NEW YORK — The last nominee to show up, Russell Westbrook turned the corner with his wife and rolled his eyes at the bank of waiting cameras and reporters.
With a simple white shirt, a gray tie, purple shades and jacket slung over his shoulder — Westbrook’s understated outfit was the biggest upset of the night — he glanced at the red carpet and shook his head. The man of the night skipped the cameras, the posing and the questions and headed inside.
Despite his style and flash on the floor, Westbrook isn’t one for crowds, or the spotlight. But he couldn’t completely escape it, as about two hours later he walked onstage at the first ever NBA Awards show at Basketball City to accept the trophy for most valuable player. Westbrook grinned, and, breaking the standard, he was actually a little long-winded.
He thanked God, he thanked Thunder owner Clay Bennett, general manager Sam Presti and coach Billy Donovan. He thanked the film guys, the trainers, the support staff. He called his teammates who were in attendance — Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson, Taj Gibson, Victor Oladipo and Nick Collison — onstage.
Westbrook thanked the fans, his agent, and finally, his family.
“Without you guys, I don’t know where I would be,” Westbrook said. “I can’t be standing here without your support, your sacrifice. Starting with my parents.”
He fought back tears and pulled off the shades.
“I told myself I wasn’t going to cry,” he said. Then more tears came when he talked about his wife, Nina.
It was an emotional moment for Westbrook, a true achievement for one of the great underdog stories ever, and the cherry on top and a proper coronation for one of the most remarkable seasons in NBA history.
It was a plan enacted and executed. It started last August, with Westbrook signing an extension in the wake of Kevin Durant‘s departure. He became the unofficial people’s champ, a player who went from polarizing to being cheered in road arenas across the league.
Before the season, Westbrook eyed the MVP. A plan was developed to aid his campaign — magazine cover stories, interviews. The kinds of things Westbrook had always resisted. That was part new role, taking on the sole front-facing franchise responsibility, but also to help build and keep momentum.
But for any of it to work, Westbrook had to make himself an actual candidate. He did that by making history, and capping it all off by a final two week flurry of MVP moment after MVP moment.
It was a goal to win, and while Westbrook’s focus of course remained on the Thunder winning games, as he closed in on the MVP, he wanted it. In year one without Kevin Durant, Westbrook produced something memorable, something that will stand the test of sport history. It was a season that transcended the game. It was a total eclipse, something probably seen only once in a lifetime. Westbrook didn’t erase the pain and heartbreak of Durant leaving, but he did somehow make it seem less important. Which was maybe his greatest achievement of them all.
But with all of that done, and the book finally closed on his 2016-17 season, hardware in hand, it’s the same two words Westbrook asked following the departure of his All-Star teammate: What’s next?
The irony for Westbrook is for the Thunder to get to where they want to go, he can’t ever have another season like this one.
For all the exhilarating one-man-banding and iconoclastic hero-balling — the things that won him his MVP — there’s ground to be gained. Westbrook needs to socialize the Thunder’s offense more. There has to be more diversity. There has to be less reliance on him, and a more distributed, balanced attack.
But this season was a process for Westbrook and the Thunder. It was born out of unexpected circumstances, and Westbrook spent the season adjusting, and learning.
Westbrook also suffocated his own roster at times. Some of the young players, Domantas Sabonis namely, didn’t progress throughout the season as anticipated. The Thunder are invested in their youth, both to develop internally to improve the team on the floor and also for potential external use, as in flipping them as assets in a blockbuster trade.
The Thunder have eyes on adding a second star to help Westbrook, whether that could be Westbrook’s former college roommate at UCLA, Kevin Love, or even a potential one-year rental of Paul George. Armed with sign-and-trade options, they will hope to schedule free-agency meetings with hometown guy Blake Griffin and/or Gordon Hayward, knowing they’re long shots.
Westbrook has never been an active recruiter in past offseasons — that was a role Durant took on for the Thunder — but is said to be excited about it this summer.
If the Thunder come up empty on best-laid plans, though, it will be on Westbrook, and the pieces around him, to takes steps forward.
Westbrook’s season and the development of the roster was a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg debate within the team this past season: Did his teammates stall because his domineering wasn’t allowing them to improve, or did he take over out of necessity because of a flawed roster?
The truth probably lies somewhere in between. Westbrook admitted throughout the season he needed to involve his teammates more, but also had a hard time letting go when games started to slip away. Westbrook has long fought the battle of trying to do too much versus finding trust in those around him. In that context, those within the team foresee a new and improved Westbrook coming next season.
“Russ is going to be so much better next year,” assistant general manager Troy Weaver said during the season. “He’s been good — well, been great — but he’s going to be so much more comfortable. This is the first year, he’s had to try this shoe on. Next year, he’s going to be so much more comfortable in these situations.
“What’s funny is he’s playing phenomenal this year, but I don’t know if the numbers or the season are going to be as good, but I expect him to take a pretty big jump next year.”
Thunder GM Sam Presti has always envisioned an intelligent, high-minded basketball team, one that functions on efficiency and tactics. That’s a hard thing to merge with a player like Westbrook, who, make no mistake, is as intelligent as they come, but also a swashbuckling basketball renegade who will go rogue on offense at the first glimpse of daylight.
But that’s a developmental focus for the Thunder and Westbrook going into next season: shot redistribution into higher-efficiency places. Westbrook can get any shot he wants at any time he wants. And he can usually get his teammates the same.
It’s not that the Thunder were lacking in talent — there’s quite a lot on the roster — but it’s up to Westbrook to engineer his own help. Rising tides lifts all offenses, if you will.
Westbrook just averaged a triple-double for the season, accomplishing one of the greatest basketball feats ever, and there’s plenty of room for him to get better.
Every season, Westbrook has improved, but this most recent one was an outlier. It was a season of survival, and Westbrook took on the challenge headstrong. He willed his team to 47 wins. He pushed himself as far as he could. He packed his 34 minutes a game with as much intensity and competitive spirit as he possibly could. He embodied seemingly every interpretation of the “V” in “most valuable player.”
But there’s more to give, and that might come from giving something up.
But before all of that “what’s next?” talk, there’s a far more pressing matter for Westbrook. The Thunder will offer him a brand-new, five-year extension — Westbrook is locked in for 2017-18 — when the clock strikes midnight on July 1, making him one of the highest-paid players in NBA history, should he take it. It would signal a complete commitment to the Thunder, with Westbrook shucking any thoughts of joining a super-team elsewhere to take on the Golden State Warriors juggernaut, as he embarks on a mission to slay the giant on his own terms.
Those close to Westbrook fully expect him to take the Thunder’s offer, quite possibly at 12:01 a.m., and stabilize the franchise and present a clear road map. Westbrook signed an extension last summer and invoked the word “loyalty” for a reason. He wanted to make a statement — a public declaration — and take on the burden of leading the franchise forward.
He likes the existing roster and has a close relationship and confidence in Presti and Weaver. He has built a strong bond with head coach Billy Donovan. He knew what he signed for and, with the Thunder coming off a successful first post-Durant season and with pieces in place to improve the team, there are a lot of reasons to commit again.
But what if Westbrook says no?
Should he reject the offer, the Thunder will be facing the same question as last summer: Do you risk letting your star walk for nothing in return? Or do the Thunder do the unthinkable and trade the reigning MVP?
This is something the Thunder are aware of but, according to sources, aren’t actively entertaining. That’s a bridge they’ll cross if and when they get there.
For now, they are celebrating their MVP and the historic season he had, and painting a pretty picture of their the future together.