When comparing players, rarely does a conversation come up comparing Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Laker legend Kobe Bryant. Sure, sometimes people mention the extreme shot volume of both players. (Bryant has missed the most shots in NBA history, while Westbrook shot 45% from the field this past season.) Others mention the emotion displayed on the court by both players, and the large desire to win. But I'm here to tell you that Westbrook is going to be the living embodiment of 2006 post-Shaq Kobe Bryant this coming season.
- It was Kobe's team then and its Westbrook's team now
Here's the situation: You're considered a Top 10 player in the NBA. You're teammates with an MVP-calibre player. You hear some people say that you're the best player on the team, while others still consider the former MVP the best player on your squad. The suddenly during the offseason, the former MVP just leaves you in the dust to win a championship sooner rather than later.
This is the exact situation both Bryant and Russell went through. Back in 2004, Shaq got traded to Miami as there were issues arising between O'Neal and Bryant. That Miami squad then went on to win the NBA championship 2 years later. Fast forward to now and Durant has left Westbrook in Oklahoma City to chase rings with Golden State. See a pattern? For both players, they were left by their All-Star teammate to fend for themselves on teams that were now unlikely to make the playoffs. Let's see where that got them…
- Both of them can stuff the stat sheet
Being the only All-Star on your team does have some benefits. Sure, it's extremely hard to carry your team to the playoffs all by yourself, but you have free reign to do whatever the hell you want on offense. Just look at Kobe's '05-'06 campaign. He averaged a whopping 35 points a game to go along with 5 rebounds and 4.5 assists a game. He did this shooting 45% from the field.
In comparison, Westbrook's '15-'16 season ended with averages of 23.5 points a game, 8 rebounds and 10 assists a game. And all that came playing second fiddle to Kevin Durant. So it's safe to assume Westbrook's scoring will definitely improve, as someone needs to fill the 28.2 points per game gap left by Durant. It's quite likely Westbrook's assists will decline, as the next best scorer on the team is Victor Oladipo, and two of the target men for his passes have left the team. (Durant and Ibaka) One thing is for certain, though; Westbrook is almost a shoe-in for the scoring title.
- They have almost no supporting cast
There's one glaring reason why Kobe's scoring average took an 8 point leap back in 2006. It wasn't because he was suddenly getting more minutes, or a coach installed a new offense that got Kobe wide open shots. It was because no one else on the team could put the orange thing through the hoop. Just look at the top three Lakers' scorers for that season. Kobe Bryant (35.4), Lamar Odom (14.8), and the best of all, Smush Parker (11.5).
Russell Westbrook has been left in a very similar position. The starting 5 for this year's Thunder is shaping up to be a very offensively limited one. Westbrook in at PG, Oladipo at SG, Anthony Morrow at SF, Ersan Ilyasova at PF and Steven Adams at Center. That lineup excluding Westbrook only scored a combined 40 points a game. Which is bad news for the Thunder's playoff hopes, but great news for Westbrook's individual stats.
I fully expect Russell to take over on the offensive end for the Thunder every game this season. He's shown us what he can do when Durant isn't playing alongside him (Dropping consecutive triple doubles when Durant was injured in 2015), and I'm hoping he can replicate that performance this season. And who knows, if OKC win a few games and make the playoffs as a 5th seed or above, Westbrook might have a chance at his first MVP award.