Russell Westbrook’s polarizing place in NBA historical past


Russell Westbrook deservingly and fittingly cradled the Spalding basketball Saturday night time, moments after blocking a possible game-tying three from Indiana Pacers guard Caris LeVert, sealing a win on an evening the place he tied Oscar Robertson’s triple-double file.

For his critics, it was symbolic, a egocentric participant along with his solely pal, the person who actually lived by the phrase “now I do what I need” within the aftermath of Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma Metropolis for the Bay Space years in the past.

For many who champion him, the second epitomized the misunderstood participant who would do something to win, the loyal teammate who introduced sufficient juice for himself and the twelfth man, the flawed underdog.

Russell Westbrook, on an evening he broke Oscar Robertson’s triple-double file in Atlanta and on daily basis earlier than and since, is all the things you suppose and all the things you don’t.

The man you’d pay to see play can also be the participant you’d be afraid of controlling your group’s destiny within the final two minutes, the person who averaged 26.2 factors, 15.8 rebounds and 16.4 assists within the final 5 video games.

Russell Westbrook holds the game ball and pats Clint Capela on the head as Capela congratulates him.
Russell Westbrook holds the sport ball as Clint Capela congratulates him on setting the profession triple-double file, passing Oscar Robertson along with his 182nd triple-double. (AP Photograph/Ben Margot)

The center floor is a sacred place, as a result of it’s a tightrope greater than an unlimited land. Opinions are so huge, even those that are lukewarm to Westbrook discover themselves defending him when the hand of criticism is just too heavy, that there’s little nuance in discussing his sport.

The superior stats crowd will solely give him lifeless flowers, and the numbers don’t lie. The turnovers are ugly, the taking pictures isn’t fairly and the protection could be worse than each.

However that zeal is what viewers tune into watch, what followers pay to see, what teammates usually gravitate to — some issues that may’t be measured, but should been seen to be appreciated. And never even the passage of time will do it justice, as a result of some issues should be absorbed within the second.

Robertson’s file was deemed unbreakable, largely as a result of the sport doesn’t name for one man to have all that energy. As a result of Robertson’s file was set throughout a time nicely earlier than this period, it was mythologized and virtually limiting to him. He grew to become extra identified for the file than his play, so his embracing of Westbrook isn’t shocking. It’s virtually refreshing to see the generational hole bridged and for Robertson to have one victory lap, being launched to a brand new phase of basketball followers, earlier than passing the torch.

No person else appeared to make it a precedence as a lot as Westbrook did — the identical hard-playing, energetic ballplayer who compiled eight triple-doubles in his first six seasons. No person believed he gave much less when he was a youthful, extra athletic model of himself.

Westbrook simply needed it, all of it. He received’t admit it, and maybe he by no means ought to, however garnering these statistics meant one thing to him. After years of taking strays that ought to’ve been meant for others, Westbrook went for his and determined to play on his phrases — on a regular basis.

He leaned into the havoc versus controlling it, maybe believing he was healthier to fly blind than opponents have been to cease him.

The sensation it produced, the best way he single-handedly — by selection, not circumstance — took a spurned franchise and gave it value. Even in a single, spherical quantity, it was the only real cause he received the MVP in 2017. As a result of 31, 9 and 9 simply wasn’t going to be ok for him or anybody else who fell below his spell.

That 2016-17 group wasn’t toothless or paralyzed, with Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and a rookie Domantas Sabonis in tow. Oladipo and Sabonis blossomed a yr later after leaving Westbrook, and it’s exhausting to say whether or not Westbrook impressed them or held them again.

Maybe it’s each.

Westbrook sits on the intersection between effectivity and need, normally heading towards need when a shot goes up.

Switching defenses and extra threes means longer rebounds for guards to seize, and even being below the rim now isn’t the identical torture chamber it was when Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley patrolled, or Dennis Rodman’s acrobatic toes, or anybody’s extensive elbows able to knock a guard who wandered into the paint into subsequent week.

