SITTING IN THE again nook of the guests locker room in New Orleans after an in depth win on Nov. 11 — someday earlier than his 31st birthday — Russell Westbrook provides a nod of approval.
It’s possible you’ll strategy.
The Houston Rockets have simply crushed the Pelicans 122-116, with Westbrook scoring 26 factors, plus all the opposite usuals within the field rating — 4 assists, 5 rebounds, 4 steals. He had gone 11-of-21 from the sector and 1-of-Eight from Three. He had galvanized the Rockets within the second half, with back-to-back driving layups to complete the third and a battering-ram dunk to open the fourth. However down the stretch, it had been James Harden’s recreation to win — and he did simply that, scoring 19 of his 39 factors within the decisive fourth quarter.
It’s 10 video games into the Westbrook-Harden experiment, and the outcomes so far have been combined. That lone Three-pointer towards the Pels was solely Westbrook’s ninth of the season — on 41 makes an attempt — and he has continued to seek for a rhythm after offseason surgical procedures on his left hand and proper knee and a restricted coaching camp.
The media clear the locker room after Harden talks, unwilling to attend out Westbrook, who’s in no hurry to depart as he watches the ultimate minutes of the San Francisco 49ers-Seattle Seahawks recreation on Monday Night time Soccer. Westbrook emerges and begins the method of assembling his postgame outfit — a black trench coat with lime inexperienced lining over a T-shirt.
Westbrook is in an excellent temper. A fantastic win, a strong efficiency and a few momentum. He’s up for a few questions. After a short negotiation, he agrees to a few.
He’s 30 years previous now, and one other birthday is mere hours away. He’s requested: When the velocity burst lags, step one is not as electrical and the bounce is not as spring-loaded, what sort of participant will Russell Westbrook be? How does he plan to evolve?
Westbrook prides himself on taking part in the identical means each evening, typically boasting that nobody within the league can do what he does on the degree he does it. He has gotten up to now, a transcendent report breaker, by doing it his means.
He has been requested about this earlier than, and it aggravated him then. He’ll entertain it now, however he gives a well mannered warning.
“You already know what I will say.”
FOR YEARS, HE had flat-out ignored The Query, staring off into the void like a flight attendant was giving him security directions. When he did, Westbrook’s response — or lack thereof — might be considered two methods: as a ferocious dedication to stay rooted within the current or a denial to just accept there may finally be a necessity to vary.
He’s a freak athlete, a prime 1 percenter in NBA historical past in that regard, however his software set has traditionally had its limitations. He’s not a gifted shooter and even an above-average one. He needed to educate himself courtroom imaginative and prescient. He is not a shepherd of offense. He has at all times claimed to be some extent guard, however that was extra of a defiant center finger to his critics than an precise characterization of how he performed.
In so some ways, Russell Westbrook is just not a participant designed to age gracefully. It is one of many loudest whispered questions within the NBA.
His recreation has lengthy been debated and dissected, with many takes touchdown on some variant of him needing to vary, but precise incremental developments have at all times been misplaced within the dialog.
He has adjusted, he has mentioned — advanced — however won’t ever outright change. He has mentioned so himself.
Father Time, although, calls for it. And each star, prefer it or not, finally has to face it.
IF THERE WAS ever an NBA celebrity outlined by absurd athleticism, it was Vince Carter. Twenty years in the past, he single-handedly reinvigorated the NBA Slam Dunk Contest; a number of months later, he actually jumped over 7-foot-2 Frederic Weis in the course of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
If there may be one NBA celebrity who personifies the artwork of getting old gracefully, that participant can be Vince Carter. And if there may be historic precedent for the reply to The Query that Westbrook has for years been avoiding, he may do worse than to have a look at the longer term Corridor of Famer.
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Carter spent his first 11 seasons averaging 23.5 factors on 19.2 pictures per recreation, with a mean utilization fee of 29.7%. From his age-33 season to now, his most up-to-date 11 seasons, he has radically reinvented himself. Whereas his utilization dropped to 20.6% and his pictures per recreation fell to eight.5, his efficient subject objective share has risen from 48.6% to 49.6%, and his Three-point try fee — the proportion of his pictures which are 3s — additionally has risen, from 31.four% to 46.four%.
