Russell Westbrook made a few things clear Saturday. He will remain a Dallas Cowboys fan even though he’s now playing in Washington, he’s not going to abandon his policy against being friendly with opponents during games, and he doesn’t think a championship necessarily completes a player’s resume.
There’s also one issue that he declined to clear up: Whether he forced his way out of Houston or not.
“Obviously, I’m not the easiest guy to understand,” Westbrook said.
The Wizards clearly don’t mind. Westbrook was at practice on Saturday with the Wizards, the team that sent former No. 1 overall pick John Wall to Houston earlier in the week to acquire the nine-time All-Star who’ll now reunite with Washington coach Scott Brooks — his former Oklahoma City coach.
Washington becomes Westbrook’s third team in a year and a half: He was traded by Oklahoma City to Houston after the 2018-19 season, spent just the one year with the Rockets, and now joins the Wizards to play alongside Bradley Beal in what should be an extremely potent backcourt.
He was asked if he wanted a trade from Houston.
“I’m here in Washington,” Westbrook replied. “Happy about where I’m at and understanding that this is a new journey for me and understanding how important it is to focus on where I’m at, focus on the team, focus on the organization, the community, the people here.”
That obviously wasn’t a yes or a no. To Westbrook, it’s all part of the past now anyway.
Changes started happening in Houston on the team’s first full day of the offseason in mid-September, once its stint in the Western Conference playoffs ended. Before the team flight home from the bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, had even landed, Mike D’Antoni informed the Rockets that he wasn’t returning as coach; he became an assistant in Brooklyn under first-year coach Steve Nash. A month later, Daryl Morey left his role as the Rockets’ general manager; he ended up in charge of the front office in Philadelphia.
And a month or so after that was when the stories first started emerging that Westbrook and James Harden — the league’s highest-scoring backcourt last season, putting up a combined 62 points per game — were thinking about playing elsewhere. It seemed inevitable that at least one would wind up getting traded; that became reality Wednesday when the Rockets and Wizards resumed their ongoing talks and wound up finally making a deal in just a couple of hours that afternoon.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize is, basketball, you’re only going to play a short amount of time in your life,” Westbrook said. “But the relationships you gain while you play, the people you meet along the way, the people you impact along the way, those last for a lifetime. That’s something that you think about. I’ve had to think about it as I’ve gotten older … there are so many great people here.”
Westbrook spent his first 11 NBA seasons in Oklahoma City, the first seven of those playing under Brooks, who’ll now coach him again in Washington. The Wizards used 23 players last season, only two of them having been All-Stars — Beal is a two-time pick, as was Isaiah Thomas, who is not back with Washington this season. Westbrook is a nine-time All-Star, a two-time assist champion (Washington hasn’t had one of those since Rod Strickland in 1997-98) and a past MVP. Washington hasn’t had a player win MVP since Wes Unseld in 1968-69, not only when the team was called the Bullets but when it was also still in Baltimore.
The Wizards brought him in to be a winner. They also brought him in to be a mentor.
“We do have 13 guys in training camp right now who’ve only been in the league three years or less,” Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said. “We’ve got nine guys 24 or younger. We’ve got to put some blocks around them, some guardrails to keep everybody together. … Peer coaches are pretty effective and I think that’s something Russell will bring.”
He also brings an edge. Westbrook insists that his on-court motivation is solely about finding ways to win. He believes he’s often misunderstood, but rarely goes out of his way to clear up those misconceptions. Off the court, he immerses himself in causes that have meaning to him and said that won’t change now that he’s in Washington.
“I’m all about trying to do things the right way, regardless of if anybody likes it or not,” Westbrook said. “My thing is making sure that I’m doing the right thing for the right people and impacting as many people as possible.”
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