For the most part, Russell Westbrook exuded candor when he met members of the media yesterday. Outside of expounding on the reasons he finds himself in new digs for the second time in one and a half years, he was generous with his thoughts. He spoke for half an hour in the Wizards’ practice facility, during which he displayed his trademark intensity and competitiveness. He said he looked forward to burning rubber with, in his words, “superstar talent” Bradley Beal. He reiterated his close relationship with Wizards head coach Scott Brooks dating back to their time with the Thunder. He spoke about setting an example for teammates while keeping long hours on the court to hone his craft.
In other words, Westbrook wound up showing himself — which he underscored in no uncertain terms he would continue to be regardless of situation. “When I am on the floor, I don’t have any friends. I am not trying to be friendly. I’m trying to bust somebody’s ass. I ain’t got time to try to shake hands and do all that. I don’t have time for it, and I am never changing that.” For the Wizards, the declaration spells good news; his laserlike focus and unwavering commitment to winning are precisely what make him stand out, even among other marquee names.
To be sure, Westbrook’s innate stubbornness can also be a bane; his career is replete with instances of his hero-ball predilections gone awry, and advanced metrics have exposed him as a largely inefficient playmaker with an inflated sense of self. Clearly, the Wizards are hoping he will continue treading the path to improvement that he was in with the Rockets prior to being slowed by a quadriceps injury and a bout with the novel coronavirus. Throughout the small sample size, he took fewer three-point shots and wound up with the highest number of field goals at the rim among players not named Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James.
In any case, the Wizards know they got an upgrade. Erstwhile point guard John Wall, whom they had to give up along with a heavily protected first-round pick, hadn’t played in nearly two years due to a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. And he was far from his peak before then, suffering from bone spurs in his left heel that required surgery. On the flipside, Westbrook doesn’t have a superior resume that includes a Most Valuable Player award for nothing. Which is why the franchise that hasn’t made the conference finals since 1979 feels justified to cast moist eyes on lofty goals.
Everything depends on Westbrook. And while the pressure to perform is exactly what he invites, how he produces is just as important as what he produces. Yesterday, he made sure to note that “my job is to come in and continue to uplift and push [Beal] to be better. That is all I am here for. I am happy to be his counterpart and try to make it easier for him.” If he does manage to take a back seat just as he did with the Rockets, then all should be fine. Else, it figures to be yet another season filled with broken promises.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.