Hold him up in the storm that encircled the Thunder after a loss, and you'd get tons of criticism aimed in his general direction. His attitude sucked, and he was pouting on the bench far too often. He needed to pass to Kevin Durant a lot more. His shot selection was awful, and we're being generous by calling it "shot selection."
But in the words of S.E. Hinton, that was then, and this is now. The meniscus injury he suffered against Patrick Beverley and the Houston Rockets during the 2013 playoffs—one that carried over into the beginning of the 2013-14 season—could very well emerge as the best thing that's ever happened to him.
If I may continue quoting famous people from decades ago, let's turn to Joni Mitchell. In her 1970 hit single, "Big Yellow Taxi," she crooned that "you don't know what you got till it's gone."
No sentiment is more applicable to the Westbrook situation. His absence essentially proved his value to the team.
Whether it was during last year's playoff exit in the second round or the struggles against the Minnesota Timberwolves early this season, the Thunder looked anything but elite without the dynamic point guard on the floor.
It's a situation not too different to the ones that we've seen emerge around the NBA and other professional leagues.
Remember when Peyton Manning missed a year before joining the Denver Broncos? All of a sudden, a contending team found itself not only leading the Andrew Luck Sweepstakes but actually landing the Stanford product as its quarterback of the future.
Star players matter, especially in a league that only features 10 players on the court at any one time. And when Westbrook is one of the 15 best players in the league...well, you get the point.
Before the All-Star floor general went down, it was hard to find untempered praise in regard to the Thunder's lightning rod. Instead, he was the perpetual recipient of backhanded compliments, "...but..." statements and hesitant verbal high-fives.
As an example, take these quotes from Royce Young's article on Westbrook, written in April of 2011 on CBSSports.com:
- "If you want the All-Star Good Russell Westbrook, sometimes you have to live with the do-it-myself Bad Russell Westbrook."
- "Thing is, to get Good Russ, sometimes you live with Bad Russ. He’s not a perfect player. He’s still developing. This wasn’t his finest hour but he was trying to win the game. That’s what he had on his mind."
- "In the same ways you can say Westbrook lost Game 4 for the Thunder, he almost won it for them as well. That's life in the Russell Lane."
- "Westbrook is the ultimate 'No No No Yes Yes Yes!' player."
- "With Westbrook, it's all about accepting what he is. It's like the scene in Band of Brothers when Speirs tells that one guy crying in the foxhole, 'The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to function.' Westbrook isn't a 'true' point guard. He never will be. The sooner you accept that fact, the sooner you'll be able to appreciate what he is. A darn good basketball player that still has some room to grow."
But near the beginning of his article, Young also delivered one remarkably telling statement: "If you changed his name to Derrick Rose, everyone would promptly freak out (referring to his stat line)."
Unfortunately, it was true (and "was" is the operative word there). As basketball fans, we were conditioned to look for both the good and the bad of Westbrook's game, failing to make the logical connection that the good could often be derived from the bad.
It was because you could read "Westbrook" on the back of his jersey. In fact, it became a de facto self-fulfilling prophecy. Whereas other stars received passes, everything Westbrook did was criticized.
But as Ivan Pavlov originally proved when training dogs to salivate upon hearing bells, conditioning can be broken. If the same sequence—in this case, Bad Westbrook leading to the occasional loss—doesn't keep the conditioning in the minds of fans, the same response isn't going to occur.
It can be regained, but that doesn't necessarily have to happen.
Instead, we can now enjoy Westbrook for who he is: an aggressive, fearless point guard whose play opens things up for the rest of the Thunder, even if it doesn't always have an immediately positive result. Believe it or not, fans are capable of delayed gratification.
As a result, you'll struggle to find many articles that are worded in the same hesitant fashion as Young's aforementioned piece.
Let's play the same game we played with the Young article but this time draw quotes from a piece about Westbrook written by NBC Sports' Kurt Helin right before Thanksgiving:
- "Just having Russell Westbrook back on the court has opened up the Thunder offense."
- "All that despite the fact Westbrook has not found his shot. At all."
- "Just the threat of Westbrook has improved the Thunder offense. Wait until he starts knocking down shots."
Doesn't that language sound a lot different? Now, admittedly, these are different writers putting fingers to keyboards at different points in Westbrook's career. But the point still stands because they're representative of the general types of language used to describe the point guard.
And, as Helin hints at, Westbrook hasn't been particularly great thus far. He's averaging 21.1 points and 5.5 assists per game, but he's also shooting only 39.5 percent from the field with a PER of 18.2, according to Basketball-Reference.
With those types of numbers, pre-injury Westbrook would have been made into such a scapegoat that we'd have to come up with a new term.
But no longer.
The perception has changed, and he's much better off for it.
On top of that, Westbrook's absence actually improved the Thunder as a whole. By missing even a bit of time, Westbrook allowed some of his teammates to get a little more experience in key roles while the pressure cooker wasn't turned up as high as it would be later in the year.
Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson were able to get big minutes at the beginning of the season, which is crucial for an organization that pins so many of its hopes and dreams on internal improvement. One or both of those young guards must emerge as a quality rotation member for the Thunder to advance through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference playoffs.
So far, both of them have been doing exactly that.
Now that Westbrook missed time, they won't just be thrown into the fire the first time he misses a key game or gets hit with some foul trouble. Some experience is better than none at all.
With the West shaping up to be quite difficult once more (surprise, surprise), the Thunder need every advantage that they can get. Strange as it may be, they got a big one from the Westbrook injury.
Even though knee injuries are normally tough to recover from, Westbrook's injury has eased pressure on himself and strengthened the reserves coming off the OKC bench.
It's tough to ask for much more than that when crutches are involved.