CNHI Sports Oklahoma is running a Thunder evaluation series, publishing one article a day on a different Oklahoma City player. We will start with the guards. Monday’s player is Russell Westbrook.
OKLAHOMA CITY — The Thunder’s lineup sheet looks the same as any other one — except for one small detail.
Teams hand in a list of their active roster to the official scorer shortly before each tip-off. It’s the same printed-out directory of players everyday, merely with 13 names circled on it to signify the guys who will be active that night. Every game, though, the Thunder’s sheet has one extra scribble.
Russell Westbrook’s name is circled twice.
Portland shooting guard C.J. McCollum was famously ruled inactive for a game a few years ago when the Trail Blazers forgot to circle him on their lineup sheet. There’s never been a similar issue in Oklahoma City. The team — and Thunder head of public relations, Matt Tumbleson, who has been drawing those circles for years — will make sure it never occurs.
The superstition started back in another era, when Tumbleson would honor a couple of greats with double-circles: Westbrook and Kevin Durant. During the 2016-17 season, only Westbrook received the double-circle. Paul George and Carmelo Anthony entered double-circle territory at the beginning of this past season, but Tumbleson went back to doing just Westbrook after the team’s 8-12 start. He figured becoming too indiscriminate with the double-circle was bad luck.
It’s become a light-hearted joke for a details-obsessed organization: the Thunder best make sure their finest can play. After all, this is Westbrook's team.
That’s exactly why the Thunder troped however Westbrook did this past year, a season that ended with 48 wins and a disappointing first-round out to Utah.
Westbrook got off to a slow start. So did the team. He turned it on in mid-December until the end of January, when he played his best ball of the season. So did the team. He cooled a bit more for the final two months of the year, going in and out of dominant ball and somewhat uncomfortable play. So did the team.
“He takes his job very serious, and he takes the responsibility of a point guard and a leader very serious,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “For him, he was always trying to find ways to make the group better, to balance himself in with the group, to communicate with those guys.”
Westbrook mightily struggled over the first four games of Oklahoma City’s first-round playoff series. The Thunder fell down three games to one. He picked up his performance for the final two games of the series. The Thunder came back from down 25 in Game 5 to stave off elimination for two days and then fought hard in the eliminator.
The Thunder go as Westbrook does. But is that a model for maximizing success?
Westbrook just averaged a triple-double for a second consecutive season, a remarkable accomplishment no matter where anyone falls on the stat-padding spectrum. Sure, he could have averaged two rebounds fewer. But putting up 25-10-8 for a season is still near unprecedented.
Westbrook’s singular importance and control inside an organization is unique, too. And it’s a style people will certainly wonder about going into a potentially franchise-transforming offseason.
If George, who can become a free agent July 1, decides to re-sign with the Thunder, what will he and Westbrook look like in a second year together? How will their chemistry evolve? Will it, at all? Should Westbrook relinquish some shots? Should he give up some facilitating? Should he move off the ball more? Should he defer on or off the court to others inside the team? Should he concentrate more on defense?
It’s a lot.
“One thing I can tell you about Westbrook is he's driven, OK?” general manager Sam Presti said. “He's going to keep coming. He's not going to kick his feet up and expect to come back next year and have things just all of a sudden be a little bit different.”
The Thunder could use a drive for a little bit of difference. Westbrook is an All-Star, a reigning MVP, a future Hall of Famer. But he’s not infallible.
The Thunder have faltered in two straight postseasons, losing to Houston in 2017 before dropping to the Jazz a couple of weeks ago. The Rockets had more talent. The Jazz used their talent better.
There’s little Westbrook or anyone else could have done about 2017’s loss. But 2018? That process could adjust. Westbrook enters year one of a five-year extension next season. This will always be his team. He will always be the one double-circled. The understated adjustments within that concept, however, can frame what kind of squad the Thunder become next year and in the seasons following.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.