There is a specter haunting the NBA – and his name is Russell Westbrook. “Let Westbrook Be Westbrook,” the mantra that so long as he has full authority to play his high octane, risk-friendly style, Westbrook’s good traits will outweigh the bad, is being pushed to its logical conclusion, with three 40-plus point games, five triple doubles and a seriously badass mask vaulting Westbrook to the forefront of the MVP race.
In Kevin Durant’s three-week absence, Russell Westbrook’s public persona has shifted from being a bull-headed, media-hating athlete who took shots away from KD to America’s latest beloved outlier, a gruff anti-hero (and All-Star Game MVP) whose striking play occasionally rails against new-age tenets of efficiency, shot selection and ball movement.
Because of how much his recent barrage is complicated by the lens of analytics (Since Durant’s injury, OKC’s net rating is 14.5 points better when Westbrook is on the bench), the tension between gaudy individual stats and team success (2-7 this season when Westbrook scores 35 or more points), and his single-minded aggression, he’s even been dubbed as something of a new Kobe Bryant. Both are vessels for brash individualism, but aside from highlight reels rich with singular moments of glory, the comparison is a little hollow. Westbrook’s process is formulated purely in self-belief, while Kobe’s decision-making has always been opaquely self-interested.
The tension between team and individual success was always easier for Kobe, because we understood basketball differently in his day. We believed in unbridled heroism. We really didn’t know better. If you did, it was harder to prove your case. In his prime, Kobe was an expert at manipulating the stakes to create a Kobe-shaped void, then stepping in it to play hero because he had a perfect understanding of his opponent’s strengths in relation to his team – he knew just how much to take off the table in order to set the stage. That would never work today. A player with Kobe’s profile wouldn’t be able to take the shots he took, and at the volume he took them, without inspiring reams of reports about his net rating.
Besides, Westbrook isn’t calculating his every step, or configuring them into a meticulously crafted persona. His flaws, genuine and natural, are the byproduct of playing on the edge of recklessness and creation. Maybe just as self-destructive, but where the authenticity of Westbrook’s dedication to a common goal breeds trust – after all, KD and Thunder coach Scott Brooks were the first true proponents of “Let Westbrook Be Westbrook” – Kobe’s stone-cold calculation is a famed hotbed for alienation, breeding amiability in the name of mutual dependence, not camaraderie. If Kobe is a politician, honed in the time-honored practice of placing others in his debt, Russ is a leader. He is someone who, by sheer force of desire, inspires more out of his teammates.
And let’s face it. Kobe manipulated the game because at his most controlled, he could right almost any wrong. Westbrook just can’t modulate like that. He isn’t that good. He only has one gear, and you can live with its net effect through the course of a season, but it can’t be adjusted for the specifics of one game or one quarter.
Westbrook’s plight – the wayward decision-making, the high usage and ball dominance – has been a sympathetic one, because we’ve always understood the weight of the burden to be unduly heavy and partially Brooks-inflicted. You won’t ever hear someone say “Let Kyrie Irving Be Kyrie Irving.” Westbrook’s sheer entertainment value makes him easier to support, too, but the real kicker is that what he does is really, really hard. You can feel the exertion in every deliberate, disjointed movement. In the wake of Durant’s injury, the struggle elevated into one Westbrook surely couldn’t win, but he still attached himself to it without flinching, simultaneously elevating “Let Westbrook Be Westbrook” from mantra to mythology. Though it doesn’t hurt, the production alone cannot feed the myth. It’s the fact that he can fly in the face of the struggle and fatigue, finish with a dunk and be ready for round two.
It takes a special kind of player to make a barrage of ill-advised shots seem noble. In that regard, Westbrook is either nothing or everything like Kobe – it just depends which side you’re on.