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Houston Rockets

The Verdict: Is Russell Westbrook still a championship-calibre player?

Russell Westbrook finds himself at a career crossroads following reports he "wants out" of the Houston Rockets after one season, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

His much-anticipated arrival in Houston saw him join forces with former teammate and friend James Harden. While their combination led the Rockets to the second round of the playoffs, it appears that their time together could be coming to an end.

Two ball-dominant MVPs on the same team was always going to take some tinkering, which ultimately saw big man Clint Capela traded to free up the lane for Westbrook. He enjoyed stretches of dominance this season, but the Rockets struggled to convert the Russ-Harden combo into winning basketball.

As one of the most polarising players in the league, Westbrook's fans are just as loud as his detractors, so NBA.com's Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay) and Benyam Kidane (@BenyamKidane) both took a side and stated their cases as to where Westbrook stands after his 12th season in the league.

They've left the deciding outcome to the rest of the NBA.com Staff.

So without further ado, let's get to the proceedings.

The Case

Is Russell Westbrook still a championship-calibre player?

The Arguments

Kidane's case: Russ is still the guy

A new team, a new city, an interrupted season, coronavirus and a quad strain ... sure, Westbrook's 2019-20 campaign in Houston can be looked at as a misfire, but this season was one like no other, which saw him face multiple challenges on the road to the playoffs. However, despite the Rockets' disappointing season, I still think he possesses the tools to be an elite contributor on a championship team.

Is he a No. 2 option? A No. 1 option? Either way, Westbrook can still be the best or second-best player on a championship team.

According to The Athletic, he desires a return to the floor-general role he had with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and therein lies the issue - Westbrook needs the ball in his hands to thrive.

Playing alongside James Harden, he became more of a slasher and had to find ways to score off the ball. His lack of 3-point shooting didn't help, but he isn't exactly a "plug and play" type of guy that you can throw into any team, which is arguably what makes him Russell Westbrook. You have to build the team around him and play to his strengths.

I don't think the situation in Houston is a fair reflection on where Westbrook's basketball ability stands today. Keep in mind, he was named as an All-Star this season and averaged 27.2 points, 7.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game, playing some of his best basketball following the Capela trade.

The numbers are still there for Westbrook, but at this stage of his career, it's the fit that matters.

The way I see it, Russ is still really good at the things he does best. He finished third in the NBA for points in the paint (15.0 per game) behind Zion Williamson and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and only Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Ben Simmons assisted on more 3-pointers, per pbpstats.com.

Ideally, Westbrook finds a situation where he can be the No.1 ball-handler, alongside a team of shooters and slashers, with a big man who can space the floor and free up the lane for the explosive point guard, who despite several knee surgeries and his 32nd birthday in the rearview is still one of the most atomic players in the NBA.

After shooting 25.8% from the 3-point line last season and 30.5% for his career, Westbrook isn't going to turn into Steph Curry at this point in his career and that's fine because he's still really, really good at being Russell Westbrook.

Gay's case: Russ is still Russ, and that's the problem

Look, I get that Westbrook didn't get a fair shake in Houston. It was a weird year and we never truly got to see the Rockets get the best out of him due to injury and him contracting the coronavirus before the season restart.

Houston looked as if it found a way to unlock Westbrook and truly maximize his abilities on the floor by playing him at centre and with the reports that he's looking to be shipped out, we'll never truly see how that could've played out.

But here's the thing: Westbrook isn't a new kid on the block. He's been in the league now for 12 seasons - there are no more surprises with him. He is what he is. Is he a good player? Absolutely. Is he a future Hall of Famer? Without question. But there are plenty of Hall of Famers who were never the best player on a championship team. Westbrook will be one of them when all is said and done.

We saw how things played out for him in OKC when he was the second and sometimes third options on the early Thunder teams with Kevin Durant and James Harden. We saw how he evolved into an All-Star next to KD and how that partnership ended without a ring. We saw him lead the Thunder to the playoffs essentially by himself, defying all odds and eventually winning league MVP. And finally, we saw him underachieve when help finally arrived in the form of Paul George to close out his Thunder years.

We know what Russell Westbrook is by now. If you don't, you're either in denial or living under a rock.

