Hi, everyone. My name is Robert, and for the past eight years I’ve lived as a Russell Westbrook detractor.
There were more of us in the beginning, when Westbrook was hoisting 25 shots of varying prudence per game despite sharing the court with a scoring cyborg constructed in a top-secret government facility. But the vindication comes less often these days, and criticizing Westbrook increasingly feels like shouting into the digital void.
I try to not be a contrarian just for the sake of being a contrarian, but there was something about basketball Twitter’s adulation of Westbrook, something about the way he was built into a meme-able hero, that made me want to be on the other side. My obstinacy was also generational: I was in college when Michael Lewis wrote “The No-Stats All Star,” and ever since, I’ve viewed basketball through the lens of finding hidden value, of stressing efficiency over cramming the box score. I’ve tried to see what others couldn’t or wouldn’t, which has led me to say things like, “Well, they picked the wrong guy,” when discussing the Thunder’s choice of a future with Westbrook instead of one with James Harden. Harden’s status as an efficiency maven fueled that sentiment, and his MVP-caliber campaign in 2015 felt like the deathblow for Westbrook’s case as the better choice.
And then the past six months happened. I still love Harden, even though the Rockets are a nightmare both aesthetically and in terms of wins, but Westbrook’s play this season has forced me to reconsider my feelings — both about him in particular and the game as a whole.
New-age stats go only so far; with time, I’ve realized how much makeup matters, and Westbrook’s is rare. Last Thursday, with OKC down three late, I watched Westbrook pick Austin Rivers’s pocket, bolt down the floor, and toss a lob to Kevin Durant; it felt like the Thunder couldn’t lose, because Westbrook wouldn’t let them. Minutes later, Westbrook actually flew for the game-sealing rebound. That might not seem so impressive against the Clippers’ B-squad, and it might not feel like the sequence that would inspire a conversion, but it stuck.
Thanks to his absurd assist rate and steady stream of triple-doubles, this version of Westbrook is the most effective there’s been. But what really makes him the potential silver bullet threatening what feels like a foregone Spurs-Warriors Western Conference finals is the crazed look he wore down the stretch against the Clippers. It’s the look that I used to shrug off, but can’t anymore. Sometimes, real value is as plain as the scowl on Russell Westbrook’s face.
This piece originally appeared in the April 6, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.