Hard not to give Russell Westbrook an A in this category. But that would require an unblemished run and, if you’ll remember, it started bumpy. Westbrook was bad at the start of the Memphis series, a key reason OKC was on the brink of early elimination. But he changed his style in Game 6, adjusting to the defense, playing smart and dominant with a controlled energy. From there, he took off, finishing the playoffs averaging 26.3 points, 8.1 assists and 7.3 rebounds.
Maybe his most underrated skill. Westbrook changes the game in this area. Just listen to what Doc Rivers said during the Clippers series: “I don’t think I’ve ever come into a series where my biggest fear is point guard rebounding. I don’t think I’ve ever said that in my life. Yet in this series, the number one thing on the board as far as our team was Westbrook rebounding. He’s a freak of nature. He really is.”
Maintenance program: A
It was softly criticized at the time, as the Thunder remained super cautious with Westbrook down the stretch of the season, sitting him in important games even with seeding on the line. But once the playoffs started, Westbrook’s restrictions were lifted and the rest seemed to help. Unleashed on the Western Conference, he looked as absurdly athletic as ever. A few months ago, there was severe worry across the state about his long-term health. In a few short months, he put that to bed. Some of that credit needs to go to how OKC handled him.
With great ability comes great responsibility. Westbrook’s ceiling is so high on this end, his top-level effort so disruptive to opponents, that once you’ve seen it, it’s hard not to criticize him when it’s lacking. Coming out of college, he was known as a defensive stopper. And at times, including most of the Spurs series, he shows it. But for a guy who says the All-Defensive Team is one of his biggest goals, it’s something that must be more consistent.
He still has his immature bouts with the media, sniping at reasonable questions and shooting glaring, distasteful looks. He still whines a bit too much toward referees during frustrating games. But overall, Westbrook showed plenty of on-court maturity this past season. The injury troubles seemed to humble him a bit. He’s more receptive to suggestions from teammates, channels his energy in better ways, plays with more control more frequently. Still a pain to deal with after games, Westbrook has never been more a pain for opponents to deal with during games. And part of that is because, on the court, he seems to be growing up.