Westbrook screamed and gestured toward the crowd in appreciation, soaked in a loud standing ovation during player introductions, scored a game-high 34 points and dished out a hug to Thunder owner Clay Bennett and handshakes to his former teammates. The Thunder aired a touching two-minute tribute video that charted Westbrook’s growth from a teenage rookie to NBA MVP, highlighted his role in the community and showcased his partnerships with Kevin Durant, Nick Collison and Paul George.
“I don’t regret one thing being here in Oklahoma City,” Westbrook said when asked to explain the “Zero Regrets” shirt that he wore to the arena. “I don’t regret signing back. I don’t regret staying here. I feel like I left everything out on the floor every night and did what I could for the city. They’re the best fans in the world because they come with it. Tonight, they came with it. I felt like I was at home.”
But the fond memories and the pleasantries were only half the story. The other half? The new-look Thunder dismantled the Rockets, 113-92, with a signature victory, capitalizing on great chemistry and high-energy team play to leave its opponents looking disjointed early and sullen late. Oklahoma City might have embraced Westbrook, but the Thunder also slammed the door in the Rockets’ face: To ice the game, Chris Paul dribbled the ball between the legs of Houston center Isaiah Hartenstein, coasted in for a pretty floater and then waved his hands as if asking for a boxing referee to stop the fight.
That highlight said it all about the post-Westbrook Thunder: It is in good hands thanks to Paul, it is playing loose and free without the weight of Westbrook’s personality and the expectations that followed him, and it’s all adding up to an unexpectedly successful season. Oklahoma City has won seven of its past eight games, Paul is a cinch for an all-star spot, and there has been no cause — none whatsoever — to ponder an alternate reality in which Westbrook was still on the Thunder. Why look back when a fifth consecutive playoff trip is on the horizon?
In truth, Westbrook was the best thing to happen to the Thunder fans for years, and the summer trade that sent him to the Rockets will be the best thing to happen to them for years to come. Paul is a skilled floor general with a steady hand, the perfect player and leader to stabilize a tough transition. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who arrived in Oklahoma City’s summer trade with the Los Angeles Clippers for George, is the heir apparent. And the seven first-round picks that Presti nabbed in the two trades will further nourish the franchise over the next half-decade.
Trading Westbrook last summer took serious guts. He was the MVP in 2017, he was coming off his third straight season averaging a triple-double, and he was the sole survivor from Oklahoma City’s glory days with Durant and James Harden. But it was absolutely the right thing to do: Westbrook’s efficiency had been in steady decline, his teams consistently hit the wall in the playoffs, he had undergone multiple knee surgeries, he proved to be an awful outside shooter and a lackluster defender as he aged, and his contract will pay him more than $40 million per year for the next three seasons.
The blockbuster move didn’t need further validation from Oklahoma City’s side, but the high-profile victory provided that anyway. The Thunder exploited Westbrook’s weak outside shooting by leaving him open on the perimeter, and it pounced into action to take advantage of his seven turnovers. Oklahoma City achieved far better offensive balance with five players in double figures, while Harden and Westbrook struggled to shoot from the outside and failed to involve their teammates. Paul held up his end of the bargain with 18 points, six rebounds and five assists.
For years, the knock against Westbrook was that his teammates went onto greater heights after leaving his side in Oklahoma City. Harden became a franchise player in Houston. Durant became a two-time champion with the Golden State Warriors. Victor Oladipo became an all-star with the Indiana Pacers, and Domantas Sabonis should be one this season, too.
That framing is overly simplistic. Westbrook’s response to the departures around him was to heap responsibility on his own shoulders and to carry the franchise as best he could. He deserves credit for that; many players might have shirked the pressure and sought a swift exit. At the same time, though, Westbrook regularly crossed the line into martyrdom, doing too much and failing to acknowledge his limitations to his team’s detriment. The Thunder, thanks to some time and distance, finally seemed to recognize and benefit from those faults Thursday.
“I have no bad blood,” Westbrook said about his former team, its fans and its city. “They gave me all they had and I gave them all I had.”
Indeed, Oklahoma City can rest easy, knowing that it enjoyed Westbrook’s best years and best efforts. The Thunder also can safely leave the past in the past, knowing that its future is brighter without him.