SITTING IN THE back corner of the visitors locker room in New Orleans after a close win on Nov. 11 — one day before his 31st birthday — Russell Westbrook gives a nod of approval.
You may approach.
The Houston Rockets have just beaten the Pelicans 122-116, with Westbrook scoring 26 points, plus all the other usuals in the box score — four assists, five rebounds, four steals. He had gone 11-of-21 from the field and 1-of-8 from 3. He had galvanized the Rockets in the second half, with back-to-back driving layups to finish the third and a battering ram dunk to open the fourth. But down the stretch, it had been James Harden‘s game to win — and he did just that, scoring 19 of his 39 points in the decisive fourth quarter.
It is 10 games into the Westbrook-Harden experiment, and the results thus far have been mixed. That lone 3-pointer against the Pels was only Westbrook’s ninth of the season — on 41 attempts — and he has continued to search for a rhythm after offseason surgeries on his left hand and right knee and a limited training camp.
The media clear the locker room after Harden talks, unwilling to wait out Westbrook, who is in no hurry to leave as he watches the final minutes of the San Francisco 49ers–Seattle Seahawks tilt on Monday Night Football. Westbrook emerges and starts the process of assembling his postgame outfit — a black trenchcoat with lime green lining over a T-shirt.
Westbrook is in a good mood. A fine win, a solid performance and some momentum. He is up for a couple of questions. After a brief negotiation, he agrees to three.
He is 30 years old now, and another birthday is mere hours away. He is asked: When the speed burst lags, the first step isn’t as electric and the bounce isn’t as spring-loaded, what kind of player will Russell Westbrook be? How does he plan to evolve?
Westbrook prides himself on playing the same way every night, often boasting that no one in the league can do what he does at the level he does it. He has gotten to this point, a transcendent record breaker, by doing it his way.
He has been asked about this before, and it annoyed him then. He will entertain it now, but he offers a polite warning.
“You already know what I’m going to say.”
FOR YEARS, HE had flat-out ignored The Question, staring off into the void like a flight attendant was giving him safety instructions. When he did, Westbrook’s response — or lack thereof — could be viewed two ways: as a ferocious commitment to remain rooted in the present or a denial to accept there might eventually be a need to change.
He is a freak athlete, a top 1 percenter in NBA history in that regard, but his tool set has historically had its limitations. He is not a gifted shooter or even an above-average one. He had to teach himself court vision. He isn’t a shepherd of offense. He has always claimed to be a point guard, but that was more of a defiant middle finger to his critics than an actual characterization of how he played.
In so many ways, Russell Westbrook is not a player designed to age gracefully. It’s one of the loudest whispered questions in the NBA.
His game has long been debated and dissected, with many takes landing on some variant of him needing to change, yet actual incremental developments have always been lost in the conversation.
He has adjusted, he has said — evolved — but will never outright change. He has said so himself.
Father Time, though, demands it. And every star, like it or not, eventually has to face it.
IF THERE WAS ever an NBA superstar defined by absurd athleticism, it was Vince Carter. Twenty years ago, he single-handedly reinvigorated the NBA Slam Dunk Contest; a few months later, he literally jumped over 7-foot-2 Frederic Weis during the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
If there is one NBA superstar who personifies the art of aging gracefully, that player is also Vince Carter. And if there is historical precedent for the answer to The Question that Westbrook has for years been avoiding, he could do worse than to look at the future Hall of Famer.
Carter spent his first 11 seasons averaging 23.5 points on 19.2 shots per game, with an average usage rate of 29.7%. From his age-33 season to now, his most recent 11 seasons, he has radically reinvented himself. While his usage dropped to 20.6% and his shots per game fell to 8.5, his effective field goal percentage has risen from 48.6% to 49.6%, and his 3-point attempt rate — the percentage of his shots that are 3s — also has risen, from 31.4% to 46.4%.
He also has spent the past six seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks taking on mentorship roles while still spacing the floor as a situational sharpshooter. During all this, Carter said there was no revelation — no moment in which he realized he was no longer his former self on the court.
“It just happened,” Carter said. “It’s just one of those things. I mean, I still have it. It’s just about being smart about it now. Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, I want to see this!’ But I don’t care what they want to see.
“I had a bigger goal in mind: I was trying to play this game as long as possible.”
Carter said he had made peace with that years ago, in favor of evolving his game and, most importantly, extending his career. He has seen others come and go, many unable to accept the biology that governs their bodies.
“Adjusting is not an easy thing to do,” he said. “Changing your game is not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of patience, it takes a lot of studying and it takes a lot of actually changing of your game and the willingness to do so. Some guys aren’t willing to do that.”
Consider Allen Iverson.
For Iverson, the ending was abrupt — unceremonious and seemingly without warning. There was no Dwyane Wade-esque farewell tour. No 60-point burnout like Kobe Bryant. Iverson’s final game was in 2010; he scored 13 points 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 were trying to groom a young point guard named Mike Conley and were hoping Iverson would slot into a bench role as a mentor.
