism wanes. The rest of the West is stacked: LeBron James and Anthony Davis, George and Kawhi Leonard, the rising Jazz and the dangerous Blazers. The Warriors still have a championship nucleus of Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.
Then again, Westbrook’s timing may be just right.
Almost 50 years ago, the only man other than Westbrook to average a triple-double for a full season was traded from the Cincinnati Royals to the Milwaukee Bucks. Oscar Robertson had all the accolades and awards, but no championships. Ten years into his career, he came to a Bucks team that already had a superstar in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Robertson proceeded to tally the fewest shots, rebounds and points of his career. Facing the Baltimore Bullets in the 1971 Finals, Robertson took fewer shots and grabbed less rebounds than Abdul-Jabbar and Bob Dandridge.
The Bucks won the title, demolishing the Bullets in a four-game sweep.
I called Robertson and asked, was it hard to change your game to fit in with Kareem?
“There was no problem for me,” Robertson said. “I didn’t have to prove to anyone I could score. All I had to do was get our team together. I knew what I had to do.”
The Big O expects big things from Westbrook in Houston: “He may change some of what he does, because he won’t have the ball all the time. He’ll still be exciting, explosive, getting up and down the court.”
“I think he’s an ultimate pro. He knows what he has to do.”