I’m not sure Russell Westbrook is even aware of the polarizing figure he’s become. He should be. He’s become all too familiar with the love-hate relationship that Oklahoma City has for him. The thing is, love it or hate it, Westbrook is a risk taker.
When those risks pay off, he’s the team hero. When they don’t, Oklahoma City Thunder fans call for his head on a pike so they can parade it around Bricktown. I honestly think fellow writer Sekou Smith of NBA.com put it best when he tweeted this quote:
“I honestly argue with myself every night. Do I love Relentless Westbrook enough to give Reckless Westbrook a pass?”
Again, when his risks pay off, he comes across as some sort of Superman. His freakish athleticism is what makes his style of play even possible to begin with. The problem with risks is that they don’t always pay off. And when his style of play fails to do so, his freakish athleticism takes him so far out of the play, it renders him looking inept, like some weird athletic guy who just hit the court and started doing whatever the hell he felt like doing.
One thing you have to give Westbrook is that he has a competitive drive, and a will to win that is seemingly unmatched. That driven nature is easily his biggest upside. He’s not going to stop trying to score points at any point before the final buzzer. When other players are standing around during cold spells, trying to figure out how to get their jump shots to fall, Westbrook is the one saying, “You guys can worry about jumpers if you want. If the jumpers aren’t falling, I’m taking it to the rack.”
And if there’s one thing I think Westbrook does better than anyone on this team, it’s realizing when the team is in need of an easy bucket, putting the ball to the deck, and driving the lane for easy points. To be honest, Reggie Jackson is the only player other than Westbrook who will drive to the basket on a regular basis. And even though Kevin Durant is the NBA MVP for the 2013-2014 season, I really feel as though he could take notes from Westbrook on lane-driving aggressiveness. At 6’ 9”, he’d have a much easier time dunking over 7-footers than Westbrook ever will. He showed that in the 2011 playoffs with his monster throwdown over Brendon Haywood.
Although the problem with Westbrook’s competitive nature is that he takes everything so personally. Any time his style of play is criticized, he becomes immediately defensive, almost as if people are attacking his character or his morals.
It’s not that anybody thinks he sucks as a player. Anybody who thinks that has obviously not watched a Thunder game in the past… well… ever. As a matter of fact, there’s a whole plethora of game film that begs to differ. It’s that he sometimes tries to take over games by himself, not bothering to look for any of his teammates as he streaks down the court. There are instances where he jacks up contested 3-pointers with 18 seconds remaining on the shot clock instead of letting the offense develop. And in instances where he does pass, some of them are ill-advised cross-court passes that wind up picked off and taken down the court for easy points.
Westbrook has even been quoted as saying he wants to be the guy to take the last shot. Here’s the thing about being “that guy” though. If you miss, you’d better be ready for all of the scrutiny that follows. If we know anything about Westbrook, we know he doesn’t take to criticism very well. But if he really wants to be the guy to jack up the last shot every time, he’d better get used to the criticism. No one can hit every game-winning shot. The thing is, most of the ones who missed were ready for the postgame questioning of their on-court decisions.
I remember an instance during the Clippers series where Westbrook was asked why Serge Ibaka wasn’t getting more opportunities on the offensive end. Westbrook’s response?
“This isn’t Serge’s team!”
No it isn’t Serge’s team. But last time I checked, it wasn’t Westbrook’s team either.
Criticism is something Westbrook just needs to get used to hearing. It comes with the territory of being an NBA baller. You ball out of control, and somebody is eventually going to call you out on it.