The Curious Case of Russell Westbrook

Are you familiar with that saying, “well behaved women seldom make history”? I feel like that could be said about a lot of today’s NBA stars. One in particular, is none other than unconventional media bad boy Russell Westbrook. For various reasons, the stigma around Russ is that he’s a cancer to teams. Do I think that’s true? Not at all, however, what I do think is that there are some selfish, diva, egotistical, “I-Want-It-My-Way” tendencies that he brings to whatever organization he goes to. But! When you’re dealing with an athlete of Russell Westbrook’s caliber, you honestly have to be willing to take the good with the bad and deal with the results; even if those aren’t the results you’re hoping for. Watching Russell Westbrook can be just as confusing as it is exciting and I want to take the duration of this article looking at Westbrook’s team dynamics since he officially became, “the man.”

During the last three years of his tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook wowed the sports world with three consecutive seasons averaging a triple-double, winning league MVP, a scoring title for the second time, and leading the league in assists in consecutive seasons. The departure of Kevin Durant allowed Russ to become the franchise cornerstone that many of knew he was, long before his MVP season. I also remember prior to the departure of KD, Thunder faithful wanted Russ traded but that’s neither here nor there.

Point is, Sam Presti spent three years in championship or bust mode trying to make something work for his $205 million dollar man. Bringing in Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, Victor Oladipo, and others. Teams built as best as they possibly could for contention all while making sure that Russ was always the focal point of the franchise; but the end result was three consecutive first round exits and more trades along the way. But why?

A trade to Houston followed exit number three along with a reunion with former teammate James Harden. A season that began with championship aspirations, only to fall to the eventual NBA Champion Lakers in 5 games after seven too close for comfort games against a scrappy Oklahoma City Thunder squad. But why?

His lone season in Washington was just more of the same. Except unlike with the Rockets and his current season with the Lakers, there was no “I’m here to win a championship for this great city” lines. With the Wizards, there was another season that saw Russ average a triple-double for the fourth time in five years and help lead Washington to a 34-38 record. It was a reunion with former Thunder coach (and the only coach that’s been able to somewhat corral Westbrook’s attitude – more on that later), who is also the one coach he’s been on record defending as his favorite since he’s been in the league.
Washington brought a time, or realization of sorts where the basketball world saw for the first time that Russell Westbrook is in the twilight of his career, desperate for a ring, willing to do nearly anything to get that elusive championship…and in that pursuit, there was a word about to be attached to his resume’ that can either be seen as good or bad: Journeyman.

A journeyman is defined as an athlete who is competent but unable to excel to the prowess and pinnacles that they seemed destined to reach.

The Laker experiment is something else…season isn’t over but this has been painful to watch. There was a lot of hype surrounding the season with the addition of a player of Westbrook’s caliber. Especially since before the late, great Kobe Bryant’s retirement, he compared Russell Westbrook to a younger version of himself because of the intensity he played with. But why?

Recently, Russ has been sounding off in postgame pressers. Sometimes cocky, sometimes humble, sometimes nonchalant, but always himself. He’s acknowledged that he doesn’t understand why he’s the scapegoat for this season’s disappointments but also has said that the season isn’t over yet and there is time to finish strong. Two statements I completely agree with but based on reports coming out of the Lakers camp, I am not sure hold weight.

Recently, reports have surfaced that not only is the LA front office pushing head coach Frank Vogel to bench Russell Westbrook, the reports from Marc Stein are that the Lakers organization no longer believes that Westbrook is an asset to the team and the direction they want to head. Not to mention that reports are surfacing that Westbrook is not happy with his role, and has sounded off about it in the media.

In my honest opinion, the Los Angeles Lakers might see more success to finish the season with Russell Westbrook in a 6th Man role and here is why: Russell Westbrook is this generation’s Allen Iverson. His best production, often comes when nobody else is in the spotlight with him. Does that mean he’s a bad teammate? No. Does it mean he’s a team cancer? Absolutely not. However, does it mean that his ego gets in the way of the ultimate goal? At times, yes. And once is still too many for the NBA.
Much like Iverson, Westbrook is now spending the latter part of his career hoping for that one chance at glory. But because of his ego – which his adoring fans will call a “chip on his shoulder” – it often makes it seem like it’s impossible to win it all with him running the offense full-time.

