During Game 4 of the Utah Jazz – OKC Thunder first-round series, Russell Westbrook was standing at the scorer’s table, waiting to check in and make one last attempt at salvaging what would become a 113-96 loss, putting the Thunder 3-1 down in the series.
Right before he got in, Raymond Felton (somehow, still in the league) fouled Ruby Gobert, officially, and unofficially punched the Jazz center square in the nuts. Not a clean play, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was clear that the punch was unintentional and a mistimed attempt to stop Gobert from dunking the ball. Gobert remained on the floor for a few seconds to gather his breath and walked back to half court. Felton even began talking to him, looking to apologize by the look of things. And the moment would have passed, just another play in another playoff first-round playoff series.
Westbrook thrusting himself recklessly into action
Then Westbrook decided, inexplicably and rather quite foolishly, to confront Gobert, despite the fact that he had not been called out onto the floor yet and was neither the dude who had punched or been punched in the nuts. Gobert looked understandably confused, even more so when Westbrook slapped Gobert’s arm away. As the whitest, Mormon-ridden crowd ever, including the pasty Mitt Romney, jeered and hissed, officials were forced to halt play for a few minutes to figure out what happened. Gobert and Feldon were assessed technicals; Westbrook, somehow, escaped any punishment.
These types of instances – Westbrook thrusting himself recklessly into action, much like the way he plays – isn’t unusual for the former MVP. What about before Game 4, when, after Rubio thoroughly outplayed him in Game 3, Westbrook said he would “shut that shit off next game though. Guarantee that.”, and then proceeded to do next to nothing on defense in Game 4? Or last year in the playoffs, when a reporter asked Steven Adams about playing minutes without Westbrook on the floor and the UCLA product interrupted the question and refused to let Adams answer the question?
A polarizing player
There isn’t a more polarizing player in the NBA today, maybe since Allen Iverson first swaggered into the league, possibly since Wilt Chamberlin, wearing Chuck Taylors and smoking cigarettes, graced the court. At his best, the UCLA product is a hurricane in human form, a singular point of energy and anger fueled towards the purpose of destroying the opposing basketball team all by himself and through any means necessary. At his worst, Westbrook is a liability, a negative, the one player you don’t want to be with on a pick-up basketball team, a ball-hog who embodies the worst of Kobe and Iverson and any other gunner with none of the good. We’ve seen both of these Westbrook’s this series. Game 4 was atrocious, probably the worst performances by a star this year. Game 5 was the second-best performance by a star these playoffs; a marauding, captivating display of command and aggressiveness, taking a Thunder team down 25 in the third quarter to a 107-99 win, dropping a 45-15-7 to force a Game 6 in Utah. Sometimes, we get to see both sides in the same game.
Needless to say, nothing this season hasn’t gone to plan for the Thunder. An off-season in which Westbrook signed the mega extension and Sam Presti managed to trade for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony for (seemingly) pennies gave hope for a Thunder team that had lost Kevin Durant not even 12 months before. What followed, however, was a disjointed, erratic season where the Thunder never clicked, which gave way to an even uglier postseason. Carmelo looks straight-washed up, shooting 37.3% from the field and 23.1% from three, often on open looks. Paul George had a good Game 1, and then got played off the floor by Toby from the Office, before bouncing back for Game 5. Steven Adams looks hurt, and the Thunder bench is giving nothing on either end. It didn’t help that the players they traded – most significantly, Victor Oladipo – turned into better players once they left Westbrook’s gravity.
Westbrook’s 16 rebounds
Westbrook, however, is having the worst, or at least most troubled, season of all. Everything that people hated about his MVP campaign – the stat chasing, the ball hogging, the use of his teammates as props rather than fellow basketball players – came back with none of the otherworldly, outrageous good things – the 50-10-10 nights, the game winners, the relentless, overwhelming nature of his game. His final game of the season summed it up the best. He needed 16 rebounds to average a triple double for the second season in a row. Teammates boxed out everyone for him to grab the boards. The Thunder jacked up the pace. By the middle of the third quarter, Westbrook had his 16 rebounds.
