January 20, 2019

The box score of Game 2 of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s 2010 playoff series against the Los Angeles Lakers was but a blip on the Lakers march to their 16th championship. In a series the Thunder would go on to lose 2-4, the then 21-year old Russell Westbrook, mercurial as ever, finished with 29 points on 10 shots, giving away as many turnovers (three) as assists in 29 minutes.

But for me, a seemingly innocuous play midway through the third quarter unwittingly launched the legend of Russell Westbrook, combining ambition, aggression and athleticism in one of the most spectacular failed dunks attempted:

At 6’3”, 200 lbs, Westbrook shouldn’t be able to even conceive of some of the things he attempts, like using his 6’7” wingspan and explosive leaping ability to finish 37th in the NBA in rebounding (with the next closest guard, Jimmy Butler, finishing 70th). Westbrook’s 7.3 boards per game would’ve put him at 15th among power forwards and 20th among centers.

Westbrook’s ambition has always exceeded even what his athleticism can keep up with at times, pushing the boundaries of what is feasible on a basketball court while drawing heaps of criticism in the process. With Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka missing large stretches of the season, Westbrook was given a blank canvas and, at last, free reign.

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Though the odds would look overwhelming to any other player, Westbrook leapt into it headfirst as he does every other challenge.

Packing a ridiculous amount of used possessions (an NBA-high 38.4 usage percentage) in a mere 34.4 minutes a night on a depleted Thunder team, Westbrook lead the league in scoring, shots made and attempted, and finished second in Player Efficiency Rating, steals, and assist rate. All told, Westbrook generated more offense than any other NBA player with a usage-assist rate of 68.9 percent—for perspective, Chris Paul finished second at 61.7 percent and LeBron James a distant third at 54.5 percent.

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While on the floor, Westbrook produced for himself and teammates like no other player in history—averaging 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists and 2.1 steals per game last year. For once, his output was indisputably seen as more necessity than extravagance, with the Thunder’s offensive rating plummeting from 112 to 101.1 when he left the floor. Basically, the Thunder’s offense went from performing on par with the league-leading Los Angeles Clippers with Westbrook on the floor to the level of the 27th ranked Orlando Magic when he sat.

Westbrook’s place in the MVP discussion faltered alongside the fortunes of his team, but there were some—like ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh—who argued Westbrook had the most dominant season of all time (ESPN Insider subscription required):

“How good is Westbrook’s 29.2 PER? Of the 50 greatest players in NBA history who were named in 1996, 45 of them never posted a PER above 29 over a full season. Westbrook, as of now, is in the rarest of company.”

The pendulum of opinions on Westbrook swing wildly. There’s a reason Kobe Bryant adores Westbrook, who’s lauded for his relentless attacking style and jaw-dropping athleticism. Yet, he’s just as readily castigated for not being John Stockton and conforming to point guard norms alongside another historically great scorer in Durant.

There’s an odd subset of NBA fandom and professional media who abhor the chaos that Westbrook brings to the floor. They can’t seem to appreciate any basketball-related efforts not striving for perfection or order.

They see Westbrook lock into attack mode and hurl himself headstrong into the teeth of the defense and focus on shot attempts or field goal percentages (he shot 59.3 percent at the rim over the last two years) rather than constant, consistent pressure he places on a defense—racking up free throw attempts and layups while getting teammates open shots and opportunities to work against a broken, scrambling defense.

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But if clean execution and box score metrics and efficiency are the extent by which you judge Westbrook, he’s not going measure up to the dead-eye wizardry of Stephen Curry or the sure-handed mastery of Chris Paul. But then, neither of them are capable of physically dominating opposing teams as Westbrook did in the month of February when he averaged 26.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 10.3 assists. Since 1986, only 10 players have ever hit the 46 points, seven rebound, eight assists and two steals mark. Westbrook managed that feat twice in a three-day span against the New Orleans Pelicans last season.

Westbrook is an athletic freak with a veritable utility belt of physical tools and skills that are the envy of the basketball world. He has the acceleration to blow by the staunchest defender, exceptional body control to explode into his pet midrange jumper, and the strength to bully his way over or through hapless defenders.

But if Westbrook’s abilities are almost superhuman in nature, his superhero wares are more of the Marvel than DC variety—that is to say that despite his physical attributes, he’s flawed and all too human.

The same relentless drive that makes Westbrook special can hinder him at times. It appears that he feels as if he HAS to score to give the Thunder their best chance to win, which can backfire on rough shooting nights. Westbrook isn’t a strong three-point shooter, making only 31.3 percent over the last three seasons, yet still allows defenses to bait him into the occasional ill-advised three. Like the Incredible Hulk, Westbrook can be a wrecking ball of rage and aggression with little regard for collateral damage.

But when that aggression is directed towards a common goal, as it often is, the results fall squarely in the positive ledger on the whole.

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None of his shortcomings obscure the fact that the Thunder have won 71.2 percent of their games since his arrival, and their preferred starting lineup of Westbrook-Durant-Steve Adams-Andre Roberson-Ibaka were a stellar 15 points per 100 possessions better than the opposition in roughly 250 minutes together last season. For all the discussion over Westbrook’s position, a point guard’s ultimate responsibility is to direct the offense, and the Thunder have consistently been a top five offense with him at the helm.

For all the criticisms over what he could get better at, he’s already accomplished so much with a Finals appearance, multiple All-Star and All-NBA selections and two gold medals. Whatever he lacks in terms of technical precision, he more than makes up for with instincts and devastating athleticism and relentlessness. And at just 26-years old, there’s still time for him to continue honing his mental approach and skillset before his athleticism starts to erode.

Last year may prove to be a watershed stretch for Westbrook. He’s long absorbed the slings and arrows about his game, and in unleashing it all, last year served as both a breathtaking display of his abilities and cautionary reminder that he can’t do it by himself.

With Durant and Ibaka expected to make full recoveries, an offseason to better integrate the depth acquired midseason in the Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler, and D.J. Augustin, and new coach Billy Donovan on board to diversify their simplistic offense, the Thunder might have their most talent-laden roster yet.

Five years after that impossible dunk attempt over the Lakers, Westbrooks ambitions still seem to exceed our concept of possibility. But with a scoring title, another year of experience, and returning teammates, the rest of the NBA should fear his abilities are quickly catching up.

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James Holas

Suffering Celtics fan. Lefty post dominator. Purveyor of the finest Steakums cuisine and candy corn.

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