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Westbrook Key to Oklahoma City Finding Its Winning Way

In order for the Oklahoma City Thunder to get back on track, Russell Westbrook needs to return to his MVP form.

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The first three weeks of the 2017-18 season haven’t gone exactly to plan for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

After general manager Sam Presti pulled a couple of heist-caliber moves for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this past offseason, the Thunder entered this season poised to stake their claim as the top challenger to the Golden State Warriors’ throne. Pairing George and Anthony alongside reigning MVP Russell Westbrook would surely lead Oklahoma City back to their days of true contention.

Not so fast.

Instead of early season dominance, the Thunder entered Friday night’s matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers at 4-7, in the midst of a four-game losing streak, the lowest of which coming at the hands of the Sacramento Kings.

Following a loss to the Kings — which preceded a loss to the Denver Nuggets — Westbrook voiced his lack of concern for the Thunder’s slow start, shouldering much of the blame himself.

“I’m not worried,” Westbrook said. “I love nights like this. It does nothing but bring you close, as a unit, as brothers. I’m encouraged by the group of guys we have in that room, and I will be better. Like I said before, I take ownership of how we’re playing, and I will be better. We will be better, so I’m not worried.”

If you take a look at the raw numbers for Oklahoma City’s new big three, prior to Friday night’s game and Paul George’s explosion, across the board everything seems to be fairly even between the three star players. Each player’s shot attempts per game are separated by a few tenths of a point. Westbrook and George had scored 214 points going into Friday night; Anthony had 229. By all accounts, each player looks more than willing to try and get their new star teammates the ball.

Unfortunately, that’s the problem for the Thunder.

In order for this basketball love triangle to work in Oklahoma City, Westbrook needs to go back to playing his MVP-caliber game and asserting himself as the clear alpha dog on this team.

Now, that’s not to say that he shouldn’t cater to the strengths of his new teammates. He absolutely should. But coming off one of the most historic seasons in NBA history, Westbrook looks like a shell of his dominant self this year, and it’s hurting the team.

Perhaps it’s just an adjustment period to playing with new guys. Or perhaps Westbrook wants to be more accommodating and welcoming to George and Anthony as they try to find their place on what is already established as Westbrook’s team. It’s even possible Westbrook doesn’t want his play-style to push away two more star players as it already had done with Kevin Durant. Whatever the case may be, it’s apparent that in the early returns of this season, it’s not working.

Yes, Westbrook and Durant weren’t alway a match made in heaven on the court. But they were their most dangerous when Russ was just being Russ. In Durant’s last run with the Thunder, a run that many conveniently forget was just one win away from reaching the Finals, Westbrook put up his jaw-dropping all-around numbers in the postseason playing alongside arguably the NBA’s second best player.

Throughout those 18 games, Westbrook averaged 26 points, 11 assists, 6.9 rebounds, and nearly 22 shots a night. Those numbers helped put pressure on the 73-win Golden State Warriors and pushed them all the way to the brink of elimination.

Thus far in 2017-18 season, Westbrook’s scoring numbers have taken a noticeable dip. Again, with the influx of new talent, that’s to be expected to a degree. However, it’s the main source of the Thunder’s losing problem. At just 19.7 points per game, Westbrook is on pace for his lowest scoring output since his sophomore season in the league. His 17.7 shots per night would also be his lowest figure since 2013-14 which was plagued by injury.

Oklahoma City is Westbrook’s town. The Thunder are Westbrook’s team. While we seem to be fully engulfed in the sharing-is-caring, superteam era of basketball, their still needs to be a pack leader. The Warriors are Steph Curry’s team. Yes, Durant is the better player and showed up as the Final’s MVP, but all things run through Curry. It’s his culture and his team. Same should go for Westbrook. Of course, let your all-star teammates shine in their moments, like George’s 42-point outburst Friday night, but maintain always that you’re the alpha dog.

It sounds archaic, and maybe a little too much like a macho man mentality, but it’s worked for Westbrook in the past, and that’s clearly his identity. He’s the homegrown superstar who didn’t fly the coup like Durant. He’s sticking around to do right by the team, and the city.

The best way to keep star players like George and Anthony from leaving too is by winning. Walking away from a contending situation is a hard thing to do. And unless something miraculous happens, those two won’t have the opportunity to go join a 73-win team like Durant did. Oklahoma City could be their best shot at a title. In order for that to become a reality, Westbrook needs to refind his MVP-form and assert himself as the guy for the Thunder.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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