EFFECTIVELY, it took the Oklahoma City Thunder less than a week to turn their team into a fringe contender to an NBA GM’s wet dream. To acquire 362 future draft picks though, OKC was forced to lose their superstar duo in Paul George and Russell Westbrook, with the latter a bigger blow to the fan base. Westbrook, who departs the Thunder after 11 years of service, has been with the club since they moved from Seattle and during his tenure fans saw him develop into a superstar before their very eyes. His impact in Oklahoma stretches far beyond his highlight reel plays, with Westbrook quickly becoming the heart and soul of the franchise.
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LANDING in OKC with the 4th overall pick in 2008, Westbrook left the UCLA Bruins after his sophomore season with the hopes of establishing a title contender in Oklahoma. It seems like only yesterday that the young, springy guard was teaming up with the lanky, reigning Rookie of the Year to form a duo we’ll tell our grandkids about. That first year was the only losing record the Thunder have posted in OKC with Kevin Durant and Westbrook joined by a third young star in James Harden the following season. What followed were three straight successful seasons culminating in an NBA Finals berth in 2011-12.
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AFTER failing to agree on an extension though James Harden was traded away that offseason leaving Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to do the heavy lifting. The star duo continued to compliment each other with Westbrook’s name often thrown around as the Robin to Durant’s Batman. However, the story started to flip in 2015 when Durant’s season was ended early with foot issues, forcing Westbrook to throw the team on his back for the final 27 games of the season. Russ averaged 31.3 points, 9.9 assists and 8.7 rebounds in that time as the Thunder tried to mount a playoff push, with Westbrook transforming himself from Durant’s sidekick into an elite level peer.
THE union between the two didn’t last though with Durant leaving to join the Golden State Warriors in 2016 after OKC’s fourth trip to the West Finals in six tries. With nothing more than spare parts surrounding Westbrook (no offense to Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams), he went on a solo MVP campaign for the ages, becoming the first player to average a triple-double over the duration of an entire season since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62. Say what you will about the importance of the statistical feat known as a triple-double, but Westbrook throwing the Thunder on his back and dragging them into the playoffs gave OKC fans something to cheer about after being shunned by Durant the previous summer.
HIS commitment to the OKC brand only made fans love him more as Westbrook continued to make Thunder games a must-watch affair. He quickly found support after a trade saw Paul George land in Oklahoma in an effort to keep the franchises championship window open. We all know how things went from there, with consecutive first-round exits leading to Sam Presti hitting the self-destruct button. However, it was through no fault of Westbrook’s who continued to alter what we thought was statistically possible, averaging 24.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 10.5 assists over the last two seasons. That included posting 59 triple-doubles in that 153 game stretch, moving himself to a tie with Magic Johnson for the second most TD’s in NBA history.
PERHAPS the most impressive part of Westbrook’s second act in this part of his career was his ability to re-integrate George as a star peer in OKC’s outfit. For a portion of last season, George was deservingly generating buzz as an MVP candidate while Westbrook adapted his game to allow George to thrive. The ability to do so won’t appear in a box score, but it’s the type of behaviour that a true star of the game possesses, separating him from other All-Star’s around the league.
WESTBROOK’S presence in Oklahoma will be missed as loyal fans try to process what lies ahead of them. There are a bunch of appealing assets that can be shuffled around to help speed up a rebuild, but the one-time MVP’s departure will sting for a while. For the longest time, he was the reason to watch OKC basketball and most hooping enthusiasts would agree that Westbrook leaves the Thunder as the best player in franchise history. His exit not only signals the end of his time with the team, but it closes the book on Oklahoma’s first chapter in franchise history. Whoever has to steer the team into relevance for the club’s second act has been set a high standard bar by Westbrook and Co.
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