Another season averaging a triple-double with another season ending in a first round playoff exit. Those two events symbolize the polarizing figure that is Russell Geronimo Westbrook, point guard of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Even as we sided with him after a Utah Jazz fan said really disrespectful things to him while on the bench, we now laugh at his disappointing end to this year at the hands of contemporary — one whom Westbrook said he'd been, "busting that ass for years" — Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers. The jokes flew as quickly as Lillard's series-winning three traveled through the net. But amidst the expected down talk about Westbrook, there is a complexity to him that we as sports fans would love if it were packaged differently.
Westbrook is the ultimate competitor. I know that descriptive phrase gets thrown around a lot, but even if the incorrect stigma that NBA players don't play hard was true, it would not apply to Russ. He's one of the few players whose effort is visible and tangible. Every explosive dribble is coming from a man who wants to win so badly and believes he can pull victories from any circumstance. The existential question that underlies everything about him is simple with a multifaceted answer: Why can't Russell Westbrook win?
Let's start with where Westbrook himself can be held accountable. He is not the most efficient player. In fact, it appears his stubbornness and kinetic willpower fuel that inefficiency. Despite averaging a triple-double for the third straight year, his shooting percentages have gone down in each of those three years, plummeting to 42.8% this season. Even his free throw shooting was a career-worst at 65.6%, and while the NBA passed a rule that forced him to change his free throw routine, that doesn't explain a second-straight year of shooting below 30% from three. Combine him simply being a good shooter with the propensity to take tough and quick shots that all great players possess, and the result is a player that wants to change the outcome of a game through all that he is and succeeding — up to a point.
Gravity is a newish word in basketball circles. It functions on a similar plane as the dictionary definition of the word does, simply understanding how great players pull attention and defenders to them, freeing up teammates on offense. The Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry are a good example of this, as Curry's otherworldly accuracy in three-point shooting causes the defense to pay more attention to him on more areas of the floor. This allows Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, who are great players in their own right, to be even more effective in space.
Westbrook has so much gravitational pull that defense collapse on him as he barges his way to the basket. However, because of some mismatched parts, the space he would then receive because of his teammates is not there. Gravity can either create a beautifully working solar system or crash into other celestial bodies. To quote John Mayer, "gravity is working against him." Russ is the basketball hero we appreciate whose flaws are just as illuminated as his greatness. We, for all that he is, keep him where the light is.
Russell Westbrook does everything in his power to win, great or flawed. (Sports Illustrated)
Former NBA All-Star Gilbert Arenas has done tremendous research on the history of the NBA game. Recently on his No Chill Podcast, he stated a theory that since 1990, players who average a high number of assists (over seven a game) do not win championships. The exceptions are Avery Johnson in 1999 with the San Antonio Spurs, Jason Kidd in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks and LeBron James in 2016 with the Cleveland Cavaliers. His main reason behind this theory is that if one player is averaging a high number of assists, then his teammates aren't good enough to score on their own. The reason that Kidd and Johnson were outliers is because they had superstar teammates that did not need them to either score or help them score. LeBron James is the outlier because he is LeBron James.
There is credence to this theory. Think of the high assist players in recent memory: Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Deron Williams (music in link NSFW). All three have a career per-game average of at least nine. But if we were to break down how many true teammates could consistently create their own shot, there wouldn't be many. The names that immediately pop into my head are Joe Johnson, Amar'e Stoudemire, Blake Griffin (in the past couple years) and Brook Lopez, just three of the dozens of teammates these four amazing floor generals have had while leading their teams to moderate postseason success.
The simplest rule of basketball is its most important: put the ball in the basket. The less help a player needs to be able to do that, the better he is. Sure, interior players like Shaq and Tim Duncan need someone to pass the ball to them. But they don't need to be freed up by another player's ability to create. It helps, but it helps because those great players are great. Westbrook understands his importance, his teammates' strengths and weaknesses and how capable he is of putting his superstar imprint on any game, then plays basketball like a protective older brother. He's the oldest member of the Thunder, and has been since Kevin Durant left three years ago. At the height of his powers, he was thrust into a level of responsibility that no superstar can overcome by himself.
Does Westbrook have selfish tendencies? Absolutely. All great players do, because great players do not require anything but the ball to be great. But consider that as the Thunder acquired Paul George and Carmelo Anthony after Westbrook's incredible 2016-17 season, he understood that he can't do it by himself. Yes, he's their best player. But in understanding strengths and weaknesses, he knows how valuable each teammate is. This year, George had the best year of his career next to Russ, leading OKC in scoring and placing himself in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. Even despite another incredibly historic season and playing with that same ferocity he's known for, Westbrook took a step back to make space for another, better player to flourish.
Russell Westbrook is a cosmic force. And as he understands that he cannot force the stars to align, he can still be an astronomical titan with the power to make his galaxy as ordered as he can. He, like many of us and the universe, is complex, confusing and uniquely amazing.
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