Durant and Westbrook: An NBA odd couple that go beyond basketball
Kevin Durant has been a professional in the National Basketball Association for 3,250 days. For 2,886 of those, he has called Russell Westbrook his teammate.
The duo – one from the political heartland that is Washington D.C. and hyped since high school, the other born just 20 miles from the celebrity-obsessed Los Angeles and a relatively late bloomer in the basketball world – appear, to many outsiders looking in, to be polar opposites.
In some senses, Durant and Westbrook embody the cities from which they come. KD, an intense, driven individual whose game is built on a ruthless edge few others possess. Russ, a brash, at times flash player, who attracts attention on and off the court.
Yet, in their almost eight years together - for six days as members of the Seattle SuperSonics and then as figureheads of the Oklahoma City Thunder - they have formed a bond the likes of which comes around very rarely in the NBA.
At times their partnership has been questioned and criticised, and, at times, they themselves have added fuel to the fire either through on-court discontent or personal achievements with the other on the sideline. Nevertheless, with OKC just three wins away from a trip to the NBA Finals, they have been the catalyst behind virtually all that has been good at the Thunder for almost a decade.
The ongoing Western Conference Finals series against the Golden State Warriors – a team whose own elite duo, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, appear to be two peas in a pod – has thrown into focus once again the ‘odd couple’ relationship between Durant and Westbrook.
But, in analysing how the All-Star combo can drop a combined 53 points en route to a game one win against a historic GSW team, you first have to acknowledge the differences in their character that, against all logic, is at the heart of a truly formidable “brotherhood”.
“I've seen him grow as a person and I can say he has helped me become a better person and player. I love him for that.” – Westbrook on Durant, November 2015.
On the face of it, Durant and Westbrook is a character combination that just shouldn’t work.
One, labelled an introvert by another long-time teammate Nick Collison, is quietly determined and ruthless on the court. The other plays with his heart on his sleeve and, on any given night, is never more than a few seconds away from ending up in the higher echelons of SportsCenter’s Top 10. If Durant is a 6 foot 9 assassin, Westbrook is an all guns blazing Rambo.
Their styles of play are a microcosm of their personalities – as far as the media is able to accurately gauge them. Both during his one-and-done year at the University of Texas and in his almost decade-long stint in the pros since, Durant has never been one to seek the limelight.
Even when he was en route to a consensus player of the year award in his one and only season with the Longhorns in 2007, KD tried to deflect attention – once insisting his fellow Texas teammates shared the front cover of Dime magazine when the publication came looking for a Durant photo shoot. Seven years on, when the Maryland native was collecting his 2014 MVP award, his speech spoke more about his Thunder teammates and his mother, “the real MVP”, than his own achievement.
Westbrook, meanwhile, hasn’t hidden from the spotlight since he was called onto the stage by David Stern in June 2008 to join the then-SuperSonics amidst claims that Seattle had made “a big, big mistake”.
While Durant, for the most part, may be able to maintain an effective poker face while he is dissecting opponents, his partner in crime is no stranger to emotional outbursts – either in celebration or condemnation – on the hardwood.
If you turned on a Thunder game and didn’t know the score, you’d only need to see one Westbrook possession to figure it out. The 27-year-old is an open book.
“What you see is what you get. He doesn't hide anything. Everything you see is who he is.
That's something else that makes us different. He's a kind of a heart-on-your-sleeve type of guy, and I'm more observant.” – Kevin Durant on Russell Westbrook
Even before they step foot on the hardwood, the difference between the two elite talents is made clear by their entrance to whichever arena they may be playing in. Westbrook’s arrival has almost become a must-see event in recent years as fans wait to see which flamboyant outfit the Long Beach native will have put together for the evening.
From zebra striped shoes and slayer t-shirts to turning up to game two in a shirt with a giant hole in the centre, there is no doubt he makes a statement. Contrast that with his teammate and you’d be hard pressed to differentiate one Durant arrival from another. Once again, both athletes can be found at two ends of the spectrum.
While their arrivals may look very different, there is actually an element of their pre-game routine (at All-Star games, at least) which highlights a bond far beneath the superficial surface of clothes and accessories.
As noted by ESPN recently, for each of the five All-Star games that have featured both Thunder stars, Durant and Westbrook have gone out of their way to bus in to the venue together. They may look like a slightly odd couple sitting alongside each other on the laid on transport, but, with Westbrook having driven 25 minutes to join his teammate on board in Toronto this year, for example, it is anything but a chance meeting.
It isn’t surprising that, when out of their usual comfort zone in Oklahoma City, the two travel miles to seek each other out. While Durant may have one more season’s worth of experience in the NBA, the two were born just two months apart and, in sharing the same locker room since the age of 20, they’ve grown up together.