He has spent the previous six seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks taking over mentorship roles whereas nonetheless spacing the ground as a situational sharpshooter. Throughout all this, Carter mentioned there was no revelation — no second through which he realized he was not his former self on the courtroom.
“It simply occurred,” Carter mentioned. “It is simply a type of issues. I imply, I nonetheless have it. It is nearly being good about it now. All people’s like, ‘Oh, I need to see this!’ However I do not care what they need to see.
“I had an even bigger objective in thoughts: I used to be making an attempt to play this recreation so long as potential.”
Carter mentioned he had made peace with that years in the past, in favor of evolving his recreation and, most significantly, extending his profession. He has seen others come and go, many unable to just accept the biology that governs their our bodies.
“Adjusting is just not a simple factor to do,” he mentioned. “Altering your recreation is just not a simple factor to do. It takes numerous persistence, it takes numerous finding out and it takes numerous really altering of your recreation and the willingness to take action. Some guys aren’t prepared to do this.”
Take into account Allen Iverson.
For Iverson, the ending was abrupt — unceremonious and seemingly with out warning. There was no Dwyane Wade-esque farewell tour. No 60-point burnout like Kobe Bryant. Iverson’s last recreation was in February 2010; he scored 13 factors for the Philadelphia 76ers in a 32-point loss.
He had rejoined the Sixers after a disastrous three-game stint with the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have been making an attempt to groom a younger level guard named Mike Conley and have been hoping Iverson would slot right into a bench position as a mentor.
“I am not a bench participant. I am not a sixth man,” Iverson had mentioned on the finish of his time in Memphis. “Take a look at my résumé, and that’ll present I am not a sixth man. I do not assume it has something to do with me being egocentric. It is simply who I’m. I do not need to change what gave me all of the success that I’ve had since I have been on this league. I am not a sixth man. And that is that.”
Like Westbrook, Iverson was a polarizing participant. Some considered Iverson as a ball hog; others admired him as an all-time scorer. Iverson himself has mentioned he sees similarities between him and Westbrook. The unyielding aggressive spirit. The uncompromising will to win. The on-court disregard for their very own our bodies.
“The combat within the man. I am the most important Westbrook fan, I feel, there may be,” Iverson mentioned in 2015. “You understand what I imply? As a result of he jogs my memory a lot of myself so far as his coronary heart and laying it on the road evening in and evening out. Only a man that is going to deliver it each single evening.”
In the course of the 2007-08 season, a 32-year-old Iverson averaged 26.four factors for the 50-win Denver Nuggets. They have been swept within the first spherical by the Los Angeles Lakers. He was traded to the Detroit Pistons the next season, then he signed with Memphis. The Reply had refused to deal with The Query.
He was out of the league on the age of 34.
AFTER EVERY THUNDER shootaround final season, gamers would assemble for his or her favourite capturing recreation: make 5 straight 3s to advance to the following of 5 spots across the perimeter. Miss and so they must begin over at their earlier location.
Within the last spherical, gamers must make one at every spot with out lacking, all whereas each teammate used their finest distraction techniques.
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Westbrook did not win the sport typically — Paul George grew to become robust to beat throughout his two seasons with Oklahoma Metropolis — however late final season, Westbrook obtained on a roll and made his technique to the left nook, needing yet one more to win. He drained it, galloped off the courtroom to the burden room and yelled.
“I am the very best shooter on the earth!”
The Rockets, after all, weren’t anticipating the very best shooter on the earth, however they hoped to see at the very least an sufficient, improved one after they traded for Westbrook this offseason. With the added house of Mike D’Antoni’s system and extra alternatives to catch-and-shoot, Westbrook, they thought, may see extra open appears and hit them at the next fee.
The Thunder have been at all times optimistic there was a greater shooter someplace within Westbrook. As a substitute, this season he’s hitting 23.5% from Three, one of many worst marks in league historical past for the amount he takes (four.Eight per recreation).
“The opposite factor about Russell that I feel is so promising about his future is that gamers that play within the backcourt like that, have that form of success, as soon as they hit 30, their capturing numbers turn out to be significantly better,” Thunder common supervisor Sam Presti mentioned earlier than final season. “That is how they turn out to be extra environment friendly gamers.”
