June 23, 2014

Oxymoron: Russell Westbrook is Basketball’s Walking Contradiction


This feature was first published in 131st edition (2014 - No. 10) of SLAM China magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.

There goes Russell Westbrook, grabbing a rebound, sprinting frantically down the floor, and expertly dropping the ball into Kevin Durant’s hands for an easy two points.

There goes Russell Westbrook, turning an easy pass into a turnover.

There’s Westbrook taking and missing a contested, ill-advised three-pointer, when two of his teammates are wide open for better shots.

And now, here he is attacking the basket, getting to the free-throw line, and tying the game to take his team into overtime.
In overtime, there goes Russell Westbrook converting a tough lay-up to give the Thunder the lead in Game 6 of the Conference Finals, with his team facing elimination against the Spurs, and just two and a half minutes remaining on the clock.

But with 42 seconds left in the Thunder’s season, there is Westbrook attempting another go-ahead shot, only to see it blocked by the outstretched hands of Kawhi Leonard. The Thunder never get a chance again, and the game, the series, as well as their season, ends less than a minute of basketball time later.

Welcome to the complete Russell Westbrook experience. A scorer in the guise of point guard. A passer in the guise of an athletic shoot-first player. Called selfish for not creating enough for Kevin Durant. Called selfless for taking a step behind the spotlight of Durant. Loved by many and hated by a lot. Welcome to the world of the most complex and polarizing star in the NBA today.

The above moments – all from Game 6 of the 2014 Conference Finals – offered all aspects of the Russell Westbrook experience. They showed the jaw-dropping moments and the frustrating ones. Westbrook was the player who helped the Thunder get this far but also the player who made several mistakes to hurt his own team. It was his unpredictable play and his fighting spirit that kept his team in the game until the last seconds. But it was also the same unpredictable style that many blame for the Thunder’s lack of cohesion.

So who exactly is the real Russell Westbrook?

To close followers of the game, the story is by now very well known. Explosive guard out of UCLA is selected with the fourth pick in the 2008 draft by the Seattle Supersonics. Before he can play a minute for his home team in Seattle, the entire team picked up and relocated to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder. For Westbrook, a defensive specialist in college, there seemed to be no set position on the offensive end. He shot the ball too much for a point guard, but dribbled too much for a shooting guard. Is he a scorer or a creator? An offensive force or a defensive specialist?

The team began their first season in Oklahoma City 3-29 and finished with just 23 wins. But there is hope.

A year later, the core of young players lead the Thunder to a dramatic turnaround and compiled a 50-win season. They lost in the First Round of the playoffs after giving some headaches to eventual champions Lakers. A season from then, Westbrook made his first All Star appearance and began to legitimately find his name among the NBA’s top players. His numbers rose across the board and his team shot up to the Western Conference Finals.

But with a rise in prominence there is also a rise in notoriety. For every staunch supporter, there was now a vocal critic. As he rose in the spotlight, the glare also revealed his weaknesses. His inability to be pigeon-holed by position or style. His passion overtaking his sensibilities. But it is the same passion that made him special. And so the two opposing forces pull him in different directions, giving birth to an exciting, yet unpredictable NBA talent.

A year later, at just 23, Westbrook and the Thunder were in the NBA Finals. The pendulum swung the other way again, as the next season, Westbrook got hurt in the playoffs and his team couldn’t make it past the Second Round. And a few weeks ago, we saw them lose to the Spurs in an overtime loss in the Conference Finals, closing the chapter of yet another season unfulfilled.

This is the Russell Westbrook that we know today. The three-time All Star, the three-time member of the All NBA Second Team, and one of the best guards – positions be damned – in the league today. This is the Westbrook that has made his team one of the strongest and most-feared in the league.

Are we forgetting something? Or someone?

The story of Westbrook so far is impossible to tell without the story of Kevin Durant. That same Kevin Durant who was the Sonics’ original building block before Westbrook was drafted and the team became the Thunder. The same Durant who has led the league in scoring four of the last five seasons, while also somehow morphing into one of the most efficient shooters of our time. The Durant who came into the league with promise of becoming a game-changer, and then has gone on to deliver on that promise by a young age. The Durant who justifiably won the NBA’s MVP award this season.

Westbrook’s own legacy is complicated by the man with whom he shares the court. Both players need each other to thrive in the NBA, but most experts believe that, ironically, they are not suited to play together at all. Their styles clash. One is the quiet, efficient assassin, with the capability of turning any system into a winning system. The other is the turbo-charged monster, whose command on the ball becomes the system itself.

Westbrook is sorely missed when Durant fails by himself, but he is blamed when the Thunder fail with the two on the floor together. Durant earns high praise – deservedly – for OKC’s successes, but praise for Westbrook is reserved more for his possession-by-possession brilliance instead of his impact on the entire game.

