Scott Brooks was in his fourth game as interim coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who were off to a disastrous 1-16 start. The night on Nov. 29, 2008, he gave Russell Westbrook his first career start, putting him at point guard even though there were questions about whether the talented rookie could play that position.
The Thunder won.
Brooks and Westbrook were off and running, joined at the hip, winning 62% of their games together over the next six years and getting to the NBA Finals in 2012. They’re now reunited in Washington, with Westbrook going to the Wizards earlier this week in a trade that sent John Wall to Houston.
”Russell never gave me any reason to ever have any doubt in his ability,” Brooks said Friday, shortly before the Wizards had their first training-camp practice. ”There were many times, early in his career, I was being asked, `Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that? He’s not a point guard, he’s not this, he’s not that.’ And that was all fine.
”I didn’t care what the people were telling me what he’s not. I saw and I coach what players do. And he was my point guard.”
And now, he is again.
Westbrook has made the NBA Finals just the one time back in 2012, when the Thunder lost to the Miami Heat. Even at 32 years old now, Westbrook is still dynamic – he averaged 27.2 points last season playing alongside NBA scoring champion James Harden in Houston. He shot a career-best 47% and had eight triple-doubles, pulling him within 35 of Oscar Robertson’s career record of 181.
But something that he did off the court, and intended to do quietly, wound up really piquing the Wizards’ interest. Westbrook left an $8,000 tip for the housekeepers at Walt Disney World when Houston’s time in the NBA’s restart bubble. Washington general manager Tommy Sheppard had clamored for a chance to land Westbrook for years, and hearing about that gesture made him want to bring him to the Wizards even more.
That tip is pocket change for Westbrook; he’s slated to make about $41 million this season. But to Sheppard, it still spoke to his character.
”When I look at what a player is about some things really speak very loudly to me,” Sheppard said. ”And I had no reservations whatsoever about the player we were acquiring. Russell kind of carries himself in a way that if you’re not on his team, he doesn’t let a lot of people inside. … But hearing a story like that, that’s a Wizard, that’s something that we really want here.”
It came at a big cost. Wall was beloved by the Wizards and their fans. But he’s missed nearly two full years with injuries, Westbrook wanted a change of scenery and the gamble – if they even consider it one – was obviously something the Wizards felt was worth taking.
And in the end, Washington still gets a super-talented backcourt as it looks to rejoin the Eastern Conference playoff mix. Instead of Wall coming back and playing alongside Bradley Beal – who averaged 30.5 points last season – it’ll be Westbrook.
”It was a tough pill for me to swallow,” Beal said of the trade and seeing Wall leave. ”But on the flip side of it, you look at it and see who we’re bringing in and you see the caliber of player of Russ, and what he’s able to do, a former MVP, a walking triple-double. He’s going to bring a spark to our team and an energy to our city.”
Brooks said it’ll be an adjustment working Westbrook into the mix. But he also sees the obvious similarities between a healthy Wall and Westbrook, so he can envision what it’ll be like when Westbrook and Beal start to really click.
”I think there’s going to be a pretty good, pretty seamless transition of bringing Russell into the group,” Brooks said. ”Knowing Brad for four years, there’s a lot of similarities. These guys are tough, they’re team guys, they’re determined guys, they have a big-time drive, their work ethic, their professionalism, what they’re about off to court. They remind me of each other. … Those two guys have the great ability of making the three other players on the court with them much better.”
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