For a while now, it’s been about control. That is what Russell Westbrook was left with, when Kevin Durant dipped on him in the summer of 2016, and he ran with it. This had always been his inclination. Even when he was competing for titles with Durant, who’s simply a better player, Russ would sometimes treat him like Thabo Sefolosha, barreling into the lane while K.D. stood at the three-point line with his hands on his hips. Durant was the superstar, but Russ was the alpha, and that worked up to a point. The two of them seemed to get along really well as friends, but there were crossed wires at the end of certain games, some quiet fuming in the locker room afterwards. Eventually Durant gave up on Russ.
Serge Ibaka, Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Jerami Grant—these guys were never going to step to Westbrook, or so much as hint that he should play any differently. It doesn’t appear that Paul George did either, even as he slipped out the side door much like Durant did. Russ had his way, completely, for three seasons. He famously averaged a triple-double in each of them, in part because the Thunder big men were instructed to box out instead of grabbing rebounds, and crashed out of the playoffs in the first round. His intensity can carry a squad through 82 games, but it is by itself insufficient when everybody else is trying hard too. There’s something in Russ that believes if he just plays angry enough he’ll shoot like Steph Curry for two months straight, against the best teams in the league. That hypothesis remains unproven.
Houston will be good for him, by dint of not being Oklahoma City. Every franchise coddles its stars but the Thunder keep their own swaddled in an extra layer of bubblewrap, and being in any one place for 11 years can be stultifying. It might only be a bracing dose of placebo but new surroundings might reset Westbrook’s brain. You are still you, wherever you go, but sometimes a life change forces you to reconsider a few things.
Who knows how much introspection Russ is capable of. His whole approach—run around like a maniac (fun!), force the drive (great!), force the pull-up (less great), hunt for steals but generally don’t guard anybody (disastrous)—has its limits, and while everyone else knows that, doubts remain about whether or not he does. He’s obstinate to the point of absurdity, and until now, that obstinance hasn’t been a huge problem because, whatever, he wasn’t gunning for titles with the post-Durant Thunder and every once in a while he would make a few terribly ill-advised jumpers in a big game, scream at the rafters, and that was entertaining enough. It was the basketball equivalent of a Vegas stage show, when a slightly rundown popstar slips into lucrative semi-retirement. They are not really at the top of their game, but they are there to remind you of some essential quality within them that’s special.
Last week, I wrote about Jimmy Butler choosing autonomy over championship contention. Russ has done the opposite. While he didn’t get to pick his exact destination, it’s pretty clear the Thunder made an effort to move him to a good team, and in Houston, he’ll encounter actual stakes for the first time in several seasons. His old friend James Harden will serve as his new Durant, the player to which he should defer but maybe won’t. If the two of them can figure out how to run a backcourt together, the league is as wide open as it has been in a half-decade. There’s no reason the Rockets can’t move into the space the banged up and depleted Warriors have vacated. There is an impetus, in other words, for Russ to sand some of the more indulgent edges off his game, to actually try to fit into a team rather than forcing whomever he shares the floor with to service his whims.
It’s exceedingly rare for stars to alter their perspectives as they age into their 30s. They make concessions due to their declining athleticism—accepting slightly fewer minutes or less taxing defensive assignments—but they generally don’t stop thinking that they can score whenever they need to, that their best is still better than anybody else’s. Of course, Russ has never been able to score at will, and he’s never been a top-five player. He doesn’t appear to know that. It’s doubtful that anybody close to him has ever told him as much, and if they did, you could imagine Russ cutting them out of his life Ted Williams style.
But if anything will shake him from his trance, it’s this opportunity—what’s probably a two- or three-year window to take a talented if patchwork Houston squad to the mountaintop. He won’t be doing it by himself, and he knows that, but what he needs to understand more than anything is that it’s going to require some letting go, some standing around in the shadows, allowing moments to pass rather than seizing every single one. While this would be a minor thing for 99 percent of the league’s players, for Russ it’s a full-blown conundrum. The options are simple: he either rages against the minor humbling he’s been due his entire career, or he makes a few changes to his approach and we see how far the Rockets can go with everybody on the same page. Simple and easy, of course, are not the same thing.