Like real-life brothers, Westbrook and Durant may not have all of the same interests and may not possess the same temperament, but they’ve shared much the same experience over the past eight seasons and have each other’s back as a result.
Six days after Westbrook was welcomed into the fold by Durant backstage at the ’08 draft, the SuperSonics were uprooted almost 2,000 miles to Oklahoma City and the young draft picks were expected to bring with them an exciting future. The Thunder have never known a roster without KD and Russ, and the two have born the weight of the franchise’s ever-increasing expectations from day one.
Such expectations have got the better of other big-name tandems in the past. Not even the prospect of more championship rings could prevent Kobe and Shaq going their separate ways in the mid-00s. Unlike the Lakers duo, however, Durant and Westbrook seem unafraid to share each other’s burden – whatever it may be:
“I was having problems with my family and I needed someone I could relate to and Russell and Perk (Kendrick Perkins) were there,” said Durant last year, recalling when his friendship with Westbrook evolved to true “brotherhood”.
“…They told me to just keep my head up, words of encouragement. Me and Russ had talked about that stuff, but it wasn't as in depth.
"Then when I was vulnerable to him, it was like, yeah, this is someone I can lean on. It showed me a different side of him. Since then, we've been really tight.”
Leaning on one another is something the pair have done throughout their careers. In the past, disagreements on the court may have led to one of the duo cussing out the other. Come the final buzzer, however, you know they will be sitting side-by-side fielding questions in the post-game press conference.
Think about any scene on TV after an Oklahoma City Thunder game. Except when one of the two has been out injured, can you remember a time when it hasn’t been both players in front of the cameras?
One such occasion just a few weeks ago was a perfect example of their bond. Speaking after the Thunder had dispensed of the Dallas Mavericks in their first-round playoff series, Westbrook was asked about Mavs owner Mark Cuban’s claim that he wasn’t a “superstar”.
The response came not from the 2016 All-Star MVP but from his teammate beside him. Without skipping a beat, it was delivered with the effortless efficiency you’d expect. Three words on Cuban; “He’s an idiot.”
Responding to criticism is something both players have had to get used to over the years. Despite rising to the top of the game as individuals, they’ve only taken the Thunder to one NBA Finals appearance as things stand. Forging an unlikely bond is all well and good, but without rings, it doesn’t hold much sway in the NBA.
When things fail to pan out for Oklahoma City, inevitably, questions about the Durant-Westbrook dynamic rear their head. Over the years, we’ve heard speculation that Durant resents the number of shots Russ takes. In 2011, there were rumours that KD wanted to meet with the Thunder hierarchy about the issue and, in 2014, Charles Barkley lamented the point guard for being too selfish.
Durant’s response to such claims?
“That don't make no sense. We don't like each other because he shot more? That don't make no sense. And it's really disrespectful to me or to us because you think I'm that selfish of a person,” he told The Oklahoman.
Rather perversely, injuries have also, at times, fuelled the idea that Westbrook and Durant are holding each other back and are better off without one another.
When Westbrook missed 27 games with a calf injury in early 2014, Durant went on a one-man tour de force, scoring over 30 points on a near nightly basis and regularly finishing in the 40s and 50s – even garnering a new nickname, ‘the Slim Reaper’, as a result.
Then KD’s foot surgery last season coincided with Russ’ emergence as a truly elite level talent – the PG leading the league with 28.15 points per game. In some people’s eyes, there was growing evidence suggesting the two weren’t necessarily compatible despite their ‘top-five’ talents:
“Wouldn’t Durant’s incredible talent be most benefited by playing with a pass-first floor general? And conversely, wouldn’t Westbrook be best suited as the alpha dog on his “own” team instead of sharing the load with another elite playmaker?” – Uproxx, September 2015
This season, however, with both players back fit and healthy, the apparent cohesion the pair has off the court has manifested itself on a regular basis on the hardwood.
Whether Westbrook took heed of such criticism is unclear, but anyone who has been watching the former UCLA Bruin this season can’t help notice a change. His 10.4 assists per game ranked behind only Rajon Rondo during the 2015-16 regular season, en route to averaging almost a double-double on the year, and he is a more well-rounded threat than in seasons past.
Durant, meanwhile, scored at least 20 points in all but one of his 72 regular season appearances. The one time he fell short, he played under 20 minutes after suffering a leg injury. He also currently leads the way in ppg this postseason.
They may have been overshadowed by the historic efforts of the Warriors and Spurs, but the Thunder duo has, at times this year, been a one-two punch that could knock out any opponent.
