Russell Westbrook is 27-years-old and Kevin Durant just left the city, leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder with one unanimous superstar to defend the franchise. In 2005, Kobe Bryant was 27-years-old and Shaquille O’Neal had just been traded the year before, leaving the Los Angeles Lakers with one unanimous superstar to carry the mantle the Lakers franchise so heavily burdened.
There is a roadmap laid out here for Westbrook. One seemingly left behind by the old guard in order to shepherd the player now seasoned for his reign. Westbrook currently finds himself in a situation his mentor Bryant did over one decade ago: he must become the athlete he was gifted to be; the basketball player all his years of practice and hard work has lead him to be; and a force of nature unlike any other in the league. He must do so in order to keep afloat a franchise he, like Bryant, has been playing for his entire career.
It’s a daringly difficult road that lies ahead of the Long Beach, California native. While he does share a similar confidence, swagger, determination, and ferocity with Bryant, Westbrook does not possess the three championship rings, the Hall of Fame coach, or the history of a celebrated franchise that the Lakers guard had beside him at 27. In this regard, he is still playing catch-up with the ghost who played in Los Angeles.
Make no mistake, however, the similarities between the two stars – their career arcs and personas – is glaring. It was most noticeable to none other than Bryant himself, who was teammates with the OKC guard during their time on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team in London. “He’s ultra-aggressive,” Bryant said then. “He’s one of these types that you’re either going to help win or he’s going to do it without you. They can criticise him all they want, but sh**, it worked for me. I got five [championships].”
One of those types of players that is going to win either with your help or without it, sound familiar? Those words from Bryant have never been more relevant to Westbrook’s NBA career than they are today, and now they echo through the hallways of Chesapeake Energy Arena – thunderously and ever so diligently.
Oklahoma City is in the immediate aftermath of the post-Durant era. Their hearts broken from his abandonment. Their biggest fear manifested by his alliance with the blue and yellow coloured Bay, and their future was in limbo with murmurs of Westbrook almost surely leaving now that his tag-team partner had already done so. Then, suddenly, it was salvaged. Reports seemed to emerge out of thin air that the Thunder and their star guard were close to agreeing to a contract extension. Then it happened. Oklahoma City retained half of their dynamic duo and Sam Presti still has a formidable roster in tact even if Durant is no longer apart of it.
Players, analysts, coaches, and fans alike called Bryant the “Last of a Dying Breed” as his career neared its twilight. They said the “killer instinct” in players’ DNA has become diluted in their genes. They said there are no more big rivalries in the NBA; that players in the modern league are too nice to each other and that it shrinks the competitiveness of the sport. But if indeed a royal bloodline of such traits is near its extinction, then a player like Westbrook is a rare sighting to appreciate.
Without a doubt a top ten player in the league today (and he might crack the top five list depending on who you ask) the Thunder star has shown confidence – some might say cockiness – that made Bryant nationally hated in his day. Westbrook laughed at reporters during the 2016 Western Conference Finals when asked about Stephen Curry’s defense against him. Then, only a couple weeks ago, a video posted by Facebook user named ‘Aijalon O SoGmfe’, showed him asking Westbrook, “How do you feel about Durant, man?” to which Westbrook answered only with a fake and exaggerated laugh.
The mentality one needs to embark on such a mission is possessed in Westbrook. Even during all the years he played with Durant, a top three player in the world, OKC’s point guard never shrunk himself in clutch moments. He wanted the ball in his hands, at times it seemed even more so than his former superstar counterpart. Through all the noise and hecklings from fans and reporters who suggested Westbrook should pass the ball more and become the second wheel to the bigger and better Durant, he never balked. He continued to play his game and be himself, and, eventually, all the spectators became believers, as they witnessed all the wonders the 6’3’’ titan was capable of.
Bryant showed flashes of greatness in the early 2000’s. Some said it was a luxury of having a Shaq to take the pressure off of him. Some said Kobe was great regardless and he would be such even once the big man left. For Westbrook, there is a widely believed certainty he will flourish, even with his own big man parting ways. Oklahoma City is going to sell the Russell Westbrook Show, and it’s a lead role he has been practicing for for years.
Just three days ago, at a Thunder press conference officially announcing Westbrook’s re-signing with the team, a reporter asked Westbrook, “The fact that not only Kevin left, but it was to Golden State, did that make it sting even more?” Westbrook responded in a classic Westbrook-y way, “Sting for who?”
He isn’t fazed, this man. He is indeed the product of a rare breed of ultra-competitive DNA planted in one player through each decade. Kobe Bryant was the Michael Jordan of his generation. Westbrook is this generation’s Kobe Bryant. Except Bryant won two rings following his divorce with his dominant partner. Can *this* dynamic guard lead his time, or attract another star, that will deliver him the championship all great players chase? Time will tell. The powers that be will test his capabilities. His will be challenged more than ever before.
Russell Westbrook is this generation’s Kobe Bryant. Heavy lies the crown.