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Russell Westbrook’s fresh start with Rockets could determine his legacy after falling short of NBA title with Thunder

Houston Rockets guard Russell Westbrook is a future Hall of Famer. There’s no doubt about that. The tenacity with which he plays the game, and his statistical accomplishments can never be taken from him. However, his legacy, and the way that he will ultimately be remembered in the annals of basketball history is not as concrete, but how things go for him in Houston will go a long way toward determining it.

Westbrook has been in the league for over a decade, and he has developed into one of the most polarizing players in the league, possibly ever, as has won virtually everything — MVP awards, scoring titles, All-Star game MVP’s — except a championship, despite the fact that he has played with a plethora of extremely talented players over the course of his 11 seasons in the NBA.

Early on in his career in Oklahoma City, Westbrook played with Kevin Durant and James Harden, and though they made it to the Finals in 2012, they were ultimately unable to walk away with a title despite having three future MVPs on the same team. If you want to chalk up their loss in the ’12 Finals to youth and inexperience, that’s fine, but the team was never again able to climb back out of the West. Harden was traded to Houston, and Durant eventually walked away from Westbrook and the Thunder, due, at least in part, to his inability to get over the proverbial hump with Westbrook as his star sidekick.

Durant’s departure — and the fact that a Thunder team that was teeming with talent has nothing to show for it — is an indictment, of sorts, on Westbrook. Of course the young Thunder’s lack of success can’t be entirely pinned on the fiery guard, but it’s not like Oklahoma City’s front office gave up after Durant deflected, either. Well after Harden had been moved to Houston, and Durant was in the Bay, general manager Sam Presti continued to provide Westbrook with weapons to work with in OKC.

Victor Oladipo was added — in a trade for Serge Ibaka — though he lasted only a year with the Thunder before he was flipped to the Indiana Pacers for All-Star forward Paul George. It’s worth noting that Oladipo blossomed into an All-Star himself immediately after being traded from the Thunder. This may be just a coincidence, or another indictment on Westbrook, depending on who you ask.

After a single season with Oladipo as Westbrook’s running mate, Presti made more moves to ensure that the 2017 NBA MVP had help by trading for George, plus also adding Carmelo Anthony. Despite high hopes and lofty preseason expectations, the Westbrook-George-Anthony-led Thunder flamed out in the first round of the playoffs; an early exit that was pinned largely on Anthony’s inability to bend his game to better suit Westbrook and George. Melo, who is dealing with questions about his own legacy, was also gone after just a single season with the Thunder.

Westbrook and George ran it back last season, and their developed chemistry, combined with fact that Anthony’s absence was viewed largely as addition by subtraction, was expected to propel Oklahoma City into a deep playoff push. Instead, the Thunder plateaued and were again eliminated in the first round. This prompted George, who finished third in MVP voting, to seek greener pastures (eventually traded to the Los Angeles Clippers), and ultimately led to Westbrook’s departure as well.

So, after 11 seasons with the Thunder, Westbrook had to walk away ring-less despite the fact that he played with a bevy of top-tier talent such as Durant, Haden, Oladipo, George and Anthony. It’s also worth noting that the Thunder consistently had solid role players during Westbrook’s tenure with the team as well — guys like Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Jerami Grant, and Reggie Jackson, who like Oladipo, really only found his footing in the league after he left Oklahoma City and Westbrook’s shadow. But, in the three seasons since Durant’s departure, the Thunder were unable to advance past the opening round of the playoffs, while Durant went on to win two titles with the Warriors. 

Now, Westbrook joins a Rockets team that has been close in recent years; the defending-champion Golden State Warriors took them out in the Western Conference semifinals in six games this past season, and in Game 7 of the conference finals the year before. Houston was so close, in fact, that had Chris Paul been healthy for the final games of that Western Conference finals series in 2018, the Rockets’ title drought may have already ended.

As a former league MVP still at the peak of his powers, Westbrook, who turns 31 in November, is being looked at as the piece to [finally] push Houston over the top. At this point in his career, he is younger, more athletic and more durable than Paul, all of which should be beneficial to the Rockets. With the rest of the supporting cast from the past couple of seasons still largely intact — the starting unit (Harden, Clint Capela, Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker) remains the same aside from Westbrook taking Paul’s place — all the pieces are in place for the Rockets to make a legitimate run at a title once again.

The main determining factor in their success will be how Westbrook is able to coexist with his former Thunder teammate, James Harden, and how he can blend his game to complement that preferred system and style of play that the Rockets have developed under head coach Mike D’Antoni. If he is able to, then the sky is the limit for Houston. If not, then Westbrook’s team in Houston will likely end up like his teams in Oklahoma City: full of talent but with no hardware to show for it.  

Westbrook’s a 30 percent shooter from long distance for his career, which projects to be a bit of a concern given the emphasis that Houston places on the long-ball and the importance of floor-spacing around Harden, but Morey obviously thought that the move to bring in Westbrook was worth making, and he has high expectations for the Rockets now that he has paired two recent NBA MVPs together in Houston’s backcourt.  

“To get a recent MVP … I think only four times in NBA history a team has had two MVPs in a three-year span on the same team, and it’s always ended in a championship,” Morey said of the Westbrook acquisition. “Now, obviously, we’re going to have to go out and win it, but it’s a pretty good formula.”

Being surrounded by talent on a team with high expectations is nothing new for Westbrook, but the final outcome will have to be different this time around. If Westbrook is indeed able to help Houston secure its first title since the mid-90’s, any lingering legacy-related questions about his viability as a top option on a championship team will dissipate, as will the chatter about his stats being “empty.” However, if the opposite occurs and the Rockets stagnate and fail to live up to their on-paper potential with Westbrook, those questions will only intensify.  

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