There are two divergent schools of thought with Westbrook. The ‘Let Westbrook be Westbrook Team’ believes that a player of his prodigious talents shouldn’t be caged in with traditional definitions of NBA positions and tactics. He was the only player in the post-season to be top four in both scoring (26.7 ppg) and assists (8.1 apg). Beyond the stats, he motivates his team with his much-needed passion. Durant is the ever-constant working engine, the remixed Tim Duncan for the new generation. But Westbrook is the fire that can ignites the team in ways Durant’s quiet style rarely does. Westbrook may or may not be a great point guard, but there is no doubt that he’s a great player.

But there is the other school of thought which believes that, for Thunder to finally turn their championship potential into actual championships, the ball has to go through Kevin Durant more often and there needs to be a quick-passing system of offense around him, which could only happen with a diminished role for Westbrook. For Durant and his other talented teammates like Serge Ibaka to reach their full offensive potential, they need a true point guard to set plays, find the open man, and keep the ball moving. Despite his talents, Westbrook is not that player. He is prone to taking more shots than Durant, many of which are ill-advised. He is prone to turnovers or turning a blind eye to open teammates. He is prone to doing the very things that make him great, and the same things that make him a problem. He is prone to ‘Being Westbrook’.

In the Second Round of this year’s playoffs, the Thunder faced the Los Angeles Clippers, and Westbrook went directly against the man who currently serves as the model citizen of their position. Although he was suffering with minor niggles, Chris Paul is widely regarded as perhaps the best point guard in the league, a true team-first player who helps to make his teammates better, rarely turns the ball over, leads by example, and can be a devastating scorer when the moment calls. The Thunder got the best of the Clippers in the series, but Paul could be a reminder to Westbrook of how effective he could be if he honed his energy and intelligence in the right direction.

Westbrook and Durant are still young players with the primes of their careers in front of them, but their window of opportunity won’t last forever. With their talent, they will be expected to challenge for championships for years to come. But, the question once again comes around to their co-habitability. The two superstars make for a great team together, but can they truly make an NBA champion?

The onus will be not only on the two stars to redefine their gams to make the most of each other’s abilities, but also on the team’s coach to get more creative with his offensive sets to create easier scoring opportunities for all the players on the court. Having Westbrook as a starting point guard for any coach is a challenge, but the challenge can reap huge rewards if his skills are harnessed the right way.

The complete Russell Westbrook experience is a rollercoaster, delighting and disconcerting from one possession to the next. He gambles on defense, but can be a menace defensive when he is dialed in. He takes too many shots, but is unstoppable when those shots start falling. He commits too many turnovers, but he can attract defensive attention away from his teammates and help create shots for others. He’s a superstar who is accused of taking shots away from the league’s MVP, but he is also someone who makes life easier for the same MVP.

Westbrook has the potential of becoming something special: a new generation hybrid player, with the skill-set and ability that we have never seen before. He’s nearly there, and his on-court evolution from this point on will determine his legacy. Will he always struggle to find the balance between a scorer and a passer? Or will be become that perfect scoring and passing hybrid, the first player with a real chance of leading the modern NBA in both points and assists after Tiny Archibald did it in 1973?
In his emotional MVP speech, Kevin Durant saved his note for Westbrook for the very last among his teammates. And it was for good reason. Despite the apparent differences between them, the two are as close as any teammates in the league, and are determined to grow and succeed together.

“I don’t take it for granted,” Durant told him in his speech, “There’s days that I just wanna tackle you, and tell you to snap out of sometimes. I know there’s days you wanna do the same thing with me. I love you man… A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player and I’m the first to have your back, man, through it all. Just stay the person you are… You made me better… You’re an MVP-caliber player. It’s a blessing to play with you.”

Durant’s words of support for his prodigious teammate say it all. Westbrook is imperfect, and he and Durant are imperfect together. But they make each other better. And for the foreseeable future, the camaraderie that they have among each other is unlikely to be broken off. So all they have left to do is try and make it work, to try and fit the imperfect pieces of the puzzle into a perfect result.

The Thunder couldn’t get that perfect result this season. By the time Game 6 of the Conference Finals ended in an overtime loss to the Spurs, they found themselves outclassed by a savvier, more balanced squad. Westbrook ended up with 34 points, eight assists, seven rebounds, and six steals. He made 17 of his 18 free throw attempts. But conversely, he only made eight of his 23 attempts from the field, turned the ball over seven times, and was in foul trouble throughout. He helped his team a lot, but also hurt them a little.

It was yet another see-saw night from the league’s walking contradiction. But once the creases can be straightened and rough edges sharpened up, Westbrook can live with the contradictions if he starts walking towards a championship.

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