When I initially decided to say something about Russell Westbrook, it was mostly critical because I was mad and had been sending emails and text messages about Russell pulling up for contested jumpers in crunch time of close games. It happened most noticeably in game four against Denver when the OKC point put up thirty shots and missed 18. OKC ended up winning the series 4-1 so it wasn’t a nasty strike on Westbrook’s young résumé; just another example of his frustrating tendencies. And that’s why I sent all those angry texts and emails: Because three years into the league, playing opposite the league’s top scorer in Kevin Durant, Russell still felt the need to gun from the point spot.
I say “still” because I’ve been watching OKC closely since they left Seattle and what used to be a cute little hiccup in his first two seasons has developed into something stranger and more difficult to define. First and second year point guards aren’t supposed to be polished. They make mistakes like throwing errant passes, pushing the break too fast and charging over veteran defenders. They shoot poorly from the field and do the wrong things at the wrong time. Basketball heads nod and agree that they’ll get it at some point. If they don’t get it, they’ll eventually be replaced by someone who does. Now in his third year as a player who’s already won a gold medal at the 2010 World Basketball Championships, already named to the all-star team, is already considered elite at his position; we expect him to improve this singular part of his game.
Frustration leads to speculation, so I wondered what was motivating Russell to chuck up contested threes in close games when Kevin Durant was standing 15 feet away. Is he pulling a G-Money move to Durant’s Nino Brown? We all know how that turned out. Trying to prove to someone, anyone, that he could do the Durant? Is he trying to force his way out of the long shadow cast by Durant’s arms, legs and point-per-game average? Maybe it has nothing to do with Durant. Is he inept? Does he genuinely think it makes sense to pull up from 23 feet with Ty Lawson’s hand in his face when OKC is down 5 in Denver with under a minute left? Is he true a point guard?
Or is my frustration misplaced?
On any given day, Russell Westbrook is the third best point guard on the planet and on his bad days he’s still probably not much worse than fifth best. In terms of convention, he doesn’t fit the description. He doesn’t pass like his head is a giant eyeball seeing everything. He doesn’t lead like a general or a quarterback. He’s far from a calming presence on the floor (he’s led the league in total turnovers in two of his three seasons). He’s closer to a live wire whipping from baseline to baseline, bricking jumpers and collecting his own rebounds before defenders can even consider the boxout process. He’s never missed a game in three years which isn’t surprising even though he attacks offensive rebounds with bad intentions . By any statistical measure, he’s improved each year he’s been in the league.
Yet my text messages and emails are still met with mostly agreement. We agree: Russell Westbrook takes some dumbass shots at seriously inopportune times. We are a consensus, but through all my Russell Westbrook considerations, I can’t help but feel he might be onto something. The point guard he most resembles is Derrick Rose. Both PGs defy the position’s tradition by actively looking for their shots, but the difference is Rose doesn’t have Kevin Durant riding shotgun. He doesn’t have anything that even resembles Durant and as a result, every day in the United Center is Derrick Rose Day.
Which brings me to a place I didn’t think I didn’t think I’d arrive: Westbrook’s destiny and ceiling might be Derrick Rose’s 2010-11 season: MVP, best record in the league, all-star starter. He has the athleticism, a similar on-court mentality and damn near the exact same stats. If he truly believes he can do what Rose can do (he’s seen it up close at the World Championships), then he has a responsibility to himself to pursue it—potentially independent of Kevin Durant. Of course this goes against the grain of the selfless point guard who makes teammates better, but what’s an archetype to Russell Westbrook?
After all this, I’m no closer to understanding Russell Westbrook. I get it that he’s not a traditional point guard and I should adjust my expectations to him, not him adjusting his game to the expectations of his position. But until he’s got his own team or Durant’s sitting on the bench with six fouls or a boot on his foot, please Russell, do the right thing…whatever that is.