The best and worst moments of each NBA season often revolve around Russell Westbrook.
We’re dazzled by his reckless, slashing drives to the basket, the vicious dunks and tenacious (if slightly uneven) on-ball defense. He wears hilarious shirts and plays for what’s widely considered the most likeable and endearing team in the league.
But for every highlight reel play, a gangly shadow lurks, powerful enough to darken even Westbrook’s most Skittles-inspired button-up. Because, though Westbrook is almost certainly a top-15 player in the NBA, he happens to play next to a guy named Kevin Durant, who is second only to LeBron James production-wise, and is the league’s most gifted scorer.
Thus, everything Westbrook does is viewed under that shadow. Brick a jumper? “Durant would have made that in his sleep.” Drive to the hoop and miss a layup? “He’s a ball-hog.” Draw a technical foul? “Why can’t he be mild mannered like Durant?”
In pundits’ eyes, Westbrook’s greatest sin is attempting more shots than Durant. Even when Westbrook, a lethal scorer himself, catches fire and puts up a 35-point game, the consensus is often that Durant would do more with those shots (a premise that was debunked last season by Thunder beat writer Darnell Mayberry).
This is the world Russell Westbrook lives in. It’s lucky that he doesn’t seem to care one bit about the criticism, because both him and Durant are signed to play together through at least 2015. But what if the 2008 NBA Draft had gone differently, and Westbrook had been selected by a team that didn’t already have its tailor-made superstar?
A team like, say, the Chicago Bulls.
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The Bulls never really considered drafting Westbrook — or anyone else for that matter — because Chicago-native Derrick Rose was on the board. Yet it’s still fascinating to consider how different things might be if the Bulls had taken Westbrook, and Rose somehow fell to the Thunder (then known as the Sonics, RIP) — especially given how similar the two young point guards are.
Both are hyper athletic and pathologically competitive, known more for their prolific scoring abilities than pure passing skills. Together, they represent the future of the point guard position, and may be in the beginning stages of Hall of Fame careers.
Though when it comes to public perception, the two couldn’t be more different. Westbrook is known by many as a selfish player holding his team back from true greatness. Rose, devoid of any other teammates near his ability, is more the heroic lone wolf, carrying the team on his back en route to a 2011 MVP trophy and watching solemnly as the Bulls collapsed in his absence last spring.
That’s the media-driven narrative, anyway. But would Westbrook really be seen as such a narcissistic player if he was on the Bulls, and Carlos Boozer’s spray painted head was his best passing target? And would Rose be holding an MVP trophy with that ghastly Durant shadow replacing the irresistible “hometown hero” narrative?
The answer is likely no on both counts. Still, I think both players would thrive in this re-write of history. Rose is a superstar scorer in his own right, but also more likely to defer to Durant when necessary (in his last high school state championship game at Simeon, Rose totaled eight assists and seven steals while scoring just two points), and the Thunder’s team-first, family-like atmosphere would perfectly suit his temperament.
Westbrook, meanwhile, would be free of that “selfish player” talk, and would probably be a perennial MVP contender averaging something like 27-28 points per game. He would thrive as the go-to scorer, and his manic defensive presence would be truly frightening under Tom Thibodeau’s guidance.
It’s one of those strange “what-if” scenarios that actually turns out well for both parties. The negatives fall mostly on Rose’s side: he’d be robbed of the joy – and deep dish pizza endorsement – that comes from playing in his hometown, and would have to switch from one of the league’s best uniforms to the absolute worst (non-Bobcats division).
Back in the real world, things are pretty great for these two — save for Rose’s ACL injury last season. It doesn’t take revisionist history to believe in a bright future for either Rose or Westbrook. They’re fine where they are.
But it’s still fun to think about what might have been.
What would happen if these two switched places?
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