Zero Appreciation: The Burden Of Russell Westbrook

It’s hard to imagine going through life carrying the burden of unyielding intensity, a complete lack of apathy. This is the life that the cosmic forces of the universe chose for Russell Westbrook, understanding that only his fusion of speed, power, and explosiveness combined with his compact size could produce the kind of unintentional violence that has become the signature for his game. This inability to tone his in-game intensity is often comes off as a personality disorder, and at other times makes him other-worldly, as he does things that humans should not have the capability of doing.

This demeanor makes him a little harder to warm up to, you have to be brave to fall in love with his game. Russ’ violence has its own nature, it’s own ecosystem of awe. To appreciate him is to appreciate the inherent beauty of his aggression — the aesthetic of vehemence. The desultory interest he has in the well being of his opponents is shocking without an understanding that he knows no other way — and even if he did, he’s incapable of being anything other than himself.

More than any other player, it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to put into words what it’s like watching Russ, the ethos of his game is counter to the way the rest of us live our lives. He’s uniquely aesthetically profound and mechanically terrifying. He can move with the fluidity of a humpback whale or the precision of a thresher shark. He has the speed of an ostrich and the aggression of a cassowary. Adjectives don’t exist to describe his particular brand of relentless explosiveness.

Last Thursday night, we were blessed with the most Russell Wesbrook play of all time. In a very unofficial time (I counted in my head), Russ received an inbound pass near the baseline of the Thunder’s own basket and dunked it on the other end in just under five seconds — the length of the court in a Vine. As the Philadelphia 76ers were implementing a full-court press, he took the pass as he was already building momentum going toward the left sideline. As he turned up the sideline, he outran the three Sixers in the front court and literally flew by the other two in five dribbles.

94 feet. Five defenders. Five seconds. Five dribbles. This is the Westbrook zeitgeist. If most NBA point guards exist as high-end sports cars, Russell Westbrook is a derailed freight train being driven like a Ford GT40 Mk IV. It’s nearly impossible to watch that play and not believe in evolution or aliens or that the robots like him will eventually take over the world.

On Sunday afternoon, Westbrook notched his fifth triple-double in six games with an absurd 30 point, 11 rebound, 17 assist, four steal performance. In the game he didn’t record a triple double, he had a 43/8/7 line that was largely reduced to a cool performance in a loss. Since the beginning of February, no one has played better basketball. Russ has been better than the rest of the NBA by a wide margin. To date, both Stephen Curry and James Harden have probably had better full seasons, but what Russ has done in the last five weeks has moved him into a conversation with some contemporary superstars who have also had unreal extended stretches of basketball.

In the last decade, the only players who had stretches where they were this self-aware of their own unconsciousness were Kobe Bryant in 2006 and LeBron James in 2013. Bryant spent January of 2006 scoring at a clip I still find hard to believe nine years later. James probably had the most efficient stretch of basketball of all time in February of 2013 when he went 14 consecutive games shooting at least .500 from the field, and extended that to 19 of 20 games after a rare off night on March 1.

Russ? Well, he’s averaging 33 points, 9.6 rebounds 10.5 assists with a .578 TS% since February, single-handedly trying to fill the emptiness left by Durant’s absence by doing things we just haven’t seen anyone do since Michael Jordan was title-less. Without Durant, many wondered who Russ would become with only a single spotlight on the court, and he’s shot down the idea that he doesn’t understand the premise that there’s an unquestionable difference between what’s right and what’s wrong. Russ has found trust in his teammates, and the Thunder are finding trust in the providence Russ has provided, which will only make them that much more dangerous with the return of Durant.

Because of Russ’ play since February, many are finally seeing the incongruous mixture of the selfish perception and reality that the kid just wants to win. We can’t stay transfixed on the fact that he often times takes shots that should have been moved to an open teammate, or the terror you feel when you realize that he’s not just dribbling, he’s stabbing the floor with the basketball.

Russ is a flawed basketball player like every other ball player in the game’s history. Unfairly, Russ had been relegated the archetype of a gunner above all else. His size suggests he should be a point guard in the truest sense, which in turn suggests that his mentality should be pass-first — especially when he has an all-world scorer like Durant on the floor with him. The diametrical assumptions of Russ and Durant’s individual games left little room for Westbrook to be Westbrook earlier in his career, which in turn left little room to love his game for what it is, instead of for what we always expected it to be. Carrying Russ’ burden looks exhausting from the outside looking in, but that unyielding intensity has him on the verge of potentially capturing the league’s MVP, and maybe more in the postseason. I’m not sure if these last five weeks will be enough to thrust him above the likes of the other equally deserving candidates for the league’s most coveted regular-season award, but if not, Russ is used to playing with zero appreciation.

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