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OKC Thunder: Why Russell Westbrook will miss Maurice Cheeks

The former Thunder assistant coach has left to be the head coach of the Pistons. But the bond he former with OKC's volatile point guard can't be dismissed.
by Jenni Carlson Published: June 11, 2013

Maurice Cheeks is the new coach of the Detroit Pistons, but folks in the Motor City aren't exactly rolling out the welcome wagon.

“Hiring Maurice Cheeks is Detroit Pistons' latest uninspired move,” one headline proclaimed.

“The resume is underwhelming,” one reporter wrote.

“Why not go after a winner for just once?” one fan mused.

To which folks in Oklahoma City say, “We'll take him back.”

Cheeks spent the past four years as an assistant with the Thunder. He's been Scott Brooks' closest confidant on the bench. He's been a valuable voice as the only assistant who had experience as a player and a head coach.

But as much as anything, he's been the guy who's had a finger on pulse of Russell Westbrook.

Since Cheeks emerged as the Pistons' top candidate, much has been made of his hand in the development of the Thunder's point guards. Westbrook. Reggie Jackson. Even Eric Maynor.

But frankly, we have no idea how much of a hand Cheeks really had in developing those players. The Thunder is secretive. No watching practice. No interviewing assistants.

In Westbrook's case, chances are good that Westbrook deserves most of the credit for how far he's come during his five seasons in the NBA. He is a competitive son of a gun, a self-starter who has a raging internal fire. He probably would've willed himself to get better regardless of who coached him.

But I can tell you that a couple times, I got to The Peake early enough to see Westbrook and Cheeks working out before games. They put in their time on the floor well before the doors opened to the public, but early bird media members could catch a glimpse.

Their connection was obvious.

They were serious much of the time as Cheeks helped Westbrook through shooting and dribbling drills, but there were moments when they laughed and joked and smiled, too.

Yes, Russ the Raging Bull would smile.

Cheeks would rib him about something, then Westbrook would gig him right back, often about his age. Westbrook would occasionally imitate Cheeks' old-man-with-bad-knees walk.

You could see that Westbrook felt comfortable with Cheeks.

That is no small thing.

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by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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