“I’m not a bench player. I’m not a sixth man,” Iverson had said at the end of his time in Memphis. “Look at my résumé, and that’ll show I’m not a sixth man. I don’t think it has anything to do with me being selfish. It’s just who I am. I don’t want to change what gave me all the success that I’ve had since I’ve been in this league. I’m not a sixth man. And that’s that.”
Like Westbrook, Iverson was a polarizing player. Some viewed Iverson as a ball hog; others admired him as an all-time scorer. Iverson himself has said he sees similarities between him and Westbrook. The unyielding competitive spirit. The uncompromising will to win. The on-court disregard for their own bodies.
“The fight in the guy. I’m the biggest Westbrook fan, I think, there is,” Iverson said in 2015. “You know what I mean? Because he reminds me so much of myself as far as his heart and laying it on the line night in and night out. Just a guy that’s going to bring it every single night.”
In the 2007-08 season, a 32-year-old Iverson averaged 26.4 points for the 50-win Denver Nuggets. They were swept in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers. He was traded to the Detroit Pistons the following season, then he signed with Memphis. The Answer had refused to address The Question.
He was out of the league at the age of 34.
AFTER EVERY THUNDER shootaround last season, players would assemble for their favorite shooting game: make five straight 3s to advance to the next of five spots around the perimeter. Miss and they would have to start over at their previous location.
In the final round, players would have to make one at each spot without missing, all while every teammate used their best distraction tactics.
Westbrook didn’t win the game often — Paul George became tough to beat during his two seasons with Oklahoma City — but late last season, Westbrook got on a roll and made his way to the left corner, needing one more to win. He drained it, galloped off the court to the weight room and yelled.
“I’m the best shooter in the world!”
The Rockets, of course, weren’t anticipating the best shooter in the world, but they hoped to see at least an adequate, improved one when they traded for Westbrook this offseason. With the added space of Mike D’Antoni’s system and more opportunities to catch-and-shoot, Westbrook, they thought, might see more open looks and hit them at a higher rate.
The Thunder were always optimistic there was a better shooter somewhere inside of Westbrook. Instead, this season he is hitting 23.5% from 3, one of the worst marks in league history for the volume he is taking (4.8 per game).
“The other thing about Russell that I think is so promising about his future is that players that play in the backcourt like that, have that kind of success, once they hit 30, their shooting numbers become much better,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said before last season. “That’s how they become more efficient players.”
Plenty of point guards have done so. And none more so than Jason Kidd.
Kidd was mocked as “Ason Kidd” (no J) early in his career due to the lack of a jump shot. He finished 10th on the NBA’s all-time list with 1,988 3-pointers — 1,263 of those coming after the age of 31. (Carter, for his part, is sixth all time with 2,259.)
“Everybody said I couldn’t shoot,” Kidd said in 2017. “But you got to work on it.”
Now in Houston, Westbrook’s focus ostensibly centers on efficiency — fewer pull-up jumpers, fewer isos, more catch-and-shoot attempts, more downhill drives. More discretion; less whim. Strangely enough, by most any metric, he has only regressed.
Westbrook’s gift has always been in transition, but he is doing less open-court weaving and not converting as well as past seasons. He is scoring 3.7 transition points per game with a 47% effective field goal percentage, 60th out of 62 players with 50 or more such attempts this season.
And according to Second Spectrum data, Westbrook has taken 4,512 jumpers over the past five seasons, fifth most in the NBA over that span. Among the 72 players to attempt at least 2,000 jumpers in that time, Westbrook ranks 69th in field goal percentage. On jumpers this season, he is hitting 31.5%, third worst in the NBA.
Over the past month, Westbrook has been better. He is finding a better rhythm, making more shots and attacking in the vacuum created by defenses shading toward Harden. Over his past 15 games, he has looked like the All-NBA player he has been the past decade: 27.8 points on 46.4% shooting. And Rockets staffers say that Westbrook’s shot selection is improving.
Even so, the Rockets are on the hook for the final four years of Westbrook’s $206 million deal — he has a player option for his age-34 season that would pay him $47 million — but just like in past seasons, Houston, at 25-11, is locked in win-now mode. Still, the Rockets say they aren’t panicking.
“We’re very excited because we’re winning games at a high rate and are on a good improvement curve,” Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said. “Mike [D’Antoni] and Russ are figuring out the best way to attack other teams. When they double James, Russ has been punishing them. We’ve adjusted to doubles and been able to punish them more.
“I see it getting better every game with Russ. I only see upside.”
THE ANSWER TO The Question of Russ was arguably given a decade ago. It has existed in the form of a highlight that might be the most impressive play in Westbrook’s career. Because only he has the moxie to have even tried it.
