In saying "good bye" to Russell Westbrook on Tuesday evening, Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti used an interesting choice of words to categorize Westbrook's significant to the franchise, since they moved to OKC from Seattle in 2008:
“Russell Westbrook is the most important player in the brief history of the OKC Thunder. He has left an indelible mark on this team, city and state.” -GM Sam Presti pic.twitter.com/53SbwyAIXl— OKC THUNDER (@okcthunder) July 17, 2019
The adjective "important" is an interesting one to use, because it takes on many meanings. (Amazingly, the term "most important player" might be even more ambiguous than the label "Most Valuable Player".) If I can read into what Presti is saying here, I think he is using the adjective "important" to salute Westbrook's loyalty to a small market (he stayed there when Durant left in free agency), his tenure with team (been with them since the move from Seattle in 2008), his level of play (eight time All Star, 2017 NBA MVP), his ties to the community (deep and charitable), his overall personality (energetic, brash), and the adulation from the fan base (overflowing).
I think, by any definition, Westbrook is Oklahoma City's most important player in team history. It's why that city is singing the blues the last seven days. Westbrook was beloved in Oklahoma City. Still is. It gets me thinking "Who are the current athletes in Houston whose sudden departure via trade would trigger a reaction on the level of Westbrook?" In other words, who are the most important athletes in Houston?
Keep in mind, I am going by the Presti definition of "important," so while studs like Alex Bregman and Deshaun Watson are beloved and important, they've each been here less than three years. Tenure matters. Justin Verlander may be the most important acquisition in the city's history, but again, he's been here less than two years. Hell, even Westbrook himself is crucially IMPORTANT to the Rockets this season, but he's been a Rocket three days.
Hopefully, you see where I'm going with this. So along those lines, here are the five most important athletes (Presti-style) in Houston:
5. JAMES HARDEN, Rockets
For a five-time first team All NBA performer, and a player who's been in the top two in the MVP race four times in five seasons, Harden still has a very odd relationship with the city of Houston. If the Rockets were to ever move Harden, it would be because ostensibly they've just hit a wall trying to win a title with him, and they're doing a reset. If that were the case, this would actually make certain pockets of the fan base happy. Overall, though, while Harden doesn't check the adulation box to the same degree as Westbrook in OKC, he pretty much hits everything else.
4. DeANDRE HOPKINS, Texans
Hopkins amazingly joined a franchise that employed Andre Johnson for over a decade, and has put himself on a track to exceed Johnson's career numbers within the next few seasons. Not only that, but Hopkins has become the best receiver in football, and a big personality with whom Texans fans really connect. The presence of Deshaun Watson probably prevents the Texans from ever being in a spot where they're trading veteran players for picks, but it's the NFL, so you never know. Hell, Johnson himself played for the Colts AND the Titans after his Texans run was done.
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3. GEORGE SPRINGER, Astros
The Astros have a lot of interesting names for a post like this, as outlined above. I think the fact that Springer's call up to the big leagues coincided with the Astros rising from the Dark Ages of 2011 through 2013, along with his role as the "heart and soul" guy on this star studded current squad, make him someone fans connect with more than almost anybody on the team. The 2017 World Series MVP award is icing on the cake.
2. JOSE ALTUVE, Astros
The only player above Springer is Altuve, whose Astros career actually INCLUDES the Dark Ages of 2011 through 2013. Altuve is the face of this era of Astros baseball, and the one player on this team (not named Verlander) who I would bet a tidy sum that he will be doing a speech in Cooperstown someday. The 2017 American League MVP award is HIS icing on the cake.
1. J.J. WATT, Texans
This one is a no brainer. I can list all the obvious on field (three Defensive Player of the Year awards) and off field (Watt Foundation, Hurricane Harvey relief efforts) accolades, and just how inspiring and impressive it was watching Watt come back from multiple truncated seasons of gruesome injuries. I think the interesting thing with Watt, given the impetus for this exercise, is how similar his career is to Westbrook's — both have been viewed as elite players, both have been in love affairs with their cities, both have had their injury issues, and both are in their early 30s searching out that elusive ring.