Westbrook is a dynamic player that needs the ball in his hands to be successful but he isn't capable of being the best player on a championship team. For a player that plays the game like Westbrook does, that's a recipe for disaster if your goal is winning an NBA title.

Furthermore, we've seen very little evidence that Westbrook is willing to adapt his game for the benefit of the team, which is a huge problem.

You often hear about the dedication Westbrook has to his game and his willingness to improve. His compete level is rarely matched on a night to night basis - all great quality for a star player to have, but it leaves you scratching your head when a player as dedicated to winning as Westbrook is still hasn't made strides in improving a glaring weakness in his game.

For years, Westbrook has been criticized for his lack of range - he's a career 30.5 percent 3-point shooter. He's watched the league evolve with the 3-ball becoming more valuable than ever, yet he's doubled down on his style of play instead of trying to become a better long-range threat. That hasn't hurt him in terms of individual accolades, but it's hurt multiple teams he's been on that has had a chance to truly compete for a championship, and makes it tough for him to fit in on a team with other pieces ready to contend now.

The Rockets were able to figure it out somewhat by going completely unconventional - how many of the other 29 teams can afford to do that? I'll make it easy for you, the answer is none.

Can Westbrook still be valuable to a team? Of course, he can. With him on the roster, your team is likely to make the playoffs. Over an 82-game season (72 this year) he'll demand excellence that might will a lesser team to the postseason.

But the question wasn't is Russell Westbrook a valuable player or even a floor raiser. The question was is he still a championship-calibre player. Championships take sacrifice, championships take compromise. We've yet to see either from Westbrook in a championship situation - it's been his way or no way. And while his way has turned him into one of the league's best players over the last 10 years, it will continue to hold him back from a championship.

Being really good at being Russell Westbrook is fine if you're OK with your team being fine. We've been waiting for Westbrook to sacrifice and compromise, and it doesn't look like that's happening any time soon.

The Verdict

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): I'm more on Carlan's side, but I do want to make something clear: Westbrook is still a very good player.

We often focus on what he can't do because his flaws are quite obvious in today's NBA, but there are very few players in the league who can do what he does on a nightly basis. He's still a dominant scorer, a better passer than he often gets credit for and is one of the most electrifying players in the league. With him as your first or second option, you're going to be in the mix for a playoffs spot, which is why teams like the Charlotte Hornets, New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls could pursue him if the Rockets do make him available in trades.

In saying that, it's hard for me to see Westbrook being the first or second option on a championship team at this stage of his career. He's not quite good enough as a primary option to lead a team to the Finals and it becomes incredibly difficult to cover his weaknesses as a secondary or tertiary option. (Case in point: Houston moving Capela at the trade deadline to open up the court for Westbrook).

Again, there's still a ton of value in having a player like that on your team. He's going to put up numbers, make you competitive and make you relevant. But if you're primary goal is to win a championship, I'm not sure he's the answer.

Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): Benyam's point is more than valid that Westbrook still put up what would be career-best numbers for most players while working around an extremely unpredictable season. I also see where Carlan's head is at with Westbrook refusing to adapt his style of play to the current direction the NBA is headed in, or for the betterment of his team. But with that being said, I'm going to rock with Benyam because I do still think it the right situation, Russ could be the second-best player on a championship team.

The disclaimer there is that it depends on how talented the rest of the roster is, who the No. 1 player is and who the No. 3 option would be. It's hard to back my decision with all of those prerequisites, but I do think Westbrook is still a championship-calibre player. He's still a great passer when he wants to be, he's the best rebounding guard I've ever seen and he can still score the rock when he's attacking the basket. Add to it that there's never a moment on the floor that he isn't giving you 110% effort and that sounds like a championship-calibre plaeyr to me.

Do I think it's going to be a contender that takes the bait if he gets traded? No. Do I think he can be the No. 1 player on a team that makes a deep run in the playoffs? No. But like Scott said, he's going to stuff the stat sheet, he's going to draw attention to any franchise he goes to and realistically, I still think that he could lead just about any team in the league to the playoffs. Whether or not they'd win a playoff series is another story.

The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.

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