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Durant Departure Will Test Westbrook, and OKC's Belief in His Leadership

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 16: Kevin Durant #35 and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during Game One of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs against the Golden State Warriors on May 16, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images
Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterJuly 6, 2016

Cocky. Jerk. Hothead.

If we could just boil down the guy left behind, Russell Westbrook, to a one-dimensional character, it'd be a lot easier to finish this story about Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City.

There's some part of each of us that likes it basic—even when accentuating the positive. The main reason Westbrook's devoted admirers revere him is that incredible passion of his.

"Force of nature," Thunder general manager Sam Presti said Monday in describing Westbrook during a what-do-we-do-now news conference that matters a lot less than what Westbrook wants to do in the future.

There's a natural tendency to assume he'll be so angry about being left behind that he'll leave town via his own free agency next year.

That train wreck sure would make for a heck of a high-speed sequel to this Durant turnabout. In sports, we only put up with hotheads if they are champions. And it's tempting to imagine just how much uncontrollable rage the ferocious, eight-cylinder Westbrook might be revving up at this very moment.

But oversimplify at your own risk.   

There have been distinct signs of maturity from Westbrook, particularly in the past year.

Through the daring wardrobe choices, the still-quick temper and now the widespread assumption that he petulantly won't be able to stand his team not competing for titles, Westbrook has been much more lately than some caricature with Angry Birds eyebrows and smoke pumping from his ears.

In the season after Durant's foot injuries forced Westbrook to step up in 2014-15, the roles of the two Thunder stars didn't just naturally revert. Westbrook remained relentless, which resulted in him finishing higher than Durant in the NBA MVP voting, fourth over fifth.

Perhaps more importantly, Westbrook was more of a leader than ever before.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 26: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder high fives teammates after a play against the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 26, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in O
Noah Graham/Getty Images

He wasn't perfect, and the offense stalled in the last two games of the Western Conference Finals. But he truly bought into Billy Donovan's preseason philosophy that he and Durant had to give to the team in more unselfish ways than Scott Brooks expected.

The Thunder would not have eliminated the San Antonio Spurs if not for Westbrook taking responsibility for a selfish Game 3 and subordinating himself to Durant with 15 assists while committing only three turnovers in Game 4. And all that came after avoiding an early ejection after arguing a call. (Last season, in fact, he dramatically reduced his technical fouls from 17 to seven.)

The Thunder would not have taken a 3-1 lead on the Golden State Warriors if not for Westbrook imposing his pace on Game 1 ("He caused a lot of havoc, so we definitely lost our poise," Draymond Green said) and still having the discipline to limit his turnovers, thus allowing OKC's smothering defense to set up in the half court.

Westbrook's sense of humor ruled the locker room all season long, too. There was even some maturity in his immaturity.

His Halloween costume was a show-stopper in a unique, unifying way. Westbrook dressed up as teammate Steven Adams, toting all that hair everywhere and mimicking the big man's mannerisms while going so far as to match Adams' arm tattoo with his middle name, Funaki, on it in script.

Adams is an easy target for his eccentricities in both look and carriage, yet don't put it past Westbrook to have a head start in knowing before anyone else that Adams could be a top player worth investing that kind of personal time and effort in.

Westbrook is a bit of a basketball nerd. That's hard to reconcile for a man who looks like a ball of fury on the court, but last season it was Westbrook who so often guided, taught and corrected teammates.

He talked to Andre Roberson about offense here, Enes Kanter regarding defense there. He got in their faces sometimes; in their ears more often, though.

During one key timeout during the conference finals against Golden State, Westbrook even had the coaches break up their huddle to come over and listen to what Westbrook had to say to the players on the bench.

"He's got such great force and great will—and he's also a really high-basketball-IQ player," Donovan said late in the season. "He sees a lot of things going on out there."

More subtle growth from Westbrook as a leader is what Donovan and Presti need most now.

But first they are counting on Westbrook's trademark determination driving him not to give up on the Thunder. Westbrook's personal motto is "Why not?"—and if there was ever a situation for wild hope, it's when your superstar teammate has left to join your rival that already won 73 regular-season games without him.

If Westbrook, 27, is willing to keep trying, he will have to be more patient than ever in pushing but not steamrolling Adams, 22; Victor Oladipo, 24; Kanter, 24; Roberson, 24; Cameron Payne, 21; Domantas Sabonis, 20; and perhaps free agent Dion Waiters, 24.

But if Westbrook is not committed, Presti has to trade him, targeting the clubs that may lack the confidence they could sign Westbrook outright as a free agent next year. The Celtics, with all their rebuilding assets ready to be moved, are the most logical option. Boston could audition him with hopes of selling Westbrook on staying long-term with an Eastern Conference contender.

That may not be the preferred option, but it is a possibility OKC has to explore.

EDMOND, OK - MARCH 31:  Sam Presti general manager joins Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at his annual Why Not Foundation fundraiser to benefit the Boys and Girls Club at AMC Boulevard Bowl in Edmond, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER:  User expres
Richard Rowe/Getty Images

For his part, Presti said Monday that Westbrook is "a true leader in the sense that he takes it on.

"He takes it on. And I think he'll take this on, as well."

Note that Presti added the "I think" caveat.

In his second year as GM, Presti saw something in Westbrook others did not, drafting him fourth overall in 2008. As he has watched Westbrook evolve since, even Presti isn't certain what Westbrook will think of this massive challenge.

The Thunder need a savior, though, and that might just appeal to both Westbrook's natural ego and his more experienced self.

The guy who is still tight with his parents got married last year—not to some model he met during Paris Fashion Week, but to his college sweetheart. Russ met Nina when they both played basketball at UCLA, and he persevered with the relationship even though she stayed to play three more years at UCLA while he started his life in OKC.

Rob Latour/Associated Press

Such commitment and humanity from a guy many see as a bit too intense when he's on the job might surprise some, but there's a ton of substance to go with his style.

Durant's departure for Golden State doesn't just mean an opportunity for Westbrook to score more.

It's an opportunity to show how he has grown up.

Maybe some poise in this predicament will merely prove to some other franchise that Westbrook can help, not hurt, a team's chemistry when he jumps ship in 2017 free agency.

Or maybe Westbrook is really ready to own this…and rebuild it, too.

 

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.

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