Once upon a time, Russell Westbrook was a member of basketball’s most promising young Big Three, with whom he made his NBA Finals debut at the tender age of 23 in 2012.
Five years later, he averaged a triple double over 81 regular season games to become the first player in 55 years to achieve those lofty norms. He has also become the all-time leader in career triple doubles after eclipsing Oscar Robertson last year.
The nine-time NBA All-Star has had a special 14-year NBA career and the jaw-dropping statistics that he has put up make him a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. There were doubts about whether he could make an impact in the league when the Oklahoma City Thunder drafted him fourth overall in the 2008 NBA Draft, but his relentless work ethic and passion, coupled with his stubborn attitude, allowed him to grow into a one-time NBA Most Valuable Player.
Unfortunately, the downside of Westbrook’s personality – a double-edged sword of defiance and overconfidence – that helped him beat the odds to become a star have also accelerated the 33-year-old’s decline.
Last season with the Los Angeles Lakers marked Westbrook’s third consecutive season with a new team as he has struggled to build chemistry with his costars. Though he managed to average 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game, his atrocious field goal (44%), three-point (29.8%), and free throw (66.7%) shooting, coupled with his 3.8 turnover average, told the true story of his campaign.
Westbrook has struggled to cope with the reality of his dwindling athleticism, which he has been overly reliant on through the years. This has emphasized his spotty shooting and lack of refined offensive skill. He can still be an effective player in a diminished role as he remains an elite athlete vis-a-vis his peers, yet all indications are that he is reluctant to do so.
On the court, he has shown an aversion to moving off the ball and taking a more team-centric approach. This was hinted by the statements that emerged in the wake of his recent separation with his long-time agent Thad Foucher.
The Lakers have reportedly tried to shop him recently to no avail despite his theoretical attractiveness as an All-Star caliber player on a $47 million contract that will expire in the 2023 offseason.
The Indiana Pacers were supposedly unwilling to part with Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, two good but not great players, in exchange for Westbrook and a first round pick. It was said that the Pacers needed one more first rounder to sweeten the deal and actually intended on waiving Westbrook upon acquiring him, using him as a tool to merely clear cap space.
With the way things are going, the outlook for Westbrook and Los Angeles seems bleak. It will be difficult to extract anything of value from a rival team for the mercurial guard given how much of a hot topic his decline has been. If he does end up staying with the Lakers, the repercussions of these offseason discussions are sure to leave a bad taste that will hinder their growth as a team.
It will be a major challenge for this Los Angeles team to pull themselves together and return to the championship hunt. However, the one thing that should not be underestimated is LeBron James and his desire to win a fifth NBA title before he calls it a career. The 18-time NBA All-Star James is one of the few people with enough clout to command buy-in from Westbrook though he was rather unsuccessful in their first year together.
There is much uncertainty regarding this frustrating situation and it appears that the only thing that is guaranteed is that this will be an entertaining next few months for the Westbrook story. If he is unable to adapt and age gracefully, these also may be the last few days of his NBA career.