Russell Westbrook loves fashion.
He’s attended fashion weeks in New York and Paris for years. He’s a staple on @leaguefits and @upscalehype, Instagram accounts dedicated to professional basketball and celebrity outfits. He’s even designed collections for Barneys and True Religion, which led to the creation of his own line, Honor the Gift.
Honor the Gift recently released a t-shirt commemorating Westbrook’s time in Oklahoma City. The shirt, now sold-out, lists his Thunder accomplishments:
One team. 11 seasons. 821 games. 28,330 minutes. 18,559 points. 6,879 assists. 5,760 rebounds. 138 triple-doubles. Eight time All-Star. One MVP.
The bottom of the shirt expresses a final message: “0 Regrets.” This is how Westbrook does everything.
Off the court, his “Why Not?” attitude often appears in the form of clothing – like the time he wore a photographer’s vest, seemingly as a shot towards Kevin Durant, who covered Super Bowl 50 for The Players’ Tribune.
On the court, “0 Regrets” floods the entirety of his game – the dunks and ensuing screams, the missed pull-ups and reckless turnovers.
The book out on Westbrook has always been this: A star with which a team can’t win. This noise grew louder when Kevin Durant left OKC to join the 73-9 Warriors; it was deafening the following year, after Westbrook’s MVP season ended in a disappointing first-round playoff loss.
However, the book was close to writing a different story. After taking a 3-1 lead in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, the Thunder appeared poised to finish off Golden State and advance to their second NBA Finals in five years. Instead, they dropped the fifth game, Klay Thompson went nuclear in Game 6 and they lost Game 7 on the road.
What should have been the defeat of the greatest regular season team of all-time became a Russell Westbrook roast. Analysts from every corner blamed the Thunder collapse and Durant’s subsequent departure on the point guard. A star of Durant’s magnitude would never want to share the floor with a player like Westbrook, they all told us.
After Westbrook’s MVP year, the analysts were now saying any team with him on it was destined to fail. Which doesn’t seem fair – solo stars no longer win in today’s NBA. The way he played alongside Durant added to the way he played in 2016-17 was supposedly a deterrent to other stars joining him in the future. That is until Paul George, originally a one-year rental, decided to stay. After an up-and-down first year together, the two flourished this past regular season.
Then, this summer, George left. Kawhi Leonard’s recruitment allowed George to return to Los Angeles to immediately become a championship favorite with the Clippers. Sports shows and the internet alike filled once again with anti-Westbrook takes because another superstar had left him.
These takes are misguided. As good as the Thunder were in the regular season, twice they’d come up short in the playoffs. George is leaving not Westbrook himself, but a rutted situation. If you were working at a Fortune 500 company and offered a raise doing the same job at a Fortune 100 company, you would take it. That’s all George did – it’s not a referendum on Westbrook.
After George forced his way to LA, Westbrook’s exit was writing on the wall. Rumors of a pairing with Jimmy Butler in Miami swirled…then Daryl Morey struck. Westbrook was traded to Houston for Chris Paul and picks. Harden told Morey he wanted to play with his friend and former teammate, and Morey delivered – concerns of fit and Westbrook’s history be damned.
Now, Westbrook has another chance – and it’s likely this will be his last. To get Houston over the hump, he will need to fit into the Rockets’ offense and buck the narratives that have existed his entire career.
The questions of his fit next to Harden are legitimate. Harden is a sprawl ball disciple, only taking shots at the rim or behind the three-point line. Westbrook as a shooter is an analytical nightmare, as he was historically poor last year and did much of this literal damage from midrange.
Harden is Houston’s offense – it goes as he goes. Since 2016-17 (all stats per Cleaning the Glass), Houston has ranked in the top five in both points per 100 possessions and effective field goal percentage. Outside of a seventh-best finish in points per 100 in 2017-18, OKC has been in the bottom half in these categories all three years.
Westbrook’s three-point attempts need to take a nosedive. Westbrook takes many off-the-dribble, above-the-break threes and shoots few corner threes. He would benefit from flipping these tendencies so that the few he takes are higher quality looks.
Furthermore, since 2012-13, Houston has been second in the league twice and first five times in three-point shooting frequency. Yet they traded for someone with the lowest shooting percentage – based on the number of threes taken – in the history of the NBA.
Because despite his shooting, Westbrook is still a star that commands attention.
Much is made about Stephen Curry’s impact on a game. Whether he’s shooting or not, his mere existence stretches the floor. Curry has a gravitational effect.
Westbrook has the same effect, but in a different way. He continually puts pressure on the defense; besides his MVP year, he’s taken at least 37 percent of his shots at the rim every season. And we know he finds his teammates – Westbrook’s assist percentage, meaning the portion of his teammates’ made shots he assisted on, has been in the 100th percentile in the NBA four of the last five years.
His high usage numbers aren’t empty calories. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe has mentioned, he is just exhausting to play against.
Harden, who also boasts a high assist percentage, does not share Westbrook’s proclivity for aggression. Westbrook thus gives the Rockets an element they didn’t have with Paul – a ferocious rim-attacker who can legitimately take pressure off of Harden.
Instead of Harden and an un-explosive Chris Paul, Houston has the most explosive player in the last decade. Never mind the likelihood that both players get easier shots for each other – the gravity of Westbrook works in concert with the gravity of Harden and how they individually warp defenses. His skills complement Houston’s offense perfectly.
However, Westbrook still has work to do. He has to show he can successfully curb his play next to another star. He has to thrive in an environment that isn’t controlled by him.
As an aging point guard that relies extensively on athleticism and struggles shooting, this is probably Westbrook’s last go at a championship. His well-documented Supermax runs through 2023, and it’s hard to imagine a 34-year-old Westbrook getting another contract; even betting on one-year deals when the current one expires would be unwise.
Westbrook has always been the alpha. He might not have been a better player than Durant. He wasn’t better than Paul George last year. Still, he’s nonetheless been the alpha because he’s the one who refuses to bend. Westbrook deferred to KD and PG in spurts, but he never changed how he played. He’s always been delightfully reckless and unrelenting, equally maddening as he is exciting.
But if Westbrook wants to win in Houston, he has to adjust. He needs to bend to Harden and Houston as a whole. Westbrook has to let Harden be the clear alpha and play off of him rather than in spite of him. Harden’s isolation-heavy game is all the more dangerous if Westbrook is waiting, hellbent on getting to the rim when the opportunity arises. And with defenses locked in on Harden, opportunities will come in spades.
Westbrook will have to make full-scale amendments to his game. These adjustments won’t be easy. Westbrook did take a noticeable step back to accommodate George last year; but George is a slithery, secondary playmaker who is comfortable working off the ball. Westbrook could cede possessions to George while still singularly regulating the game.
Harden is a different animal. The first few months will be bumpy as the two navigate these new realities.
Despite the difficulties, these modifications to Westbrook’s game are necessary. Houston will flop if he doesn’t scale back – the stuff people have always said about him may turn out to be true.
Except that’s the thing about Westbrook: He may not even care.
“0 Regrets,” right?
But if this experiment fails – and does so because of him – you would think he’ll live to regret it.
No matter what a t-shirt says.
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