The 2019-20 NBA season was unpredictable and–for the Thunder–pleasantly surprising down to the very end. But Russell Westbrook saw it coming.
Game 7. After three stoppages in play gave the Thunder different looks at the Rockets defense as they tried to tie or win the game (and series) on a last-second inbounds play, Westbrook still predicted Billy Donovan’s final play call from memory. He demonstrably directed his Rockets teammates on which Thunder players and actions to guard, then turned his back to the inbounder (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) to disrupt the already cluttered first option (Danilo Gallinari) and deflect a pass to OKC’s last resort (Steven Adams).
Houston handed Oklahoma City a familiar finish: a first round postseason exit for the fourth consecutive year.
In late April of 2019, Westbrook was the face of the Thunder’s third straight disappointing ouster from the playoffs. Billy Donovan was expected back per Sam Presti’s public comments, as were Westbrook and his partner in underachievement, Paul George. Westbrook fielded the same questions fans and media had been asking for years: would he develop a jump shot, what went wrong, and what would be different about the season to come? The front office had a familiar summer, re-signing and lining up more minimum contract additions to the roster within stifling cap limitations.
But another summer of retooling suddenly became one of replenishing, as George broke the ice for OKC’s breakup of a contender. On July 6, 2019, George was traded at his request to the Clippers to leave one running-mate for another (Kawhi Leonard) in a blockbuster deal built around an obscene amount of draft picks and a single young prospect (Shai Gilgeous-Alexander). Two days later, Westbrook met with the Thunder to discuss the path forward. The group he now would either commit to leading in defiance–as he had in Kevin Durant’s wake–or bid adieu was lined up as follows:
Westbrook ★ Gilgeous-Alexander ★ Gallinari ★ Grant ★ Adams
Dennis Schröder ★ Nerlens Noel ★ Mike Muscala ★ Alec Burks ★ Terrance Ferguson ★ Darius Bazley ★ Lu Dort
Fork in the road
Russ could’ve stayed. The organization would have honored his wishes to fight uphill in stubborn, exciting fashion once more. Instead, a mutual agreement was reached to close the Westbrook era ahead of schedule. There was no clear path to a title in Oklahoma City, and the team steered the King of the Prairie, still hopeful to celebrate a championship, to greener pastures in the twilight of his prime.
Jerami Grant was soon dealt, and the Thunder and Rockets swapped Chris Paul and more picks with Westbrook in under a week’s time.
One name left off the hypothetical 2019-20 Thunder list above: Billy Donovan.
While neither Westbrook nor Paul George trashed Donovan on the record (or, that we know of, on a burner account a la Durant) when leaving their Thunder business decidedly unfinished, the coach’s name was notably absent from their statements thanking everyone else related to the team on their way out. We now have report of the unspoken unease between Westbrook and Donovan at the 2019 summer crossroads for the franchise.
Only Chris Paul looked at the same roster and coaching construction sans Westbrook and saw a team that would be good enough to challenge a duo as formidable as James Harden and Westbrook this postseason. Paul marched OKC to a 2019-20 campaign that could not have gone any better, up until that last second of Game 7. With age and an alarming injury history hanging around his neck, Paul masterfully led his team–and league–before and during a world-changing pandemic, on and off the court. Oklahoma City had zero significant health issues, did not deal away any of its established talent as expected, and enjoyed unexpected developmental leaps from two rookies (Dort, Bazley) and a sophomore (Gilgeous-Alexander).
It took all of that to push a contender in Houston–not at full strength, and with much more in-season roster turnover–to the brink. A thrown-together team turned out to be a perfect mix of veteran shooting and skill matched to Paul’s savvy and confidence. A perfect mix for Paul. Westbrook was a good teammate, but it’s hard to imagine Gilgeous-Alexander blooming quite so comfortably in the shadow of Russ instead of the tutelage of Chris. And Paul had something to prove in OKC that Westbrook did not.
