First, a statement: When executed correctly, pettiness in the NBA is absolutely fantastic. It makes things so much more fun and so much more interesting. It’s what turns disagreements into rivalries, and then rivalries into folklore. I am absolutely in favor of it, as are most people, I would guess, even if they don’t want to openly admit it or embrace it.
Second, another statement: Nobody in the NBA right now — and maybe ever — is better at being petty than LeBron James and Russell Westbrook. They are elite pettyists and partake often, which is remarkable because they are two of the biggest stars in the league. High-stakes pettiness is captivating.
Third, a question: Given the above statements, which of the two, between LeBron and Westbrook, won the 2016 Pettyweight Championship? That’s the question that we need to answer right now. To do so, we can tally up all the petty things they each did this year, from January 1 to today, and there you’ll have it. That’s how we figure out who earns the NBA’s Pettyweight Championship crown.
Back in January, the Warriors, then the defending NBA champions, played in Cleveland for the first time since they beat the Cavaliers in the 2015 Finals. When asked about returning, Steph Curry made a fun remark: “Hopefully it still smells a little bit like champagne.” He was referring to the celebration that took place in the Cavs’ visiting locker room after the Warriors won Game 6 in Cleveland to win the title. Some of the Cavs players were reportedly upset by it, but I think most everyone else thought it was pretty funny, which makes sense because that’s exactly how something that’s petty is supposed to work.
There are, to be sure, different kinds of petty. In fact, there’s a wide range of pettiness, and all of it has been on display in the league this year. For example:
Sometimes a petty thing can be grating, like when Mark Cuban revoked the press credentials for two ESPN reporters because he was displeased that the network stopped assigning someone to cover the Mavs full time. Sometimes a petty thing can be great and enjoyable for all parties, like Kobe Bryant deciding to shoot 50 times during his last game as a Laker. Sometimes a petty thing can be potentially uncomfortable because of all the parts involved, like the time Derek Fisher posted a picture of Matt Barnes’s ex-wife with her children and Barnes on his Instagram account and wished her a happy Mother’s Day (Barnes and Fisher have a long, sordid history), or like the time Nick Young posted a picture of himself with Gilbert Arenas’s ex-fiancée on Instagram with the caption “we even lol” after Arenas made fun of him for the way his relationship with Iggy Azalea ended (Young and Arenas have a long, ignoble history). And sometimes a petty thing can be loathsome and gross, like the time Derrick Rose posed for pictures with members of the jury after they’d found him and two of his friends not liable in a rape trial in civil court.
The best version of petty, though, is the kind Steph did, which is to say the kind of petty where the petty barb is supposed to make the target a little bit upset while making everyone else laugh. Some fun ones from this year, arranged from Not Super-Petty to All The Way Petty:
- Evan Fournier made fun of Hassan Whiteside on Twitter in French. (5 percent petty)
- One of Robin Lopez’s shoes came off during the first quarter of a January game against the Celtics. He tossed it out of bounds and continued to play. During the next dead ball, a Knicks trainer jogged out and handed him his shoe back. Amir Johnson slapped it out of his hands before Lopez could grab it. (17 percent petty)
- Ahead of a Raptors matchup with the Cavaliers, Kyle Lowry said that LeBron was “probably one of the best players in the league besides Steph.” (19 percent petty)
- Joel Embiid posted a picture of him facing up against Hassan Whiteside following a Sixers win over Whiteside’s Heat. The geolocation he used for the photo: “BBQ chicken,” the phrase Shaq often uses when he talks about a big man dominating someone down low. (52 percent petty, but in the most fun way possible)
- Pat Riley reportedly not reaching out to Dwyane Wade during free agency, then saying in July that he would email Wade some thoughts after Wade and the Heat had parted ways. (54 percent petty)
- Wade saying in September he still hadn’t gotten an email from Riley. Wade’s quote: “It’s a funny thing about phones. Spellcheck sometimes mess up. So I haven’t received it yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.” (55 percent petty)
- Riley saying in November he’d finally emailed Wade. (56 percent petty)
- Wade saying he had gotten the emails from Riley but hadn’t gotten around to reading them. (57 percent petty)