In entrance of Westbrook’s 11.6 rebounds per sport: Clint Capela, Rudy Gobert, Jonas Valanciunas, Sabonis and Nikola Vucevic. Not precisely a assassin’s row of intimidating figures.

However he goes and will get them, sees the ball for the taking and takes it. It’s as egocentric as a pursuit for the scoring title or some other particular person accolade. It’s as bold as a low-level recruit grinding his option to being the fourth choose within the 2008 draft and being referred to as a attain, and by no means shedding that ambition.

Russell Westbrook smiles while sitting on the bench holding a basketball during pregame warmups.

Russell Westbrook sits alone on the bench earlier than Monday’s sport, only a man and his basketball. (Casey Sykes/Getty Photographs)

“Simply you watch,” stated an govt who’s seen Westbrook up shut this yr. “He’s going to get them into the playoffs.”

The play-in?

“No. The playoffs. I don’t care who they’re dealing with, he’s gonna get them within the closing eight.”

However maybe that’s so far as it goes, seeing as how the final actual reminiscence Westbrook has produced on the massive stage was blowing a 3-1 result in Golden State in 2016 — highlighted by a Sport 6 at residence the place the Thunder couldn’t rise up a shot try within the final two minutes.

Oftentimes, that falls on the purpose guard, and it’s extra damning than any stat can uplift.

Westbrook made it out of the primary spherical final season, nevertheless it was James Harden’s group and character — a blended bag if there ever was one — and Westbrook didn’t just like the tradition, so he needed out.

Or possibly it wasn’t his tradition, which makes issues difficult.

It appears that evidently his type isn’t conducive to actual profitable, that it hinders the group greater than it uplifts them. The previous saying, “Train a person to fish, you feed him for a day — in the event you educate him to fish, you feed him for a lot of days,” involves thoughts.

There’s worth in serving to your group in methods that may’t be computed — slicing off the ball to create house, the hockey help, a well-timed double-team — nevertheless it received’t be celebrated as a spherical quantity with rebounds and assists.

Gaming the sport that method feels soiled in a way, virtually stopping teammates from being concerned on their very own and making a dependency that doesn’t foster progress. The manipulation might not have that long-term objective in thoughts, however leaders are liable for its results.

Leaders are additionally liable for studying the room, if not setting the temperature. Westbrook performs for the Washington Wizards, a franchise that hasn’t received 50 video games since Michael Jackson dropped “Off the Wall,” couldn’t make a convention closing with a wholesome John Wall, a franchise that modifications nicknames, coaches, franchise gamers and group colours greater than it has memorable moments.

Russell Westbrook holds a game ball and waves with his other hand while wearing a headset during a postgame interview.

Russell Westbrook waves throughout a postgame interview on Saturday after he tied Oscar Robertson’s triple-double file. (AP Photograph/Darron Cummings)

Three playoff sequence wins in 16 years, a popularity of underachievement and this season’s model doesn’t precisely encourage from a expertise standpoint.

However he’s Russell Westbrook, on a group with many gamers who, not too way back, have been watching him tear up the league at each flip once they have been simply dreaming of creating it huge. His power has permeated by way of the group in methods it doesn’t seem to be others are able to, maybe out of worry of disappointing an idol, coaxing effort from younger and infrequently inconsistent gamers.

It’s not uncommon to see Rui Hachimura or Chandler Hutchison flying downcourt in anticipation of a Westbrook move on the break, understanding there’s a superb probability he can ship. Watching Bradley Beal understand he has a teammate he can depend upon to at the least be in attendance nightly can’t go unrecognized, both.

Westbrook shall be debated on this time, within the subsequent lifetime and even so on. He belongs to historical past as a lot as he does to the current, and it’s becoming he’ll go down as one of many extra polarizing gamers in NBA historical past.

Moments after placing up an errant 3-pointer that would’ve received the sport Monday night time — following a steal that made the end a frenetic one — he eschewed disappointment to retrieve the sport ball from the referee. In that second as soon as once more as he walked up the tunnel, it was simply Russ and Spalding.

Whenever you say what he isn’t, ensure you say what he’s.

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