Is Russell Westbrook Shooting His Way Out of Oklahoma City?

Flip ChannelsCorrespondent IMay 13, 2011

Is Russell Westbrook Shooting His Way Out of Oklahoma City?

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    In the past few weeks, Russell Westbrook has gone from the toast of Oklahoma City and one of the true darlings of the NBA to the most criticized player in the 2011 NBA Playoffs.

    The source of the venom being spewed in his general vicinity, the correlating factor in this situation, is as simple as the act of shooting a basketball, and as complex as attempting to draw substantial conclusions in regards to his mental disposition by examining the expressions on his face.

    Westbrook's field goal attempts are up nearly four per game from his regular season average. His on-court demeanor slipped—or elevated, depending on your viewpoint—to nothing short of vicious, as his competitiveness and his fire have taken over under the bright lights of playoff basketball.

    The former, an issue mostly—and perhaps solely—due to the fact that Kevin Durant's shot total has not increased, meaning Westbrook is actually outshooting the NBA's scoring champ. The latter, disconcerting because of the potential for a power struggle that results in a breakup. 

    The fallout has landed the majority of Thunder fans in one of three categories:

    1. Westbrook resents Durant. He wants to be "the man." He's imposing his will. It's an ego thing.

    2. Westbrook is still transitioning from a combo guard to a point guard. Be patient. It's nothing personal. He's just growing.

    3. Westbrook is playing for a contract. (This is an especially stupid theory, given the fact that he's a virtual lock to receive maximum dollars from Sam Presti. If anything, creating doubt that he is willing to defer to Durant only hurts his negotiating position with the Thunder.)

    As with any story, there are two sides to this one. For the past month I've found myself flip-flopping numerous times. In the last couple of days I have decided how I feel. But before I divulge such information, allow me to clear up the debate itself.

    All "Rise (Together)."

The Defense: From KB3 to KD, Driven to Be the Best

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    "I remember everything that happened to me. Sitting on the bench in high school, sitting on the bench in college; I remember all that. I'll never forget that and that's what pushes me now to work hard and continue to outwork everyone else every day."—Russell Westbrook

    Russell Westbrook doesn't need you to believe in him. He was 5'8", 140 pounds as a 10th grader. He sat the bench until his junior year. He wasn't a McDonald's All-American. There were no cash advances coming from the shadows on the promise that he'd one day take the NBA by storm. There were no highlight reel dunks. Westbrook couldn't jump high enough to dunk until mid-way through his senior season.There weren't even recruiting letters in the mailbox until the summer prior to his senior year. There was just Russ and his father, shooting jump shot after jump shot. Very few people believed in him then either.

    However, one of Westbrook's greatest strengths—and the cause of his recent persecution—is his belief in himself.

    He grew to 6'3" and a chiseled 187 pounds. Check. Not only did he crack the Leuzinger High School starting lineup, but he also averaged 25 points and nine boards, while leading them to the CIF-SS Div. I-AA quarterfinals as a senior. Check.

    The letters that took so long to come turned into scholarship offers too, and he wouldn't have to settle for Creighton or Kent State. Westbrook signed with UCLA, and he—along with teammates Darren Collison and Kevin Love—led the Bruins to a second straight Final Four appearance as a sophomore. Check. He eventually managed to get a dunk or two to fall too. Check.

    So you see, it's not that Russell Westbrook necessarily needs to be "the man." It's that we told him that he couldn't be. His reaction in the days and weeks since has been a purely natural one. As it turns out, no one should have expected him to tuck his tail and get back in line. The attitude, the chip on his shoulder, the fearless "Eff You" mode that he has been in over the course of these playoffs, is the same one that got him from high school benchwarmer to All-NBA guard.

    If it looks like he plays mad, it's because he does. He's not mad at Kevin Durant. He's mad because Mike Conley finally scored on him. He's not mad because he's counted more No. 35s than No. 0s in the stands. He's mad at Lionel Hollins for having the audacity to think that Greivis Vasquez can play him straight up.

    He's not mad at a certain member of the media's assertion that he basically just wants to be Derrick Rose. Okay, maybe he is mad about that.

    But mostly he's mad because Khelcey Barrs isn't here.

    Khelcey Barrs was Russell Westbrook's teammate and best friend. The two had always played together, and the plan was to do the same in college. But that plan would never come to fruition.

    On May 11th, 2004, Barrs was playing pickup games at LA Southwest College with some teammates and friends. After his fifth game of the day, he collapsed. Barrs, who had an enlarged heart, was pronounced dead at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood a short time later. Westbrook acknowledges feeling the responsibility of playing for two people from that point on, vowing never again to question himself or his ability.

    This incident—perhaps better than any other—explains the intensity and effort that submerses every facet of Westbrook's game. Always a hard worker, this singular event triggered his fire-fueled ascent to the apex of the basketball world. This player—Khelcey Barrs—also helps to explain why the accusations questioning Westbrook's willingness to play the "Robin" to Durant's "Batman" are unfounded.

    Russell Westbrook has always been the sidekick on the basketball court. He was Barrs' wingman as a kid. He was the third option at UCLA, behind Kevin Love and Darren Collison. Because of Collison, he was never even the starting point guard for the Bruins. When the "Sonics" made him the fourth overall player chosen in 2008, he joined a roster that was already being shaped around Durant.

    Nothing about his history as a player suggests an impending power struggle. Still, the viciousness of his play has been misinterpreted as being a mercenary motivated by self-interest. 

