He’s a neat freak who despises clutter, so when it comes to personal space, Westbrook is looking for every opportunity to get some breathing room. He stands a step back in the team line during the national anthem, avoiding any potential shoulder-to-shoulder contact.
During breaks, he always takes his seat on the very last chair on the end of the bench. After shootaround, he shoots in a corner of the practice facility, by himself. He arrives at the arena some three hours before home tipoffs, going through his warm-up without any teammates on the floor with him.
This season, Westbrook and the Thunder decided to move his postgame media availability away from his locker – one that sits alone in the locker room without a teammate on either side – and to the middle of the room in front of a whiteboard to keep reporters from hovering around his locker.
When Westbrook makes his way in for any interview, Thunder Director of Basketball Communications Matt Tumbleson will announce, almost like a procession is commencing, “Make way for Russell, please.” And Westbrook will stand in place, sometimes awkwardly, until a hole is formed with ample space to walk through without touching anyone.
When Kevin Durant decided to join the Golden State Warriors on July 4, Westbrook spoke with Thunder general manager Sam Presti and immediately asked, “What’s next?” The answer was to consider signing an extension, a move to stabilize the organization and create a road map forward in a post-Durant world. But before he made up his mind, Westbrook needed some space.
Officially, it was a month to the day after Durant left that Westbrook re-signed with the Thunder, but in reality, the decision was made a couple of weeks before that. Westbrook, now looking at forgoing his pending 2017 free agency, had a decision to make that he wasn’t anticipating.
He didn’t speak with any reporters about Durant’s decision; he didn’t chime in on social media (outside of a now infamous Instagram post of cupcakes on July 4). He needed some time. He retreated to Los Angeles with his family and weighed the situation.
Paired with Durant’s exit, a draft-night deal sent fellow franchise “founding father” Serge Ibaka to the Magic in exchange for young guard Victor Oladipo, and now the Thunder were suddenly facing a crossroads. Either Westbrook was going to sign an extension or they were going to trade him and begin a complete teardown and rebuild.
As other league executives buzzed about the possibility of Westbrook being available, the Thunder fielded calls but never remotely considered trading their star. They needed an answer first. They knew it would be firm and would be final. No back-channel maneuvering, no fence-straddling. That’s not Westbrook’s style.
“He just needed a little time to think because his free agency was pretty much sped up,” Thunder assistant general manager Troy Weaver said. “It was, ‘Well, now I’ve got to think about this. This wasn’t something I was planning on thinking about because I didn’t think this was gonna happen.’
We just gave him a little time to reflect, and even with it being a short window, he felt comfortable where he was in his career and his life, and he was, ‘OK, let’s tackle these years and move forward.'” A large factor in what Westbrook had to consider was what his new role would be.