Take for example, the OK3 experiment in the 2017-2018 season. This was one year removed from his astonishing MVP season when blockbuster moves were made by Thunder GM Sam Presti for future Hall of Famer Carmelo Anthony and NBA Superstar Paul George. This was a team that looked poised for a deep playoff run – much like this year’s Lakers squad – but underachieved to the point of finishing 4th in the Western Conference and losing in six games to the Utah Jazz in the first round of the playoffs. This season saw Carmelo Anthony as the scapegoat which led to him being traded away to Houston. The only glaring differences though, were his free throw percentage and a six point drop in his scoring average from the year prior. ‘Melo saw not only his usage percentage drop, but he was in a system that didn’t cater to his strengths and that saw his production dip, but not crash. Anthony however, was not the problem. Nor was Paul George. The next year, after ‘Melo was traded to Houston, the same result followed with a first round exit to the Portland Trailblazers but in 5 games this time off a shot from Damian Lillard that literally sent the Thunder into rebuild. So many thoughts, opinions, reasons, and assumptions came up as to why the Thunder could not succeed with all the talent that passed through the organization. One of the main ideas was what has been a constant theme of Russell Westbrook’s career summed up in one word: Defiance. Remember the Jordan ”Now I do what I want” commercial that dropped a few weeks after Kevin Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City right before Russ went on a historic triple-double run and subsequently won MVP?

Much like Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, Russell Westbrook is a player who is as astounding as he is perplexing. His attitude is big but the heart he plays with is bigger. Also, much like Iverson, Westbrook doesn’t fit in. He actually sticks out like a Black Panther at a Klan rally, which is what’s so curious about him. Russ, at times, is a point guard’s, point guard. He can control the pace, statically he’s the literal definition of clutch, his IQ is off the charts, he has amazing court vision, the triple-doubles speak for themselves, and more. But I’d be remiss to say that Russell Westbrook is possibly the most confusing player I’ve ever seen. While he’s a surefire Hall of Famer, he also seems to be a hard man to work with if he doesn’t have the keys to the kingdom.

One glaring similarity to Iverson’s career is the correlation between A.I.’s time in Denver and Detroit and Russ’ current time in Los Angeles and his lone season in Washington. While it is too soon to see if the results will end up the same as Iverson (two first round sweeps), it’s extremely easy to see that Russ fits like a square peg in a circular hole. The potential for success is there, yet the attitude is not. But…why?

Two weeks before draft night, a blockbuster trade was made when Russ was moved to the Lakers for Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the No. 22 pick. This move was made because Westbrook, Davis, and James met at James’ house to discuss what the team dynamic would look like, putting egos aside, compromising, and bringing a championship to Westbrook’s hometown team. James would make the shift to power forward, Davis to center, and Russ offered up playing off the ball when James initiates the offense; which was what he did during his lone season in Houston. The issue with that however, in my opinion, is that LeBron James is often the best option to run the Laker offense based on Frank Vogel’s approach. That situation meant that Westbrook is playing off the ball anywhere from 45-55% of the time which we’ve seen this season, does not play to his strengths. How do we know that? Well, for the now fifth time in his career (2009, 2011, 2018, 2021), Russ is leading the league in turnovers, especially in clutch situations. But this time, it’s with a lower usage percentage.

Lakers great Magic Johnson was quoted as saying, ” Young man, you know there were expectations when you called LeBron and Anthony Davis and said you wanted to be a Laker. You saw Kobe Bryant play and win all those championships. And Kobe said you were the guy!” Ending that quote with a challenge for The Brodie to acknowledge that he hasn’t played up to par but also acknowledge his commitment to turn it around. Let me make this very clear, Russell Westbrook is NOT the sole reason for the Lakers’ struggles this season. I’ll go as far as saying that he is unfairly criticized, because his play has helped the Lakers win multiple games in the clutch. The Brodie isn’t playing well this season, but that doesn’t mean blame it all on him. So while he isn’t to blame for the current 29-38 record, his attitude isn’t helping his case. Injuries, unrealized signings, and poor chemistry haven’t helped with the disaster of a season either. However, the key to the success of the Los Angeles Lakers remains to be the necessary shift in his attitude, an acknowledgement that although now he can’t do what he wants, he can still play at an All-Star level and not be the man. But that’s something we have not seen since July 4th, 2016.

Russell Westbrook is not only a legendary future Hall of Famer, he’s also a top 5-10 point guard all-time. That is ultimately his legacy before anything else. And with fifteen games to go, there is time to make a significant push for playoff positioning. The Lakers just need that efficient Russ to show himself once again. But will Iverson 2.0 be able to put pride to the side and make it happen? Or will this be a take a good with the bad and hope for the best situation?

About the author

A Los Angeles native, AJ grew up watching sports from the age of two and his love for basketball and football never died. He started playing sports at age seven and went on through collegiate and minor league levels (local and overseas) as well. After nearly twenty years of athletics, AJ decided to hang it up and retired from minor league football in June of 2018. Since then, he has continued his love of sports by writing for the Suave Report as a sports and culture contributor as well as coaching and refereeing sports in the OKC metro area. He currently lives with his wife, Beth and daughter, Gianna in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, working as a coach and gym owner.

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