- Knicks fans chanting “Der-ek Fish-er *clap* *clap* *clap-clap-clap*” at Matt Barnes as he inbounded the ball during a December Kings-Knicks game. (72 percent petty, in the most New York way possible)
- Reggie Jackson, formerly a member of the OKC Thunder, posted a smirking emoji after the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs by the Warriors. (74 percent petty)
- Draymond Green tweeting “Man 3–1 sucks” after the Cleveland Indians lost the World Series to the Chicago Cubs after having a 3–1 lead against them. (79 percent petty)
You need two elements for a petty thing to become transcendent:
- A regular target. You need someone (or someones) who you can just keep leaning on and leaning on. A single petty act is fun, but a string of them is what makes for a truly special needling. It’s one of those devastating multiplier situations: Each one builds off the momentum of the last one, so the more you do, the bigger and better it gets. Think of it the same way you would when someone gets hot during a game. That fifth 3-pointer in a row is technically worth the same amount of points as the first one, but spiritually it’s worth so much more. It works the same way with pettiness too. (That’s why the Draymond 3–1 dig at Cleveland earned such a high petty score. There was history there.)
- A regular target who is dangerous. This part is key. It’s not that much fun to watch someone powerful poke someone far less powerful in the eye over and over. There has to be some sort of risk involved. If the person you’re being petty toward doesn’t possess the potential to defeat you, then you’re not really being petty, you’re mostly just being a dick. I remember hearing Max Kellerman talk about how he heard Larry Bird say that the best thing about winning a championship against the Lakers was knowing that Magic Johnson was in the other locker room devastated. That’s what I’m talking about here. That was a great statement by Bird because it was about Magic. It doesn’t have the same effect if he says it about someone who posed no threat to him.
LeBron and Westbrook have both of those things, which is why they’re the two alpha contenders for the 2016 NBA Pettyweight Championship crown. Westbrook, of course, has Kevin Durant, who is just about as deadly as they come. And LeBron, of course, has the entire roster of the Warriors, who beat his Cavs for the 2015 championship and then lost to his Cavs for the 2016 championship. (I feel at least a little bit bad for Durant that he backed his way into LeBron’s photon beam of pettiness, but it was also pretty great to watch Durant buck back against it early during their game on Christmas Day. It was the most enjoyable part of the game, really; LeBron stole a pass and then made an acrobatic layup to tie the game, then Durant dunked it hard to give the Warriors a two-point lead, then LeBron dunked it harder to retie the game. Anytime players start attaching FUCK YOUs to their movements, everything just becomes so much more intense.)
The thing that’s been so great about LeBron’s and Westbrook’s petty assaults this year are that they’ve approached them from such philosophically and strategically different standpoints. Westbrook, for example, refuses to acknowledge that anything he’s done, or is doing, or will ever do, is in any way aimed at Durant. Let’s go through his list real quick, working backward, from the most recent instance to the first instance, which happened literally the day Durant announced he was going to the Warriors:
November: Westbrook shows up to the first OKC-GSW game wearing an “Official Photographer” vest. It’s a cannonball fired at Durant, who worked as a photographer at the Super Bowl in February.
August 26: Westbrook’s new commercial features him running down an airplane runway dribbling a basketball. He gets to a free throw line, jumps, and just continues up and up and up as airplane noises happen in the background. A voice says as he skies, “Some run. Some make runways.” (He might as well have been wearing an EAT SHIT, KEVIN T-shirt.) One day earlier, he posted a video of him dancing and singing to Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.” (He’d actually done the same exact thing on August 26, 2015, which somehow makes this time even better.)
August 19: Westbrook posts a video of himself dancing and singing Lil Uzi Vert’s “Do What I Want” on Instagram. The part of the song he chooses: the hook, where the phrase “Now I do what I want” repeats over and over again. It’s very likely that this one and also the Taylor Swift example above were in no way related to Durant, but it’s also impossible that they weren’t, you know what I’m saying? (The Lil Uzi Vert moment eventually inspired a commercial, and it came from the same people who made the “Some make runways” commercial.)