Loads of level guards have achieved so. And none extra so than Jason Kidd.
Kidd was mocked as “Ason Kidd” (no J) early in his profession, as a result of lack of a soar shot. He completed 10th on the NBA’s all-time listing with 1,988 Three-pointers — 1,263 of these coming after the age of 31. (Carter, for his half, is sixth with 2,259.)
“All people mentioned I could not shoot,” Kidd mentioned in 2017. “However you set to work on it.”
Now in Houston, Westbrook’s focus ostensibly facilities on effectivity — fewer pull-up jumpers, fewer isos, extra catch-and-shoot makes an attempt, extra downhill drives. Extra discretion; much less whim. Unusually sufficient, by most any metric, he has solely regressed.
Can Russell Westbrook discover methods to evolve his recreation in his 30s? Rocky Widner/NBAE by way of Getty Photographs
Westbrook’s reward has at all times been in transition, however he’s doing much less open-court weaving and never changing in addition to previous seasons. He’s scoring Three.7 transition factors per recreation with a 47% efficient subject objective share, 60th out of 62 gamers with 50 or extra such makes an attempt this season.
In line with Second Spectrum knowledge, Westbrook has taken four,512 jumpers over the previous 5 seasons, fifth most within the NBA over that span. Among the many 72 gamers to try at the very least 2,000 jumpers in that point, Westbrook ranks 69th in subject objective share. On jumpers this season, he’s hitting 31.5%, third worst within the NBA.
Over the previous month, Westbrook has been higher. He’s discovering a greater rhythm, making extra pictures and attacking within the vacuum created by defenses shading towards Harden. Over his previous 15 video games, he has seemed just like the All-NBA participant he has been the previous decade: 27.Eight factors on 46.four% capturing. Rockets staffers say that Westbrook’s shot choice is enhancing.
Even so, the Rockets are on the hook for the ultimate 4 years of Westbrook’s $206 million deal — he has a participant possibility for his age-34 season that might pay him $47 million — however identical to in previous seasons, Houston, at 25-11, is locked in win-now mode. Nonetheless, the Rockets say they don’t seem to be panicking.
“We’re very excited as a result of we’re successful video games at a excessive fee and are on an excellent enchancment curve,” Rockets common supervisor Daryl Morey mentioned. “Mike [D’Antoni] and Russ are determining the easiest way to assault different groups. After they double James, Russ has been punishing them. We have adjusted to doubles and been in a position to punish them extra.
“I see it getting higher each recreation with Russ. I solely see upside.”
THE ANSWER TO The Query of Russ was arguably given a decade in the past. It has existed within the type of a spotlight that may be probably the most spectacular play in Westbrook’s profession. As a result of solely he has the moxie to have even tried it.
It was Sport 2 of the primary spherical of the 2010 playoffs, in Westbrook’s second season. The upstart Thunder have been shock winners of 50 video games and a frisky No. Eight seed, taking over the top-seeded Lakers, who would go on to win the title. With 5:57 remaining within the third quarter, the Thunder have been hanging shut on the street, down by six. Jeff Inexperienced set a display on the best wing for Westbrook, who noticed a path — and seized it. Two onerous dribbles, plant, elevate, detonate.
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He missed the dunk.
Or extra precisely, it was a dunk he missed as a result of he was fouled. Or much more precisely, it was a dunk he missed as a result of he was fouled when he tried to stuff a one-handed tomahawk over 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol by taking off only a step contained in the free throw line. In a playoff recreation — Westbrook’s second ever. The audacity.
The Staples Heart crowd let loose an instinctive “Ohhh!” sometimes reserved for their very own gamers. Play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan began cackling.
“That is younger legs proper right here!” mentioned announcer Doug Collins, watching the replay.
Westbrook produces moments greater than nearly some other participant. They occur at random. Watching him is like watching a hockey recreation: Do not depart the room otherwise you’ll miss The Second. Even a missed dunk will be one.
Extra to the purpose, the best missed dunk of Westbrook’s profession provided a touch of all that was to come back: Westbrook won’t ever change, as a result of stubbornness and self-belief are the defining traits of his play.
