Commentary

Westbrook can finally be Westbrook, and he has Durant to thank for it

Updated: March 20, 2017, 12:46 PM ET
By Royce Young

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A day after he officially inked a new extension with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a shirtless Russell Westbrook, driving through Los Angeles with his window half down and a big smile across his face, was jamming to a Lil Uzi Vert song.

Now I do what I want.
N
ow I do what I want.
Now I do what I want.
N
ow I do what I want.

A month earlier, Kevin Durant had left Oklahoma City to sign with the Golden State Warriors. With chatter circulating that the Thunder would trade Westbrook if he didn't commit to an extension, Westbrook re-signed and, in effect, took the keys to the organization and instantly became the new, solitary face of the franchise.

The summertime Instagram post wasn't coincidental. Westbrook was about to get to do what he wants.

Kevin Durant, Russell WestbrookLarry W. Smith/EPA

For the #LetWestbrookBeWestbrook movement, the time had officially come. Westbrook was headed for a season of impunity, liberated to play in complete freedom. No more questioning who took more shots, or if he was holding his superstar teammate back. What made the season ahead so enticing was there was no way to really know what that was going to look like. If Westbrook had spent the previous eight seasons supposedly holding back, what in the heck was he going to do now?

The answer: everything, apparently.

Westbrook has persisted as one of the most polarizing stars the league has ever seen, with critics focusing on his flaws rather than his lengthy list of strengths. Much of it stemmed from his on-court relationship with Durant, often an awkward push-and-pull of two seemingly symbiotic stars. They wanted the same things; they just sometimes had a hard time figuring out how to get there.

The finger mostly pointed in Westbrook's direction, the perception being that his outsized personality and eternal confidence got in the way of Durant realizing his true potential. Every crunch-time shot Westbrook took was dissected and analyzed. Despite Durant winning four scoring titles with Westbrook as his point guard, there was a feeling there was more to Durant's game, and Westbrook was holding it back.

But now, on March 20, Westbrook has a 97 percent chance to be the first player to average a triple-double since 1961-62. He leads a Durant-less Thunder team that has a shot at home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs. And it seems reasonable to wonder: Maybe it was always the other way around.

It is something Rachel Nichols articulated a month ago, the idea Durant actually left right on time to enable Westbrook to discover his true potential, and the "personal legacy" he's constructing in his prime. (Quick: Without Googling, who won the NBA title in 1962? Maybe you know, maybe you don't. But you do know that Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double that year.)

Russell WestbrookNathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Case in point: Crunch time in OKC was about Durant, and finding a way to get the ball to him in his spots, mostly in isolation, and let one of the greatest shot-makers ever make a shot. Westbrook was often reduced to nothing more than a game manager, on the floor to bring the ball up, initiate a set and then get out of the way.

This season, Westbrook has been one of the best crunch-time players in the league. It begs the question: With Durant's abandonment as the backdrop, has Westbrook significantly improved, or does he just have an opportunity to showcase what he's had all along?

"Hmm, I don't know. I guess it's, uh, I don't know if he's gotten better," Thunder center Steven Adams said after thinking for a few seconds and scratching his glorious mustache. "I feel like the skill has always been there, but I feel like it's just come out. He's just embraced the role. All the things like, say, the fourth-quarter situations and things like that.

"The things he does there, it's just crazy. He just loves those situations, and he works hard for it. He lives for those moments, so I guess that's the only difference I do see. Other than that, man, he just does the same stuff."

"What I've seen in practice and stuff, you see it. You see it," Adams continued. "Then in games, I'm just seeing it happen now, because I've seen it before, him do all that sort of stuff, but it's just coming out now in games. It's like he's unleashing himself. Which is awesome."

Thunder general manager Sam Presti put it this way a few weeks ago: "I think he's improving. I think he's becoming a better player. Obviously when you get to a certain level, a level that he's at, I think circumstances can sometimes be the stimulator to improvement. You know, he's in a different role. He's a different player, but I think he's becoming a better player because the circumstances around him have changed, and that's what greatness is, in my opinion, is he's evolving."

Sam Presti, Russell WestbrookLayne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Westbrook is at the peak of his individual powers, finding gears that no one knew existed. He's playing with the same trademark ferocity and relentless competitive spirit, but he has more of the game to himself to use. At this rate, he's going to set a new all-time high in usage rate. Westbrook is no longer a deferential star, the proverbial second banana. His time with Durant never had complete harmony, though it still produced some beautiful music. As a solo act, he has found his voice.

"With previous teams, he was going to play his role and [do] what he needed to do to help the team win," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "A lot of times, closing out games, he wasn't a guy that tried to close out games. This year he's doing more of it. It wasn't that he couldn't do it, but he's getting an opportunity to now. I think there's been more of an opportunity to see the many different ways he can impact the game."

The book on Westbrook used to be he was a selfish ball-hogger who wanted the glory for himself. It took Durant leaving to show that perhaps it was always the opposite. Westbrook had something more to give, but mostly ceded to Durant, whether in crunch time or face time.

This historic season from Westbrook hasn't come out of rage or revenge. It has come out of necessity, and opportunity. He does what he wants, because now there's no reason not to.

Royce Young

ESPN Staff Writer

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