For the last two years now, Russell Westbrook has outright refused to answer questions from Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel, and after the Thunder beat the Trail Blazers on Friday the bit spread to Paul George and other reporters. It’s not cute. They’re stepping on the ability of people to do their jobs for no legitimate reason other than to show how powerful they are, and the fact that no adult from the Thunder organization has stepped in and gotten Russ to knock it off is an indictment on the whole franchise.
As Bryan Curtis documented for Grantland all the way back in 2015, Westbrook and the Thunder’s bizarre beef with Tramel and the rest of the local media dates back for years. Westbrook began doing this specific “next question” bit to Tramel after a contentious exchange in 2017 when Tramel asked Steven Adams why the team struggled in a series against the Jazz when Westbrook went to the bench. Since then, every time Tramel asks him questions, Westbrook does the “next question” bit.
Earlier this month, Tramel eloquently explained why he continues to ask questions even though he knows there’ll be no answer:
Giving in to Westbrook’s “next question” by going quiet in the Thunder locker room just empowers Westbrook to see how much more he can get away with. Standing up to his intimidation doesn’t really change anything – the guy is too mentally tough to surrender; he’s not giving in – but it keeps him from encroaching even more on the already tepid media/Thunder relationship.
Here’s the crux: It’d be one thing if Tramel were an attention-seeking clown, there to troll athletes as a way to get attention for himself and build his own career. We all know there are some media members like that in various markets and ones who have successfully parlayed that role to national fame and fortune, but that’s not Tramel. He’s been covering Oklahoma sports for 40+ years, and covers the region with fairness and dignity. This isn’t even really about him.
It’s more about the fact that coach Billy Donovan, GM Sam Presti, and owner Clay Bennett made either a real or tacit deal with Westbrook when he signed his five-year, $205 million extension to stay with the team in 2017. Westbrook’s in charge there and he can do what he wants. To step in and stop him from being an asshole to the newspaper guy he’s entered into a war of wills with would be encroachment on the subjugation of the franchise that they granted him. It would open up a whole other can of worms.
Whether or not that deal was worth it for Bennett and co. is a matter of opinion. Westbrook brings excitement for an 82-game season in a market that relies on the gate for its incremental revenue (this is another problem of their own doing as Bennett moved the team from the nation’s 13th biggest television market to the 45th). Westbrook plays hard night in and night out and at least thus far his presence even without Kevin Durant has guaranteed a playoff berth. He successfully led the recruitment to keep Paul George on the team when everyone on the planet thought he’d be a rental, and deserves credit for however he made that happen.
On the flip-side, it’s also been a first round playoff exit each of the last two seasons and the Thunder will have to crawl out of a deficit to ensure that doesn’t happen again versus the Blazers. Westbrook has to prove wrong a whole lot of people who believe that his game does not translate to playoff success.
But the alternative without Westbrook was a kind of purgatory where the Thunder’s optimal strategy would’ve been to be terrible and then hope ping-pong balls and other various luck factors went their way. It’s easy to see why Thunder brass made the decision they did, even as it comes with lots of migraines.
Nevertheless, you’d think that given Westbrook has been with the team for 11 years there would be someone in the organization who could gracefully pull him aside and get him to see that he’s stubbornly acting in a manner that belies his self-interest. This is a petty war against Tramel that is a net negative for Westbrook. Where’s the win?