Writing about Russell Westbrook at this exact moment feels obligatory—not because Oklahoma City is on the verge of a first-round exit, but because he’s a reigning MVP who just averaged a triple-double for the second straight season on one of the most expensive contracts in NBA history...and is on the verge of a first-round exit. Watching Westbrook thrive and fail over the past couple years is an immensely thrilling, deeply depressing flat circle.
To me, this never felt more clear than during one particular play in Game 4, when the Thunder found themselves down 16 late in the third quarter. At that moment, one of the NBA's most regrettable rosters saw its own ambition screech towards a quarry with Westbrook behind the wheel.
It begins when Jae Crowder misses a wide-open three. Westbrook catches a quick outlet pass from Alex Abrines and races towards a steel net of three Utah Jazz defenders. He taps the brakes and quickly sweeps the floor with his eyes, but the raging impatience that ignites every element that makes him so complex takes over. Momentarily idle on the right wing with Donovan Mitchell, a worthy albeit unexpected nemesis in his way, Westbrook throws what's left of his chiseled energy into fifth gear. Two dribbles later he finds himself airborne, drifting towards the opposite block with Derrick Favors and Steven Adams impeding a clean line to the rim.
Off-kilter and desperate, the ball sticks to Westbrook’s right palm as he falls back to Earth on the left side of the basket, crying a breathless “and-1” once he realizes the sequence won’t go according to plan. The shot lacks what muscle is required to lift it above the iron, and after Carmelo Anthony’s forceful put-back also disagrees with the rim, Oklahoma City's last gasp ends before it began.
The Thunder now face elimination sooner than anyone thought possible, going back to the day they gifted their franchise player with Paul George—one of basketball’s premier 1A two-way talents—so that last year’s first-round elimination would not repeat itself.
Westbrook is the core reason why. Outplayed by Mitchell and Ricky Rubio, and shooting 36 percent while averaging 16.1 fewer points than he did during last year's loss against the Houston Rockets, he remains inefficient and manic. Dominant in one moment and disengaged the next. To watch a leading man struggle so transparently defies the very nature of postseason stardom. Strategy is nothing more than a bystander in the face of overwhelming talent, which is ostensibly what Westbrook still has. But as someone posting numbers this far below his career postseason average, in a situation where he couldn't ask for much more help, Westbrook's status has never been less stable.
We haven’t learned anything new about him in this series—an ominous sign from a career that’s momentarily turned static—but right now Westbrook is a net negative in ways that go beyond how critics normally pick him apart. While defenders duck under screens and try to be as loose as possible guarding him in the pick-and-roll, the Thunder have been outscored by 45 points when Westbrook is on the court, a plus/minus that ranks 199th out of 201 players. His decisions have the grace of a cinder block, and he depends on the increasingly predictable diet of pull-up bricks and hopeless summit clashes against Rudy Gobert that go nowhere.
In four games, Oklahoma City's offense is averaging a team-low 93.5 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the court. In the 44 minutes he's sat on the bench, that number soars up to 128.2! Some of the disparity is due to unsustainable shot making by George (OKC's made exactly half of its threes sans Westbrook), but it's hard not to detect a bit more fluidity and purpose in their attack, too. The Thunder's pace is 10 possessions per 48 minutes faster when Westbrook is in the game, and according to Synergy Sports his turnover rate as a pick-and-roll ball-handler is higher than his field goal percentage.
Defense has always been problematic, too, but not quite like this. He's reckless, of course. But Westbrook is showing retreat for maybe the first time ever. It's disturbing. After a disappointing Game 3 loss in which he missed 12 shots and turned it over eight times, Westbrook told reporters he'd shut Rubio down. What follows are three plays that apparently illustrate what it means to shut Rubio down (not shown are several nonsensical fouls that didn't let Westbrook play with any physicality down the stretch):
These plays are depressing. Westbrook's relevance adds necessary spice to the NBA's general narrative, and not having him in character as a ruthless fire-breather is frustrating. Instead of analyzing rare physical awesomeness we're forced to ponder an unlit future.
I have a rule that’s tattered with various disclaimers, but it’s still (almost) solid: contract be damned, a player’s ranking can not exceed the draft pick another team would surrender for him in a trade. (For example: Draymond Green should not be considered a top-ten player unless another team is willing to give up a top-ten pick for him.)
Run Westbrook through this exercise and it gets very interesting. Do any teams choosing in the top ten of this year's draft give their pick up for him? Probably, but not without blinking hard several times. Going off trail for a second, the more interesting question is "would the Cleveland Cavaliers?" If the answer is yes, how do the Thunder turn down Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, and the Brooklyn Nets pick for Westbrook?
The reigning MVP can’t be dealt until September 28th, and there are obvious concerns about how he’d fit beside LeBron James (who may have already checked out). But Westbrook can still provide the occassional Grand-Slam swing Cleveland badly needs, and I, for one, would love to watch that tandem on a revenge tour.
Hypotheticals aren't reality, though. The Thunder are still breathing and Westbrook still has at least one more night to remind everyone all over again how valuable and special he is. But as the aging process widens his flaws—and $46.6 million heads into his bank account for the 2022-23 season alone—Westbrook's peak is visibly running out of time.
Barring a miracle, George is almost certainly gone. Carmelo Anthony is almost certainly not leaving. Oklahoma City isn't young, has no obvious savior in its pipeline, and won’t be able to clear significant cap space until the franchise player is 31. The bottom line: if Westbrook can’t make it work with George and Adams by his side, then what about him is even all that interesting in the role he currently fills?