The Mysterious Case of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterApril 18, 2014

Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant looks on behind point guard Russell Westbrook against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)
Danny Moloshok

A difficult relationship exists on the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it is not between Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant. It's between Russell Westbrook and Russell Westbrook.

Or, to be more precise, between Westbrook and the granite chip he maintains on his shoulder toward all those who believe he is anything less than the best player in the NBA.

"It is his best friend and his worst enemy," said fellow UCLA alumnus and Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love of the chip. "He's here because of it, but sometimes it can get him in trouble."

That perspective isn't likely to end the scrutiny of every glance, exchange, argument or moment the Thunder's two biggest stars share, because that comes with the territory when two stars of similar talent and mindset wear the same uniform. Durant, to be fair, has a part in nurturing Westbrook's chip because he shares his desire to stand alone atop the NBA pyramid of players.

That said, by most accounts, inside and outside the organization, the two never have been more appreciative of each other than they are now.

Watching them play pick-and-roll at the end of games, forcing opponents into the unenviable choice of deciding which one they'd prefer have a clean look at a jumper or a drive to the hoop, is a testament to how accommodating they've become to each other.

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Durant, one team source says, is allowing Westbrook to be more of a driving force during the course of the game, and Westbrook has accepted Durant being the first option at crunch time.

Team insiders also contend that talk of serious discord between the two has been largely a figment of outsiders. Their hope is that should Durant, as is expected, be named this year's MVP of the NBA, it will chase the mirage once and for all that Westbrook is a hindrance to Durant realizing his full capabilities.

Then again, that notion has remained alive even though Durant has now won four scoring titles in five years despite Westbrook's perceived selfishness.

Westbrook and his chip? Ah, that's something else. That relationship, in turn, never has been better or worse than it is right now, and Durant being named MVP is only likely to add to the strain.

"The higher KD goes, the stronger that chip will be," says Orlando Magic guard Arron Afflalo, Westbrook's one-time Bruins roommate. "It's not jealousy. It's not hating. It's a competitive spirit. It's motivating for someone like him. KD is at the top of the league. Russ really believes he is the best. When you have that mindset, there's no satisfaction in anything less."

Sue Ogrocki

Westbrook certainly had plenty of material with which to create the chip long before he joined forces with Durant.

A late bloomer at Leuzinger High School in Los Angeles, he wound up at UCLA only after incumbent guard Jordan Farmar declared himself eligible for the NBA draft. He played limited minutes as a defensive specialist his freshman year, and it was only an injury to Darren Collison that gave him a chance to shine as a sophomore. Westbrook decided he'd shown enough, and Thunder GM Sam Presti agreed, shocking the basketball world by grabbing him with the No. 4 pick.

The franchise was known as the Seattle SuperSonics at the time but days later moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder.

"I think (people) are waiting for me to mess up," he told me several years ago, "so they can say, 'I told you so.' All you can do is keep working."

Sue Ogrocki

He has done exactly that, and it's why Denver Nuggets coach Brian Shaw, who had a front-row seat for the rise and fall of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal as a dynamic duo, doesn't believe KD and Russ have to suffer the same dissolution.

"Lack of respect did them in," Shaw says. "There were times Kobe knew how much work he put in, and he didn't feel Shaq did the same. Little did Kobe know, (coach) Phil (Jackson) told Shaq to take the summer off because of the pounding he took during the season.

"But I don't see Kevin and Russell having that problem. They both work hard. And I don't think it's that important that they have to perfectly co-exist. There's nothing wrong with them pushing and challenging each other. They just have to have a mutual respect as they do it."

Those who spend considerable time around the two say Westbrook secretly envies how graceful and engaging Durant can be socially, while Durant admires Westbrook's confidence in not caring what people think of him.

Lynne Sladky

Durant and Westbrook have had a chance to develop greater appreciation for each other over the last year as well. Westbrook, recovering from a second knee injury, watched as Durant carried the team by starting a stretch of scoring 25 points or more in 41 consecutive games, one more than Michael Jordan's mark.

Durant, in turn, discovered what it was like to battle in the postseason without Westbrook when Westbrook went down with his first knee injury in Game 2 of last year's first-round series against the Houston Rockets.

After going to the conference finals and then the NBA Finals as a tandem, Durant found himself bounced in the second round in five games by the Memphis Grizzlies.

Westbrook also has had his sense of invincibility shaken. He had not missed a game in his first five seasons before the injury against the Rockets. He has, understandably, a deeper appreciation not only for playing but playing for a team such as the Thunder. Sitting and watching, one source said, has resulted in his most cerebral season.

It may be wishful thinking, but several GMs are still convinced Westbrook and Durant will go their separate ways, the challenge of sharing top billing in a market as small as Oklahoma City being too much for them.

Rich Pedroncelli

Afflalo, having gone from being part of a star-studded cast in Denver to a rebuilding situation in Orlando where he is arguably the best player, knows what a grind being the focal point of an opponent is and how fortunate Durant and Westbrook are to share the load.

"They have not experienced not having each other for a full season or not knowing that there's going to be help coming," Afflalo says. "This is always going to be like Kobe and Shaq because you have two guys who both want to be the best. It's the nature of their personalities.

"But I hope they never have to separate to find out how good they have it. From what I understand, they're mature enough to understand that."

If having his greatness acknowledged were the solution to Westbrook's fierce defiance, it should've happened by now. He's been a three-time All-Star and three-time second-team All-NBA selection. He's won two gold medals with the national team. Those who recognize him as Durant did years ago—"He's the leader; he's the one who keeps us together," Durant once told me—have grown but remain a decided minority.

Sue Ogrocki

That may be because Westbrook fears, as Love suggested, that his drive would be compromised if he acted any way other than as if everyone wants to see him fail so they can tell him so.

"He fears he'll get soft," a Thunder source agreed.

It's probably no accident that as more people have come to embrace Westbrook as a player, he has paraded around in increasingly outlandish outfits to keep people shaking their heads at him.

That might not be enough to keep the anti-Russ crowd inspired, especially if he and Durant find a way to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy together. Russell Westbrook is counting on Russell Westbrook to think of something.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.


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