March 19, 2017

LEE | Flying Solo

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It was back in 2012 when Russell Westbrook finally showed the world what he was capable of.  Facing reigning MVP LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, the fourth-year point guard announced himself on the biggest stage by dropping 43 points to go along with five assists and seven rebounds.

Ever since his 43-point breakout in the finals, Westbrook has attracted increasing attention.  Following his performance against the Heat, Westbrook has become an increasingly prominent superstar, and is currently capable of posting some of the most impressive stat lines the league has ever seen.  In November, Westbrook posted the first 50-point triple-double in the NBA since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the 1980s.  Currently, Westbrook is well on pace to become the first player to average a triple-double for an entire season since Oscar Robertson, while also leading the league in scoring.

And yet, negative media coverage has never followed far behind.  For years, while Westbrook still played in the shadow of teammate Kevin Durant, the local media hounded Westbrook as the scapegoat whenever the Thunder failed. They criticized poor shot selection, a selfish style-of-play, and an apparent on-court friction with Durant. And even now, as Westbrook stands on the precipice of history, detractors still chirp away, calling attention to Westbrook’s career-high turnovers per game, subpar shooting efficiency as opposed to fellow MVP candidates James Harden and Kawhi Leonard, and accusing him of stat-padding. There are even those who outright question the validity of his achievements: Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey recently dismissed Westbrook’s triple-doubles as a “random combo of numbers.”

The atmosphere surrounding Westbrook certainly brings up many questions. Why is Westbrook so polarizing?  Bring up LeBron James to a basketball fan and — given that you are not asking in Boston or Chicago — you will, at the very least, receive a half-hearted recognition of James’s greatness. The same can be said of Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Harden, or Leonard.

However, when discussing Westbrook, one is much more likely to run into a dismissal of his achievements. In fact, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has claimed that Westbrook does not even belong in the category of “superstar,” a claim unlikely to be have made about any other MVP candidate in the league.

While it may seem unfair to Westbrook that he uniquely attracts so much negative attention relative to his peers, in a way it is very fitting. From his fashion choices to his confrontational interview style, Westbrook’s hallmark has never conformed to the norm and it translates directly to his game. There is no one in the league who can match Westbrook’s focus and ferocity on a nightly basis, with his game constantly a whirlwind of athleticism, muscular drives, contorted limbs, and relentlessly pounding the rim. He plays to kill.

It is this mentality that is Westbrook’s defining quality. It may cost him points with the media, where he can come off as aloof or even arrogant; certainly, he never falls down from a public entanglement with grace or diplomacy. On the court, it may lead to games where he constantly turns the ball over or clanks shots off the rim. But at the same time, it turns Westbrook into a force of nature, a never-ending hurricane.  And it is his attitude that the Thunder needs from its superstar more than anything else which Westbrook has brought to the table. LeBron has all-star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Kawhi has the leadership of legendary coach Gregg Popovich. Durant and Curry have each other. Westbrook lacks any of these privileges, and takes on the full burden of his team night in and night out, regardless of how he is playing.  This is Westbrook’s ultimate gift: shouldering any burden because he has never learned how to stop.

Despite all that he has achieved or will likely achieve this season, there is one thing he is chasing, and one which may seem too far for his reach. The regular-season MVP award has never been awarded to a player that has not played for a top-two seeded team in either conference. Then again, this is not the first obstacle that Westbrook has faced in his career.  And if there is anybody that can defy six decades of precedent, it is Westbrook.

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