July 4: The Players’ Tribune runs a first-person essay from Durant explaining that he is signing with the Warriors. The first thing Westbrook does after the story circulates: He posts a picture of a three-tiered stack of USA-themed cupcakes on Instagram with the caption “HAPPY 4TH YALL….[USA flag emoji].” It’s very quietly a way for him to call Durant soft for leaving. (Per this Lee Jenkins profile of Westbrook, “cupcake” was a common pejorative among Thunder players.) It’s also more intricate than just some pictures of cupcakes, though. If you look at the three tiers, the first tier has eight cupcakes, which is the same number of years that Durant and Westbrook played together. The second tier has 12 cupcakes, and the third tier has 23 cupcakes, and if you add 12 and 23, you get 35, which is Durant’s number. Westbrook is like the Nicolas Cage–in–National Treasure of petty acts, and I love him so much for it.
Anytime anyone has asked Westbrook about these episodes, he’s denied any connection to Durant. He has, for the most part, ignored Durant’s entire existence, which is an effective mental warfare tactic.
LeBron, on the other hand, has leaned in the opposite direction: He’s named names in his petty attacks. His list:
December 25: The Warriors show up to Cleveland to face the Cavs for the first time since losing the 2016 title. The walk through the bowels of the stadium passes by an office with an open door, and inside that office hangs a double-headshot petty act: a giant poster of LeBron’s instantly iconic chasedown block of Andre Iguodala in the final two minutes of Game 7, except someone’s Photoshopped a championship ring on LeBron’s finger. It’s a great jab.
October 30: LeBron hosts a Halloween party. Among the decorations are cookies baked in the shape of tombstones bearing Steph Curry’s and Klay Thompson’s names, a drum kit for a skeleton band with “3–1 Lead” written on it, and, as reported Monday, a Steph Curry dummy on the ground that people had to step over to get into the party.
August 8: LeBron posts a picture of his new hat on Instagram. It’s the Kermit Drinking Tea thing except Kermit is wearing a Cavs jersey and a crown and sipping from a championship trophy. Before Game 7, he wore a regular Kermit Drinking Tea version, so this new hat closed that loop in an especially petty way, because the only thing more petty than a regular petty hat is a customized petty hat.
June 20: LeBron exits the plane after the Cavs land back in Cleveland following their Game 7 victory. He’s wearing an Ultimate Warrior T-shirt. He says in an interview with Business Insider that it just so happened that it was the only shirt he had left, but he may as well have done one of those big stage winks while he said it.
LeBron and Westbrook have done other petty things (Westbrook kicking the ball away from Damian Lillard when he reached for it during a timeout in a Thunder-Blazers game is my favorite non-Durant petty barb from him), but those are the big four by each. So determining the Pettyweight Champion is a matter of scoring.
Westbrook gets a 95 percent petty score for his photographer’s vest, an 88 percent petty for his runway commercial and Uzi Vert commercial (anytime you can get corporate America to indulge in your secret petty attacks, it’s going to be a high score), 84 percent for his carpool karaoke, and a 93 percent petty for his Inception-level cupcake attack on Durant. (One of the better petty moves by a team this year was almost as clever as Westbrook’s cupcake thing. After the Knicks traded José Calderón, Robin Lopez, and Jerian Grant to get Derrick Rose, they made a video welcoming Rose that was made up only of highlights of Rose scoring on Calderón, Grant, and Lopez.) That gives Westbrook a cumulative petty score of 360, for a petty average of 90 in 2016.
LeBron gets a 96 percent petty score for the Photoshopped championship ring block poster, a 92 for the dead Warriors Halloween decorations, an 86 percent petty for the customized Kermit hat, and an 87 for the post-championship Ultimate Warrior T-shirt. That gives him a cumulative petty score of 361, for a petty average of 90.25 in 2016, juuuuuuust edging out Westbrook for best in the league.
There it is.
LeBron James is the NBA’s Pettyweight Champion of 2016.