As Westbrook returns to Oklahoma Metropolis on Thursday for the primary time as an opponent, he’ll be showered with adoration and appreciation of the moments that made him the franchise’s most beloved participant. He’s going to get the complete tribute remedy — one thing by no means achieved earlier than for a returning Thunder participant — and the evening will probably be about celebrating Westbrook’s affect on the franchise and metropolis at massive.
However the harsh actuality is that the participant who’s returning appears rather less just like the Russell Westbrook they bear in mind.
The Thunder have been at all times aware of defending Westbrook from his best risk: himself. They monitored his minutes, by no means taking part in him greater than 37 a recreation. They saved an eye fixed on his consecutive minutes performed in video games, making an attempt to steer clear of taking part in him full quarters. He did not follow a lot.
With an analogous plan in place, the Rockets are optimistic about maximizing and lengthening Westbrook’s prime. They’re doing what the Thunder by no means obtained Westbrook on board to do: resting one recreation in each back-to-back as a precaution. They’re protecting his minutes down, and with Harden as his backcourt accomplice, Westbrook will be extra selective on when to faucet into his items.
The numbers counsel Westbrook’s prime years are dissolving shortly. Since successful the MVP in 2016-17 with an actual plus-minus of 6.27 (ninth), he posted an RPM of 5.16 (10th) in 2017-18, 2.51 (42nd) final season and zero.98 to this point this season, which ranks 119th within the NBA.
Nonetheless, a participant regressing because the bell curve of age tolls is not shocking. It’s a matter of how a lot, in addition to what, the participant will do to account for it.
“Gamers which are at his degree, after we speak about like regression or something like that, like we’re speaking about going from being the MVP of a league or an All-NBA participant and regressing as he will get older to small percentages from that,” Presti mentioned. “So now you are speaking about being an All-Star-level participant. So we’re beginning at such a excessive bar that finally when he is 35 years previous, like he is most likely not going to play the way in which he did when he was 30.”
Westbrook has had 5 knee surgical procedures, together with three previously three years. He handled a hand harm final season that brought about his complete proper hand to go numb for 20 minutes at a time if it obtained hit.
However on the similar time, he has performed in additional than 90% of his staff’s video games over the previous 5 seasons. His work ethic borders on legendary.
If there’s a participant who can defy frequent sense, it’s Russell Westbrook. He has solely been doing it his complete profession.
PACKING UP HIS private objects earlier than he heads to the bus, Westbrook shifts in his chair and listens to The Query. It is a formality, however he has to listen to it earlier than he can reply.
“I obtained this query requested to me, like, three years in the past,” he says with a short snigger. “Once I was doing the triple-double factor and folks saved asking me, ‘Are you able to preserve this? Are you able to preserve it?’
“And I obtained a easy reply to that: Why not?”
Westbrook’s motto can really feel clichéd every time he invokes it. It’s actually a part of his model. It’s on bracelets. It’s on his footwear. As he delivers these remarks, it’s actually emblazoned on the shirt he’s carrying. It is usually very actual to him.
“I do not know what I will do or what I am unable to do; it is simply I am going out and do what I have to do, put together myself mentally and bodily, after which after that I simply see what occurs,” he says. “I do not take into consideration if I am going to have the ability to do it at 34 or at 35. I do not know.
“However I do know if I put within the work and effort and time to ensure I am profitable, then I do know good issues will occur.”
Lately, Westbrook is a bit more prepared to consider his future. He’s extra reflective, extra appreciative of the years he already has spent within the NBA and what he has achieved in them.
And so when he’s requested The Query — does he take into consideration the form of participant he’ll turn out to be? — Westbrook gives the closest factor to reply that he has given in a decade.
“No,” he says along with his trademark smirk of defiance. “Truthfully, I simply exit and determine the easiest way to be impactful for a protracted time period. For me, I do know quite a bit folks see my athleticism as an enormous a part of my recreation, however like I’ve achieved and I have been doing, there are different issues I can do within the recreation that I am good at that I proceed to do and affect the sport.
“So long as I can have the ability to do this, I can affect the sport at a excessive degree each evening, then that is all I care about.”