    Westbrook is just playing his ass off. He has been challenged by the fans and the media, Kevin Durant has been wearing Shane Battier like a t-shirt and every time up the floor he's staring at a defender that he knows he can beat off the dribble. He's "just trying to play (his) game."

    Whether outsiders have recognized it or are willing to concede to it, Russell Westbrook is no longer Plan B. The league scoring champ is, and will remain, option No. 1. But his point guard is 1A. The future of this franchise is every bit as attached to Westbrook as it is to Kevin Durant.

    He's allowed to shoot. He's allowed to push the envelope. He's allowed to attack the rim at will. His court presence and basketball IQ are continually improving. Attempting to curb his aggressiveness won't accelerate his maturity; it will only stunt his growth.

    Kevin Durant wasn't always Kevin Durant. This time, one year ago, he was the one facing criticism for his lackluster playoff performance. Westbrook deserves to be afforded the same learning curve. If he costs us a game or a series, so be it. Because he will win us many games and many series later on.

    This is Russell Westbrook's team too.

The Prosecution: He's on His Way out

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    "'Why not?' It's how I think. It's how I play and go about things. I say why not to everything."—Russell Westbrook

    Presti and the Thunder are, undoubtedly, set to make Westbrook the third-highest-paid PG in the NBA this summer (behind Chris Paul and Deron Williams) or the fourth-highest-paid next summer (behind Paul, Williams and Derrick Rose). They'll top Rajon Rondo's deal. They'll top what the Suns give Steve Nash and what Golden State is paying Monta Ellis. This is a foregone conclusion.

    Admittedly, Westbrook's overly aggressive play over the last few weeks looks and feels like a player in pursuit of a payday. But it makes no sense for Westbrook to press in that fashion. Oklahoma City needs a secondary scorer and a distributor. Russell Westbrook is its guy. The only way he could squander the imminent payday that is headed his way would be if he were to buck the system, challenge Durant and raise questions about his willingness to accept his role as the sidekick.

    Why, then, is he doing exactly that?

    The answer is simple.

    Westbrook isn't concerned with whether or not OKC likes him as its point guard. He is concerned with whether or not another NBA franchise likes his ability to be "the man," and it's not who you think it is.

    The Lakers—Westbrook's favorite team growing up—are out. They're committed to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol to the tune of $50 million per season through 2013-14. Kobe isn't moving. So the only move the Lakers can make seems to be moving Pau for a player like Dwight Howard.

    However, their Staples Center roommates are an entirely different story.

    The Clippers are absolutely loaded with young talent. If nothing changes, the Lakers' stepbrother will be around $30 million under the cap heading into next summer. One of the only ways that people wouldn't criticize Westbrook for leaving Durant would be if he left for Blake Griffin. Not to mention a remaining starting five of Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu and DeAndre Jordan. 

    Griffin is an alpha dog, just like Durant. But the dynamic would be entirely different. Where Westbrook and Durant's games clash, he and Blake Griffin would mesh. Can't you just see Russell Westbrook splitting defenders, heading to the glass and leaving a highlight-reel "alley" as Blake crushes the "oop?" Westbrook can.

    He's not playing for Durant right now. He's not playing for Oklahoma City or for Scott Brooks. He's playing for Russell Westbrook. Eventually, his bullheaded play will cost the Thunder in these playoffs. Ultimately, though, it will get him where he wants to be. Some things are just more important.

    Oklahoma City is a nice situation. But Los Angeles is home. He'd be a hero. In Oklahoma City all he is is overlooked. When he signs with the Clippers, they will become every bit the darlings of the NBA that the Thunder are right now.

    There is another factor at work here as well: Derrick Rose. It is no secret that Westbrook aspires to be considered the "best point guard in the world." Rose stands squarely in his path. Playing second fiddle to Kevin Durant in a small-market city isn't going to close that gap. Not in terms of public perception, anyway.

    Playing in his hometown, resurrecting the Bulls, Derrick Rose has transformed into part MVP, part folk hero. But if Russell Westbrook returned to his hometown, in a larger market, and turned the Clippers into champions? That may very well serve as the trump card.

    So, in the interim, he doesn't care that you hate it when he shoots. He doesn't mind if you don't like him as much as you like Durant. Because he knows something you don't know.

    You'll miss him when he's gone.

The Verdict

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    Naturally, there are most likely elements of truth from both sides of the debate. Westbrook could leave. He could elect to go elsewhere and join forces with someone else. He could elect to go somewhere where there is no one else.

    But he won't. At least, I don't believe that he will.

    Never before has the NBA seen two players this good, this young. There is a realistic decade-long window, starting right now, for the Oklahoma City Thunder to dominate the NBA landscape. Durant knew that. That's why he re-upped a year early without even testing the market. Westbrook knows it too—and he'll do the same.

    In regards to the "FGA" saga that has consumed the Thunder contingent: It's not news. It's not even water cooler discussion-worthy. KD and Russ don't have an issue with one another. They genuinely like and admire the other. There's not a battle over shot attempts either. As I said, Russell Westbrook is not the "second option" in Oklahoma City. He is not "Plan B." He is 1A. He should have close to or as many shot attempts as Durant—and vice versa. 

    He's not Chris Paul. He's not Derrick Rose or Rajon Rondo either. He's Russell Westbrook. An individual talent, all of his own.

    Let him be.