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Culture / Sporting Life

Russell Westbrook’s Revenge Tour Begins in Most Humble Houston Way Possible

Suddenly Criminally Underrated in NBA, Mr. Triple-Double Will Have His Say

BY // 07.27.19

There is a big “Welcome Russell Westbrook” banner hanging high above the front entrance of the Toyota Center, but that’s largely it. It’s a far cry from the crazy scene that greeted Dwight Howard when he was first introduced as a new Houston Rockets savior back in 2013.

Howard got a Godzilla-sized image of himself put up on the side of a parking garage, alongside the pictures of Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone and Elvin Hayes, the best big men in Rockets history. Fans waited in 100-degree heat to chant his name. Olajuwon himself and Yao Ming sat in front row of his presser.

Westbrook gets one big banner outside… and a pretty business-like introduction.

To be fair, the Rockets are a different organization these days at a different point in their history, with different ownership. Even if the same general manager is still trying to prove he can build an NBA championship team.

Still, it’s almost like the Rockets are almost downplaying adding Russell Westbrook, the most relentless star in the league. If everyone else around the NBA wants to paint adding a clear Top 10 difference maker (yes, Westbrook is still a Top 10 NBA player despite what may have heard) as being some big gamble, the Rockets will uncharacteristically play a little possum too.

They’ll be no great fanfare, no public party.

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Just a smiling Westbrook, sitting next to GM Daryl Morey, answering questions with an enthusiasm that belies his “Next Question” image. James Harden, the Rockets star who has been friends with Westbrook since the two were elementary school aged kids in Los Angeles, sits in the front row.

But they’ll be no bragging or back slapping about bringing two of the NBA’s last three MVP Award winners together on the same team. Just talk about a shared drive to win a championship.

It’s somewhat refreshing to see. But it also hides one of the NBA’s weird 2019 realities.

Russell Westbrook has somehow become almost criminally underrated. The attacking blur who’s averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons found himself largely painted as something of a 50-50 risk when the news of the Rockets trade for him came out.

Heck, even the makers of the NBA 2K20 video game can’t get it right, ranking Westbrook behind both Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving.

Don’t buy the unhype. This is a huge coup for Morey and the Rockets. Imagine if the Astros added Aaron Judge or Mookie Betts to go with Jose Altuve. That’s what this is.

Westbrook’s Unique Force

There are few things in sports as exhilarating as watching Russell Westbrook in the open floor, pushing for the rim. Westbrook immediately makes the Rockets a much more exciting — potentially more real Mike D’Antoni-like team. He immediately makes the prospect of defending this Houston offense much less comfortable — and maybe, more importantly come the playoffs, much less of a predictable proposition.

“He plays with such an energy, a passion, a will to win that’s really, I think, unparalleled in the NBA,” Morey says.

As Jeff Van Gundy’s long said, playing hard is a skill. And no one is more skilled at that in the Association than Russell Westbrook.

“He doesn’t seem to get tired,” Morey says at podium table. “It’s intimidating to opponents how much passion he plays with.”

Morey’s remarks are broadcast live on the Rockets’ own website, one local Houston radio station and little elsewhere — a sharp contrast to the Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Steve Ballmer show in Los Angeles just the day before.

No matter. Westbrook seems fine with low keying it for now. He still brings it.

“It’s hot as hell, tell you that,” Westbrook cracks when  asked for his initial impressions of Houston. “But other than that, it’s been great.”

“For free agents out there,” Morey jumps in with a smile, “it’s 75 degrees all season. All season. Summer’s a little hot.”

Westbrook is 30 now, going on his 12th season in the NBA, the father of three, including two twin girls under the age of one. He arrives in Houston as a grown-up force of nature. It will not be a surprise to see his scoring go down and his assists go up even higher in his new life as a Rocket ring seeker.

“Maybe, throw a few lobs to James (Harden) if he’s still got it,” Westbrook laughs.

Westbrook immediately makes the prospect of defending this Houston offense much less comfortable — and maybe, more importantly come the playoffs, much less of a predictable proposition.

This is Russell Westbrook, one of the most fiercely competitive and proud athletes on the entire planet, though. As relaxed as he seems on this introduction day, it’s hard not to imagine him taking mental notes on all the disrespect, the downgrading of his standing in the NBA star pantheon, the triple-double deniers gushing about the bounty of first round picks the Oklahoma City Thunder walk away with.

Westbrook’s on-court response this season will be a show to remember.

That’s who he is. That’s what he does.

The Houston Rockets added Russell Westbrook. Everyone in the NBA needs to remind themselves of what that really means — and gulp.

No one will be downplaying Russell Westbrook by Christmas.

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