In game one against Golden State, for example, the pair scored or assisted 78 of the Thunders' 108 points on the way to victory.
Still, though, talk persists of a rift between them and public endorsements in interviews are quickly overshadowed by any signs of on-court friction caught on camera. During their recent 4-2 series win against the San Antonio Spurs, the duo got into an argument on the sidelines during the fourth quarter of game two that led the colour commentators to fear the rumours of discontent would resurface.
When a relationship between two players who are, on the surface, so different shows any signs of breaking down, the go-to response is to suggest it is too fragile to survive.
What those critics are forgetting, however, is the key character trait that defines Westbrook and Durant over anything else – hard work.
Whether it was through a father making them perform military drills in L.A., or a single mother in D.C. instilling the importance of focus and perseverance in her young son, both Thunder stars have long had an insatiable work ethic.
This attitude has been a key part of their brotherhood. It has seen them race to be first to OKC’s facility each morning – something they claim just happened naturally without any prior arrangement - and is the very foundation of their relationship:
“I think that’s what helped us out as friends. When you love basketball so much and you have someone that works just as hard as you and wants the same thing as you, you gotta respect this guy because you know how tough it is to be where you are,” said Durant last year.
“Even though we don’t talk, there’s kinda just that energy in the building and I know we want the same thing.”
Whether, though, that hard work is enough to see them and their teammates past the Warriors and into their first NBA Finals series since 2012 remains to be seen.
If it isn’t, and the Thunder exit the playoff party early once again, there is the very real possibility that the unlikely Durant-Westbrook combination as we know it could be a thing of the past come the Autumn.
KD is set to become a free agent this summer and, as is his way, has remained coy about his plans beyond the current campaign. There are, though, sure to be offers from any team with the cap space available, and the seven-time All-Star will have the pick of the league.
From his current opponents, the Warriors, to the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, not to mention a potential homecoming with the Washington Wizards, there are teams lining up to lure the 2014 MVP away from Oklahoma City.
Just a few months ago, the prospect of Durant leaving for pastures new was probably more realistic than him staying put. Fuelled by unfulfilled potential and the nagging suspicion he and Westbrook couldn’t combine on and off the court, rival teams were probably already getting their pitch lined up.
As the season has progressed, however, and the Thunder have emerged as a true challenger for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, OKC’s chances of keeping hold of the second pick of the 2007 Draft seem to have increased. And, for that, Westbrook deserves credit.
His Oscar Robertson-esque season has, in its own way, been a very public pitch on Oklahoma City’s behalf. In evolving his game to a new level that, were it not for Stephen Curry’s otherworldly play, would have had him in the MVP discussion, Westbrook had done his best to kill any fears Durant may have had about their on-court chemistry.
As a fiercely loyal individual, that might go a long way to convincing Durant to give his current team, and his teammate, another chance beyond 2016.
Of course, there is a prospect looming that strikes fear into all Thunder fans. Westbrook himself is only one year away from his own free agency. Although doubters of their brotherhood would refuse to entertain the idea, there are suggestions in some quarters that the KD-Russ tandem could team up in a new city after a one-year hiatus.
Standing the test of time
The very nature of the modern game, with its big money contracts and increased number of franchises, certainly does make Durant and Westbrook’s long-standing relationship in OKC something of an anomaly. Only eight other players currently playing in the NBA have been with their team as long as Durant, while Westbrook, with eight years in Oklahoma City, isn’t far behind.
Not even well-known best buds LeBron James and Dwyane Wade lasted more than four seasons together before the former left Miami to return to Cleveland. So, could two men who prefer to work out in silence and are yet to win a ring between them really decide to double down on their ‘odd couple’ relationship?
One thing is for sure, if Durant does opt to cut ties with his partner in crime, he will struggle to replicate what he has right now. He won’t find anyone who he has shared quite so much of his early adult life with. He won’t find someone who is quite so ready and willing to fight his corner on every occasion.
He might find someone he has more in common with on paper, but whether such a dynamic partnership on the court can be found is uncertain.
Durant and Westbrook often describe each other as brothers and, as with any sibling relationship, their bond transcends character type or fashion sense. The only difference is, whilst real-life brothers are connected by the blood coursing through their veins, Durant and Westbrook are united by the blood, sweat and, at times, tears they leave out on the hardwood.
It might not always be obvious from the outside looking in, but the Thunder duo appear to have a bond that epitomises the saying ‘opposites attract’. Former teammate Kendrick Perkins sums it up best:
“When you open up and you have a heart to heart and you done shed tears with one another, not even on the phone but face-to-face, that's a bond that can't be broken. That's beyond basketball.”