Clank! What’s that sound I hear? It must be Russell Westbrook taking yet another ill-advised three pointer.
And this comes from one of his biggest supporters as a player (so you can only imagine the heat he gets from the haters). “Clank” is one of those words we come across far too often when we watch him take the court, now on his third team in as many seasons. He is one of the most unique players in the league, perhaps in history.
Devastating dunks, highlight passes and a competitive edge that even all-time greats like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant have commented on. But there is an undeniable frustration that comes along with watching him play, especially when you root for him. But before that, let’s consider where Russell Westbrook was before he arrived in the NBA journey.
Coming out of his second year at high school, Westbrook still couldn’t dunk. You know that “nuclear athleticism” we have seen displayed for many All-Star seasons? Well there was none of that until Westbrook’s third and fourth high school years.
In college, Westbrook initially played backup point guard and was deemed to be a high-energy defender off the bench. For those not familiar with who Westbrook is today, he doesn’t come off the bench. Perfectly deserved due to his on-court performance, the show was run for him during his tenure in Oklahoma City. It’s almost impossible imagining him playing backup. Ultimately that did change in college, allowing Westbrook to boost his draft stock all the way to the 4th overall pick in the 2008 draft.
Entering the NBA, many questions were asked about Westbrook’s ability to run an NBA offense from the point guard position, especially considering his limited minutes playing the point in college. Questions have been asked of Westbrook all throughout his career, and many focus on what he can’t do instead of all that he does do. Such is the life of one of the more hated players in the game. Take stock of his performance since making it to the pros.
NBA career so far
It’s an important note here that no Westbrook team has missed the playoffs since his rookie season. For all the talk of James Harden, LeBron James and players of such ilk being on ANY team and making the playoffs, Westbrook is often left out of that conversation. For good reason in the eyes of many – Kevin Durant as a sidekick certainly helps when it comes to trying to make the postseason.
But take a look at the roster surrounding Westbrook the year KD left. Not one player on that roster had ever sniffed an All-Star appearance. This was a team of promising young pieces, established veterans and some guys on their last chance in the NBA. Westbrook carried – and I mean, CARRIED – that team to a record 6 games over .500 and a 6th seed. Watching him play that season was like watching a man possessed. There was no way he was allowing his team to fall off with him at the helm. And that’s where I come in.
My first season following the NBA coincided with a historic MVP run by Westbrook, becoming the first player in over 50 years to average a triple double for an entire season. To this day, the most amazing basketball moment I have watched live was Westbrook hitting a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to defeat the Denver Nuggets to secure the win and crown his record-setting 42nd triple double of the season.
My mum still hasn’t forgiven me for waking her up in the early hours of the morning in the UK! But throughout that year, the way Westbrook dominated every facet of the game, and showed such a fierce and competitive nature whilst doing so meant he was instantly a draw to me. I bored my girlfriend (now wife so it can’t have been that boring) to tears trying to explain this phenomenal feat. “NO ONE HAS DONE THIS SINCE THE BIG O” sadly fell on a deaf ear. But to me Westbrook was the man to watch, even with a weakened roster he would be a force in the playoffs. Clank! A measly 26% shooting from 3-point range on 49 attempts led to a 5-game exit to Houston. But it wasn’t Russ’ fault.
The following two years saw better supporting casts, but similar playoff results. In 2017-18, the Utah Jazz defeated the Thunder in 6 games, behind Donovan Mitchell‘s breakout performances. But it wasn’t Russ’ fault, he actually shot a career high from 3 that series. Paul George was hurt and Carmelo Anthony didn’t help the offence. You can book it next year that Russ will make a deeper playoff run.
Clank! That must be Westbrook taking over 22 shots a game whilst only shooting 36% from the field against Damian Lillard‘s Blazers in the 2019 playoffs. (Sidebar: Lillard’s walk off three is my second favourite ever live moment.) This one may have been a little bit Russ’ fault. I love it about him, but the competitive fire he displays woke something up inside Dame and he wouldn’t rest until he had sent Westbrook home, in a 4-1 humbling. And thus came the end of one of the most decorated players in the history of the Thunder/Sonics franchise.
Clank! Ah, the familiar sound of Westbrook in the early goings of his reunited season with James Harden, this time in Houston, Texas.
Westbrook was frustrating fans the league over with his high-volume-low-efficiency 3-point shooting under Mike D’Antoni. But from the turn of the year, Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball he has ever played, averaging over 30 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists from January until COVID shut the league down.
A familiar theme is appearing here. Westbrook manages to snatch victorious moments from the jaws of defeat. But no one else can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory quite like him. It seems implausible that a player can completely abandon his best skills and allow the other teams defensive scheme to work perfectly. Despite such success and impressive numbers with the small ball style, Westbrook again reverted back to being baited into a higher volume of threes in the playoffs, ultimately leading to the Los Angeles Lakers winning in 5. Even LeBron James – close friend of Russ off the court – couldn’t help but laugh at Westbrook when he uttered the now infamous words “They better double me” whilst down nearly 30 points in a win-or-go-home playoff setting. But it wasn’t Russ’ fault – he contracted COVID and was hurt. Or so I told myself.
Where we are today
And that brings me to where I sit on the rollercoaster with Russ today. Throughout the highs, there have been equally as many lows. Gone are the days where I can justify Westbrook taking a 3-pointer, it simply isn’t worth my internal angst. Gone are the days when I expect Westbrook to take care of the ball in a clutch situation. I will never tire of watching Westbrook play, but I am no longer expecting any long-term success. In a fresh environment in Washington, it appears he has gone back to his old ways, unleashing two triple doubles in his first two games of the season. Clank! – He has yet to make a 3-pointer, despite attempting multiple a game.
To me, it’s no longer possible to rank him among the NBA’s elite. He isn’t a SUPERSTAR any more, but has a chance to make an All-Star team this season in a weakened guard spot in the Eastern Conference. There is strong potential Westbrook could be overshadowed by backcourt peer Bradley Beal to the extent that people will ask if Westbrook is even the best player on his team. He won’t mind that – Russ is easily a candidate for one of the best-loved team-mates in the entire league. We expect more, though – especially after he “robbed” an MVP award. (He didn’t but that’s the narrative 3 years removed). He needs to do more in the playoffs to cement his legacy.
But for a second, let’s again remember where Westbrook came from. There was no SI cover for a high school Russ. There was no fanfare and “hype” as he arrived to the NBA. The fact that he has grinded his way to some stellar performances, and being in the conversation for top guards in the league is worthy of more respect than he receives. I am certainly still in the fan club of Westbrook and don’t expect the Wizards to miss the playoffs. Their success from there is more of a question mark.
But that’s the difficulty with a rollercoaster. Once you have a really good section, you expect the whole thing to be just as good. The same can probably be said for Russ. And the last thing you want to hear for both is: Clank!