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Westbrook does his part while teammates do their best


We’re all role players.

Some are smaller than others. Others enjoy more fame and acclaim. Some are taken for granted; some get more credit than merited.

But in the end, a role is a role. The MVP-candidate or end-of-the-bench cheerleader. The company clerk or the CEO.  The school principal or school custodian. Each has a job and can be graded on individual performance.

I mention this in reference to Russell Westbrook, who took offense to a question after Oklahoma City’s loss Sunday against Houston. A reporter asked Thunder center Steven Adams, essentially, why the team struggles so much when Westbrook heads to the bench and if the Rockets seem reinvigorated when he departs.

For context, Houston had just won a 113-109 affair in which Westbrook had 35 points, 14 points and 14 rebounds. During 39 minutes with him on the court, the Thunder was plus-14. During the nine minutes – nine minutes! – that Westbrook rested, the Thunder was minus-18.

Through four games in the series, OKC is plus-3 with him and minus-40 without him.

“I don’t want nobody trying to split us up.” Westbrook said before Adams could answer the question. “We are one team. We’re in this together. Don’t try to make us go against each other. I don’t want to hear that. We playing as a team and that’s all that matters.”

That’s an admirable response, I suppose, good-hearted and well-intentioned. Westbrook is rejecting the “me and my guys” style of leadership employed masterfully by LeBron James and comically by Paul George.

But the response was a bit naïve and disingenuous, too.

Imagine if Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby stood on his head with his hair aflame and stopped 59 of 60 shots against Pittsburgh on Thursday while Washington went 0-for-8 on power plays and lost. Or consider what we’d think if Max Scherzer went the distance in a one-hitter with 21 strikeouts and no walks, but the National lost.

Asking what happened to everyone else (besides Holtby and Scherzer) in those instances is fair. Clearly two guys excelled at work while their teammates … not so much. Pointing out the discrepancy isn’t an attempt to separate the team. Inquiring minds want to know what players think about it, but Westbrook offered constructive criticism for such queries.

“Say, ‘Russell you haven’t played well at all,’” he suggested. “Say, ‘Russell and the team hasn’t played well.’” Don’t say, ‘When Russell goes out, the team doesn’t play well.’ That doesn’t matter. We’re in this together.”

In terms of bottom-line grades – wins and losses – absolutely. The same is true when different kinds of teams are graded on annual profit, sales numbers, repeat visits, test scores, etc.

But individuals also receive their own report cards and performance reviews. Giving Westbrook an A-plus and backup Norris Cole a D-minus doesn’t change the fact that both took an L.

The grades simply point out that one player was much better than the other in fulfilling their roles.

High-profile gigs such as president, coach, CEO and MVP-candidate must accept more personal responsibility for group failure. Fair or not, it comes with the territory, like saying such-and-such quarterback never won a Super Bowl.

Stand-up coaches routinely accept the blame when their teams fail to show up at the outset or execute down the stretch. It’s the coach’s fault, at least for public consumption. He might’ve done everything humanly possible to position his team for victory, but credit goes to the coach who sealed the deal.

Westbrook’s job – like the part played by LeBron, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Washington’s John Wall, among others – is to be his team’s best player, no matter what. They are leading men, sometimes joined by others to form duos (Steph Curry & Kevin Durant) or trios (James, Kyrie Irving & Kevin Love), players with the largest impact on final scores.

They can’t do it alone, however. Each one needs contributions from seven or eight teammates who enter the game. A bucket here and a rebound there. A few assists. Timely fouls. Key defensive stops.

It’s a team game and there’s no “I’ in team.

There is, however, a “me.”

Some players love the attention that comes with the spotlight. Fine. That’s more personality trait than character flaw, more like the difference between extroverts and introverts.

But Westbrook has struggled to make the Thunder’s season about them more than him. As he amazed us on a nightly basis and broke the 55-year-old record for triple-doubles, he was loath to discuss the significance. It was all about the team, whether OKC won or lost, not individual brilliance.

He fulfilled his role all season and did it again on Sunday. He still doesn’t want us harping on the obvious, his teammates’ glaring shortcomings that define his MVP candidacy. He knows, they know and we know.

It’s OK, Russ. We get it.

The Thunder is one team and some of y’all aren’t very good in your roles.

That’s just life.

— Brooklyn-born and Howard-educated, Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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