It was Game 2 of the first round of the 2010 playoffs, in Westbrook’s second season. The upstart Thunder were shock winners of 50 games and a frisky No. 8 seed, taking on the top-seeded Lakers, who would go on to win the title. With 5:57 remaining in the third quarter, the Thunder were hanging close on the road, down by six. Jeff Green set a screen on the right wing for Westbrook, who saw a path — and seized it. Two hard dribbles, plant, elevate, detonate.
He missed the dunk.
Or more accurately, it was a dunk he missed because he was fouled. Or even more accurately, it was a dunk he missed because he was fouled when he tied to stuff a one-handed tomahawk over 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol by taking off just a step inside the free-throw line. In a playoff game — Westbrook’s second ever. The audacity.
The Staples Center crowd let out an instinctive “Ohhh!” typically reserved for their own players. Play-by-play announcer Kevin Harlan started cackling.
“This is young legs right here!” said announcer Doug Collins, watching the replay.
Westbrook produces moments more than almost any other player. They happen at random. Watching him is like watching a hockey game: Don’t leave the room or you’ll miss The Moment. Even a missed dunk can be one.
More to the point, the greatest missed dunk of Westbrook’s career offered a hint of all that was to come: Westbrook will never change, because stubbornness and self-belief are the defining characteristics of his play.
As Westbrook returns to Oklahoma City on Thursday for the first time as an opponent, he’ll be showered with adoration and appreciation of the moments that made him the franchise’s most beloved player. He is going to get the full tribute treatment — something never done before for a returning Thunder player — and the night will be about celebrating Westbrook’s impact on the franchise and city at large.
But the harsh reality is that the player who is returning looks a little less like the Russell Westbrook they remember.
The Thunder were always mindful of protecting Westbrook from his greatest threat: himself. They monitored his minutes, never playing him more than 37 a game. They kept an eye on his consecutive minutes played in games, trying to stay away from playing him full quarters. He didn’t practice much.
With a similar plan in place, the Rockets are optimistic about maximizing and extending Westbrook’s prime. They are doing what the Thunder never got Westbrook on board to do: resting one game in every back-to-back as a precaution. They’re keeping his minutes down, and with Harden as his backcourt partner, Westbrook can be more selective on when to tap into his gifts.
The numbers suggest Westbrook’s prime years are dissolving quickly. Since winning the MVP in 2016-17 with a real plus-minus of 6.27 (ninth), he posted an RPM of 5.16 (10th) in 2017-18, 2.51 (42nd) last season and 0.98 so far this season, which ranks 119th in the NBA.
Still, a player regressing as the bell curve of age tolls isn’t surprising. It is a matter of how much as well as what the player will do to account for it.
“Players that are at his level, when we talk about like regression or anything like that, like we’re talking about going from being the MVP of a league or an All-NBA player and regressing as he gets older to small percentages from that,” Presti said. “So now you’re talking about being an All-Star level player. So we’re starting at such a high bar that eventually when he’s 35 years old, like he’s probably not going to play the way he did when he was 30.”
Westbrook has had five knee surgeries, including three in the past three years. He dealt with a hand injury last season that caused his whole right hand to go numb for 20 minutes at a time if it got hit.
But at the same time, he has played in more than 90% of his team’s games over the past five seasons. His work ethic borders on legendary.
If there is a player who can defy common sense, it is Russell Westbrook. He has only been doing it his whole career.
PACKING UP HIS personal items before he heads to the bus, Westbrook shifts in his chair and listens to The Question. It’s a formality, but he has to hear it before he can answer.
“I got this question asked to me, like, three years ago,” he says with a brief laugh. “When I was doing the triple-double thing and people kept asking me, ‘Can you maintain this? Can you maintain it?’
“And I got a simple answer to that: Why not?“
Westbrook’s motto can feel clichéd whenever he invokes it. It is literally part of his brand. It is on bracelets. It is on his shoes. As he delivers these remarks, it is literally emblazoned on the shirt he is wearing. It is also very real to him.
“I don’t know what I’m able to do or what I can’t do; it’s just I go out and do what I need to do, prepare myself mentally and physically, and then after that I just see what happens,” he says. “I don’t think about if I’ll be able to do it at 34 or at 35. I don’t know.
“But I know if I put in the work and time and effort to make sure I’m successful, then I know good things will happen.”
These days, Westbrook is a little more willing to think about his future. He is more reflective, more appreciative of the years he already has spent in the NBA and what he has accomplished in them.
And so when he is asked The Question — does he think about the kind of player he’ll become? — Westbrook offers the closest thing to answer that he has given in a decade.
“No,” he says with his trademark smirk of defiance. “Honestly, I just go out and figure out the best way to be impactful for a long period of time. For me, I know a lot people see my athleticism as a huge part of my game, but like I’ve done and I’ve been doing, there are other things I can do in the game that I’m good at that I continue to do and impact the game.
“As long as I can be able to do that, I can impact the game at a high level every night, then that’s all I care about.”