It’s the picture Westbrook has taken before each season over the past eight years, the visual representation of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s present and future. Except this time, he was the only thing that seemed the same. Gone is Kevin Durant. Gone is Serge Ibaka. Westbrook is the only starter that remains from the Thunder team that went to the NBA Finals in 2012. Other than Nick Collison, he’s the only player from the inaugural team that relocated to Oklahoma City in 2008.
This was the Thunder’s ninth media day in Oklahoma City, but the first of a whole new unknown world — one without Durant. It wasn’t as awkward as some anticipated, and Durant’s name wasn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue in the building. There were a handful of questions, but the theme of the day was clearly set on the future, not the past. The photo shoots and interviews proceeded with ample amounts of energy, with positivity and optimism reverberating off everything.
At the heart of all that was Westbrook, who bounced around from station to station, shaking hands, photobombing everyone in sight, grinning ear-to-ear and cracking jokes with teammates and staff members.
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Last season, Westbrook made it an individual policy of sorts to turn down every one-on-one interview request. Even the most harmless requests were brushed off, like one to set up Russell Westbrook Night at UCLA, where he was having a practice court named after him. On Friday, Westbrook, whose curt and concise relationship with the media is well-documented, accepted every single request. Even one from a local radio host who relentlessly blasted Westbrook earlier in his career for not being a point guard. He didn’t balk at questions. He didn’t blow off reporters. He took everything completely head-on.
It was clear: Westbrook was setting a tone.
For the past eight years, Westbrook has relished the ability to share the responsibility of a franchise with Durant. Media days were where that was often most evident, with the affable and charming Durant taking the bulk of the requests, while Westbrook slunk back into the shadows, protected by the shield of his terse answers. Durant was the one everybody wanted. And Westbrook didn’t mind that one bit.
That baton has been passed to Westbrook, one that he has picked up and is running with full steam ahead. It started with him signing an extension in August — stabilizing the franchise going forward — and continued into media day, where he slapped a smile on his face and embraced the full burden of being the franchise flag bearer.
Westbrook is the unquestioned leader now. Every player on the roster is fully aware of that and seems quite comfortable with it.
“He was our leader last year too,” Enes Kanter said, the shade involved very apparent.
Westbrook’s leadership style is different from Durant’s, based a lot off of show and not tell, with the accountability of teammates coming from his unwavering competitive spirit and relentless work ethic. If you can’t keep up with Russ, then you don’t belong.
Ronnie Price, a former teammate of Kobe Bryant, compared the two in a favorable way. But it’s hard not to wonder if Westbrook unfettered will turn the Thunder into a monarchy in the way Bryant did in the post-Shaq era. There’s a fine line between inspiring and inhibiting. Will free agents be drawn to a Westbrook-led team? Will a young roster grow and develop under his guidance? So far, all signs point to yes, but then again, the Thunder haven’t played a game yet.
“Before I started working out with Russ, I think I kind of went into workouts just working out,” said Oladipo, who spent a couple of weeks exercising with Westbrook in Los Angeles this summer. “And after being with Russ for a few weeks, I realized that there’s a purpose for everything that he does. There’s a purpose for every drill. There’s a purpose for every move. And I’ve learned that those moves can translate to the game, if, and only if, you let them translate.
“After working with Russ,” Oladipo said, “I can see the intensity in how serious he was about his craft.”
Westbrook and the Thunder have spent the past three months licking their wounds. Mentally, the organization moved on rather quickly, pragmatically approaching next steps after Durant departed. That started with Westbrook asking the front office, “What’s next?” within hours of Durant’s announcement.
Emotionally, though, there have been challenges because of the investment in the Westbrook and Durant tandem. The roster was surgically crafted to fit their styles, to complement the way they complement each other. The strategic planning, set up to align with the primes of their core, was finally coming into view. Then Durant left, and a gutted franchise had to look for a path forward.
The Thunder’s rebuild was brief, a 30-day purgatory of unknowns until Westbrook re-upped. Most franchises that experience the kind of loss the Thunder did spend three or four years waiting for that kind of day. The Thunder waited a month. That carried over to media day, where there was a signal the organization is turning a page from those hard feelings. Durant wasn’t the theme of the day; the future was.
There aren’t delusions of grandeur inside the organization that the Thunder will pick up where they left off. There’s a clear and present understanding of their new situation. They have to restructure and retool, and while Westbrook said his expectation is to win this season, the prosperity of the past six years in OKC isn’t likely to continue. At least not immediately.
But they aren’t wiping the slate clean to start over. There’s no tanking for OKC. Because there’s no need. Aside from Westbrook, there’s already a roster full of under-25s, all with potential waiting to be realized.
The Thunder felt good on Friday. But they’re a month away from a competitive game. They don’t know what this team is going to look like. They don’t know who’s filling the two empty starting spots vacated by Durant and Ibaka. But they do know they have Russell Westbrook, fully committed and invested — and ready to take it all head-on.
And that’s a pretty good start.