At least the regular season held some joy. The playoffs have been miserable, at least until his explosion in Game 5. Before that; 36% from the field, 20% from three, being absolutely outplayed by Ricky Rubio, and, by far the most embarrassing, getting heckled by Mitt Romney. All the weakness of his game are being exposed by the Utah Jazz, just like they were exposed by the Rockets last year, and the Warriors before that, and the Heat in his one final all those years ago. Westbrook is the same as he’s ever been. That’s the problem. He’s just as reckless, aggressive, thrilling as he was when he was a young player, and he is just as thoughtless, out-of-control, and selfish as he was when he was rookie. It’s watching the same movie with a slightly older lead actor; everyone knows the ending already. In Game 6, Westbrook went for a 46-10-5 while his teammates (besides Adams) shit the bed. He also took 46 field goal attempts to get there.
An absurd athleticism
What really hurts? This was the year for Westbrook. The team was built around Westbrook’s absurd athleticism and ability to warp the floor like a black hole, sucking defenders in before kicking it out to open shooters. The construction of the team around him made sense as well; Paul George was the ideal second banana, able to shoot off-ball and pick up the slack offensively when Westbrook sat, as would Carmelo. Steven Adams is the ideal center in the modern NBA; huge, but nimble, an excellent defender whose willing to rim run and not worry about touches. Andre Roberson was a lockdown defender. The bench had some decent, if not great options.
All of the failings of the Thunder team cannot be placed on Westbrook. Carmelo was terrible in the season and even worse in the playoffs. Roberson blew out his knee midway through the season, killing basically any chance of a deep playoff run for the Thunder. Billy Donovan may or may not be a good coach, I still can’t tell. The bench production has been non-existent. And even if everyone had been healthy, it remains difficult (but not impossible) to see them beating the Warriors or the Rockets in a seven-game series.
But Westbrook is the best player, and players like George and Adams and, last year, Sabonis and Oladipo , are not G-League players that Westbrook is dragging to 45 win seasons. A team revolves around it’s best player, and how well it revolves depends on the best player running the team well; sacrificing numbers, knowing when to pick spots, developing a system that is more than isolation basketball. When Westbrook sits, the Thunders play the exact same way, because it’s the way they always play, the way they practice, because Westbrook wants them to play that way.
His stats didn’t reflect his dominance
The Jazz team provides a stark contrast to the Thunder; well coached, well worked, efficient, drilled, a team. The Thunder look like a bunch of rec league players at the YMCA sharing the court for the first time. Or compare it to Kyrie Irving, a player in a similar position as Westbrook for a few years, playing second fiddle to a better player while, at their core, they were ball-dominant guards. Kyrie won a championship, and now, during the time he was playing with the Celtics, knew how to run the team; how to sense the moment when he had to take over; how to integrate himself and a bunch of new faces into a team. His stats didn’t reflect his dominance.
Now, the Thunder are dragging the weight of being a small market team. I can’t expect Paul George will resign, which means Presti gave up a 2nd team all NBA guard and a valuable bench player for a one-year rental. Carmelo Anthony’s contract is going to cripple their cap next season; 28 million dollars a year for a stretch four that can’t stretch the floor or defend will prevent them from making a run at any marquee signings. And as Westbrook gets older and older, and that 200 million dollar extension kicks in, he’ll be stuck in the exact same position as before – a one man show who has to do everything, and will try to do everything, and will, come playoffs, fail.
Westbrook might not be done just yet. 35 years old is the new 30; he still has time to reshape his legacy and change. Game 5 was his ceiling and him at his selfish, amazing best, and if he can make changes to his game – like more off-ball movement on offense, more willing to take a back seat at times, and more attentiveness at defense – then maybe Westbrook can be the best player on a championship team. But nothing has indicated, at any point in his career, that he is willing to make that change. In the end his legacy might be full of sound and fury, but signify nothing