Published 11:00 p.m. UTC Jul 27, 2018
LAS VEGAS — Russell Westbrook wasn’t about to do any extended media session at Team USA mini-camp on Thursday, but he certainly had something to say.
As fellow Oklahoma City Thunder star Paul George sat on the sideline explaining for the first time why he decided to stay put, spurning the hometown Los Angeles Lakers while re-upping on a four-year, $137 million deal earlier this month, Westbrook chimed in from mid-court in the kind of acerbic way he knows how.
“Tell them the truth,” Westbrook hollered at George. “Tell them I’m a bad teammate. That’s what they want to hear.”
All you had to do to remember the old Westbrook narrative was glance across the room at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center. The Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant was among the 23 all-world players who took part in the Team USA mini-camp which concludes on Friday, and his very presence served as a reminder that most folks around the NBA believe he would not have left Oklahoma City in the summer of 2016 if there had been a more synergistic relationship with Westbrook.
For all of Westbrook’s greatness — seven All-Star appearances, MVP honors in 2017 and back-to-back triple-double seasons — he’s as strong a personality as you’ll ever find. But as George discussed with USA TODAY Sports after his group session with reporters, Westbrook made all the right moves when it came to convincing him to stay. The irony, of course, is that this recruiting effort wasn’t really much of one at all.
At least not in the conventional sense.
“It wasn’t even about him going beyond and being extra (with his efforts),” said George, a five-time All-Star who averaged 21.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists and two steals per game last season. “It was about him being himself, him being genuine, him being authentic, him being real. Nothing about him is fake, and that’s the people I want to be around, somebody who’s going to tell it like it is, somebody who’s going to push you, somebody who’s going to encourage you, somebody who’s going to motivate you, and vice versa.
“That’s how I am. It just felt genuine. It felt like a really strong and great relationship being around him. It didn’t take him to recruit me. It didn’t take him asking me to be here, asking me to be a part of the team going forward. None of that ever came up.”
In terms of relationship progress, Westbrook and George came a long way in one season.
“We didn’t know each other (before last season),” George said. “I actually connected with Russ my rookie year. He did a ‘Why not?’ basketball charity game. I went to it off of mutual friends that I knew and went there to support, and that was really my first time really knowing him.
“Up until then, when we’d play each other, it was a ‘Hey. Hi. Bye. Yo, what’s up (relationship).’ It was never really like a ‘What’s good bro? What you doing tonight? What you doing later?’ There was never really any relationship. It was kind of like our first time getting to know each other when we first got here.”
By the time he was agreeing to re-up with the Thunder, the formal announcement came during a planned house party at the Westbrook residence in Oklahoma City where famed rapper Nas performed. What a difference one season can make.
The widespread surprise regarding George’s decision wasn’t hard to understand. Not only had the Thunder (48-34) under-performed during the regular season after acquiring George from the Indiana Pacers last summer, but their first-round playoff loss to the Utah Jazz was the kind of finish that sparked all sorts of speculation that George would want out.
After all, George made it clear to the Pacers last summer that he planned on signing with the Lakers in free agency. It was an unorthodox move, to be sure, but his transparency allowed the Pacers to land All-Star Victor Oladipo and Domatas Sabonis in the deal that sent him to the Thunder. Yet when the time came for the Palmdale, Calif., native to follow through on his stated plan of heading for Laker Land, everything had changed.
Yet it’s one thing to not sign with the Lakers, and quite another to not even take a meeting with Magic Johnson and company — or anyone else.
“The reason why I didn’t (take a meeting) is that coming down to free agency and before it was about to open (on July 1), I felt really good where I was at,” George said. “I felt I was in a good place with Oklahoma. I wanted to come back to LA. That story was true. The narrative on that was true.
“That’s where my heart was. But this year, being in Oklahoma, I felt really good about the situation, I felt really good going forward, and I didn’t want to waste nobody’s time and take a meeting. And now I’m straddling the fence, putting more stress and more pressure on the situation. I felt good about it. I felt great where we were at, so I decided to do it early, to get it over with, and start to build. I didn’t get that chance to last summer, because I got traded late in the summer. So I never got that chance to start fresh, to work to get better with Russ and work to get better with the Thunder. So I wanted to attack that early and get ready for my career.”
Somewhere along the way, with George re-signing and the Thunder looking worthy of being Western Conference contenders for years to come, the book on Westbrook as a teammate was forever changed.
Follow Sam Amick on Twitter @sam_amick.discusses, George, Lakers, Paul, returned, Thunder