Nothing left to prove
Could Russ carry a team? Obviously, yes. Could he co-exist with other superstars, Durant’s spurning notwithstanding? Turns out, duh. He hasn’t just been in the mix-and-match teammate carousel that has redefined the modern NBA, he’s served as a magnet for superstars to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, of all places.
He had already checked those boxes. The Thunder proved doubts wrong. But was OKC a title contender? No. Did the overachievement of the 2019-20 group change that? No. The Thunder gave their fans a fun, unforgettable ride, but they would were never a title threat, and would not have been one with Westbrook in Paul’s place.
After nearly dethroning the Warriors as Harden’s sidekick in the 2017 postseason, Paul’s inability to move the needle a year later had many–Harden included–doubting his value. Can he carry a team? We can now answer, yes. Can he co-exist with other superstars? If his contract weren’t so fat, he would be one of the hottest commodities for the “get me help” superstars around the league (and still might be).
This was the series fans of the Thunder, Westbrook, and Paul needed to cement all of those curiosities. What-ifs always linger after a close loss, but we have unambiguous closure on the Russ/Houston question: he joined a more viable contender, and the choice was truly beneficial to both his and OKC’s interests. Westbrook hoped for a better fate than his Rockets met in losing to the Lakers in Round 2, but you can still squint at Houston’s 2019-20 campaign and imagine improvements (including Westbrook’s health and play) to move them closer to a title.
“Nothing,” was Westbrook’s answer to how much a player owes a city when moving on. “You lay it all on the line for your teammates, staff, organization, the fans, and that’s it.”
The fans honored Westbrook’s importance to Oklahoma City while he played in Houston, but proved it could root for his replacement gleefully. Westbrook reciprocated the friendly dynamic. That was it, in a good way. The Thunder organization honored him as well. And despite enjoying success without him, nothing done by OKC over the last 14 months indicate that he should have believed in a rosier future when talking it over in the summer of 2019.
Voted as a co-winner of Coach of the Year by his peers, Donovan rehabilitated his reputation as a quality NBA head coach, but any doubts from Westbrook were not removed by his performance as an opponent. Westbrook’s defensive checkmate in the sequence above followed other failing moves by Donovan in the series. The -38.5 net rating for the Thunder’s most played lineup against Houston is the worst of any 5-man unit to see the court in the postseason for as long as the league has tracked the statistic. For comparison, Scott Brooks’ much maligned Thunder starting group–anchored by Kendrick Perkins–were a -18.5 NRTG in the Thunder’s 2012 Finals appearance.
Donovan kept his aces holstered, employing the United Nations of Thunder–the league’s best regular season lineup (+29.9)–in limited, regular-season like stints. The world-beating group played four minutes in Game 7, while the all-time worst unit saw 13 minutes of action. The latter group were outscored by 14 points in a two-point loss.
These were not easy choices. The team depended on those hole-digging starters because Lu Dort was the most effective matchup for Harden. Adams has been maligned like Perkins before him, the traditional big getting prioritized over Thunder small ball. But Adams was almost a factor in winning the series, helping divert and contest three of Westbrook’s drives in his 0-5 stretch over the final six minutes while OKC kept the outcome within reach.
Regardless of which of Donovan’s maneuvers did, didn’t, or should’ve worked in the playoffs, the magic dust he sprinkled on the overachieving Thunder in 2019-20 had not worked on the underachieving groups of seasons past.
On the fly, the Rockets retooled their roster mid-season to lean into Westbrook’s skills as a penetrating non-shooter, in a way that OKC hadn’t in three seasons following Durant’s departure. The aforementioned 2019 summer moves meant to complement Westbrook by the Thunder were legitimate, but they weren’t dramatic attempts to reinvent the wheel in pursuit of a championship. Micro ball wasn’t on the menu.
And so Russel Westbrook’s legacy as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder is complete. There are no more what-ifs, no more curiosities.
Russ got his wish. It was to beat a team like the Thunder in the playoffs, rather than to lose to them. To advance further in 2020 than he ever had without Durant. He will forge his new path ahead in pursuit of more postseason life. The Thunder will forge theirs knowing that the promise of the future was not bought by sacrificing that of the present.