It took just moments for speculation to begin. After Kevin Durant announced he was joining the Golden State Warriors and leaving the Thunder, the next logical step was “what happens to Russell Westbrook?”
With the Lakers the long-assumed potential suitor for Westbrook, the speculation of a trade began, though not from any legitimate sources. Still, the talks were there. With an underwhelming season from D’Angelo Russell last year, would the Lakers move him for Westbrook despite knowing the former Bruin could bolt after one year, similar to Dwight Howard?
While the Lakers were saying the right things, there was no doubt the front office at least pondered the idea. There was also no doubt that Russell heard those talks. Heading into the Summer League, Russell was planted in the center of Twitter speculation with the tweets of snitching giving way to tweets of trading him for Westbrook.
In one week’s worth of games, Russell muted the speculation.
Few players, if any, were more dominant than Russell was in his four games, scoring seemingly at will, controlling opponents and setting up teammates.
He was embarrassing opponents, burying game-winners, shaking defenders out of their shoes and, for arguably the first time in a Laker uniform, looking consistently like the player who can lead the franchise in the wake of Kobe Bryant.
His confidence was oozing, overflowing with each point to his right arm as he mouthed the words “Ice in my veins.” Each no-look pass eased doubts of his ability to run an offense, each three-pointer softened reservations of his ability to lead an NBA team and each timeout showcased that Russell was ready to be the leader of this team.
And, most importantly, each game pushed him further and further from trade talk.
There’s no doubt that if Russell had struggled like he did last season in Summer League, the tweets would grow in number. Maybe the Lakers hadn’t found “their guy.” Maybe the team should cut their potential losses on the young, sometimes immature guard and take the risk on a proven star in Westbrook.
Instead, the tweets shifted from speculation of dealing Russell to speculation of a back court featuring both Westbrook and Russell. No longer were fans interested in seeing one or the other, but instead eager to see them both after free agency next season.
Russell’s play not only reassured fans that their confidence in him wasn’t misplaced, but also assured fans he was worth the second overall pick and the high praise that came along with it.
Most importantly, he proved that, for the Lakers, he was the Russell they needed.