OKLAHOMA CITY — Practice had been wrapped for about an hour, and Russell Westbrook was still on the floor. He was finished with his standard free-throw shooting contest with assistant coach Mo Cheeks, and he just sat on a basketball, talking with staffers.
The noise reverberated off the walls, with Westbrook jumping up to make an animated point, or yelling across the gym at a passing teammate. It’s a pretty common sight following Oklahoma City Thunder practices — Westbrook, last on the floor, holding court with whoever is still out willing to banter with him, waiting for everyone else to leave almost as if he’s in charge of locking up for the night.
“He has energy every day,” said Doug McDermott, who has been a teammate of Westbrook’s for less than two weeks. “I don’t even know what he’s taking.”
This was the morning after Westbrook scored a career-high 58 points against the Portland Trail Blazers, a game the Thunder dropped for a demoralizing fourth straight loss. A week earlier, Westbrook had impressively slammed the door on the Utah Jazz to pull the Thunder to within a 1.5 games of the No. 4 seed. He was on a march toward history, triple-double average in hand, and the MVP buzz reaching a crescendo. Now, they’ve slipped to 5.5 back, his assist average is near single-digits and his MVP candidacy has been called into question as Kawhi Leonard and James Harden rise.
All season, Westbrook’s influence on the Thunder has been undeniable. His awakening as maybe the league’s most dynamic star has captivated the league. Previous historical MVP criteria can be ignored because Westbrook is defying previously assumed statistical logic anyway. But in the next two weeks, with the Thunder desperate to find the right track again, Westbrook has an opportunity to make his closing argument, starting Thursday against Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs, and then on the road on March 26 against Harden and the Houston Rockets.
The MVP conversation around Westbrook has centered on his team’s record, with the Thunder hovering around the No. 7 seed, and on pace for around 45 wins. The Spurs sit second, on pace for 65 wins, and the Rockets third, on pace for 55. Westbrook has grappled all season long with the balance of doing too much while having to do everything, taking a suddenly flawed roster in the wake of Kevin Durant‘s departure and keeping it at playoff level. The Thunder weren’t designed to feature Westbrook as a lone wolf, and the current complementary pieces don’t entirely fit. The Rockets, by contrast, have had four offseasons to find a roster to support Harden. The Spurs have been perfecting and reinventing their system for 20 years. The Thunder have had one trade deadline.
Westbrook’s singular value to the Thunder can’t be understated. The Thunder survive, and sometimes thrive, solely on his back. This season with him on the court, the Thunder score 107.1 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would place them 11th overall. With him on the bench, they score 96.8, which would rank dead last, by a good three points. He matters on the defensive end, too, with OKC allowing 104.5 points per 100 with Westbrook on the floor, and 108.3 with him off. When Westbrook is playing, the Thunder outscore teams by 2.7 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, they get smoked by 11.5. They go from a competent playoff team to the worst team in the league, by a wide margin.
Contrast that to Harden (plus-6.6 points per 100 with him on, plus-4.8 with him off) and Leonard (plus-9.3 on, plus-8.2 off) and it’s obvious that in terms of individual value, there’s no comparison to what Westbrook means to the Thunder.
“This guy, singlehandedly, regardless of what’s happened to our team in terms of players going in or out, has given us opportunities every single night,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “And his leadership in terms of what he’s trying to do to inspire the team, lead the team, to do the things that go into winning, is remarkable.”
And in the cases of Harden and Leonard, while their teams are considerably better offensively with them on the floor, the Rockets and Spurs both take a steep dip on the defensive end when they play. (The Rockets are 4.3 points per 100 worse defensively with Harden, the Spurs 8.1 worse with Leonard.) No one is making a case Leonard, specifically, isn’t a great defender, but within the team concept, his individual excellence isn’t bearing out in the numbers.
But all of that good stuff won’t matter much unless the Thunder find a way to recover and finish their season strong. Westbrook’s body of work should speak for itself — the guy has 30 triple-doubles, mind you — but sagging in March as Harden and Leonard soar won’t make that closing argument. The Thunder need wins, and with head-to-head matchups ahead, two against Leonard and one against Harden, Westbrook has an opportunity to leave an impression.
Westbrook has carried the Thunder to the verge of a postseason berth in the first season post-Durant, compiling already one of the most remarkable seasons in league history. If he didn’t score another point or grab another rebound, he’d average 25.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists per game. His MVP case is unique and will take an unprecedented voting mindset, but then, Westbrook already is rewriting history.