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The Great Point Guard Debate: Russell Westbrook Rides the Lightning

The reigning MVP’s singular skill set and style are a true gift to the NBA

Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA is teeming with talent from the backcourt to the frontcourt, but even as space and versatility have changed the way we evaluate player roles, there still is no position that captures the fan imagination quite like the point guard. This week, we’re celebrating the masters of tempo, the architects of system, and the athletes who have altered our understanding of game management. There is no consensus on who—or what—constitutes as the “best,” but it’s always a conversation worth having. Welcome to the Great Point Guard Debate.

If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, what is writing about Russell Westbrook like? It’s not a celebration or excoriation of form; it’s something more fundamental. It’s staring up to the sky at the onset of a storm and processing your own visceral reaction to the strobing flashes of lightning that illuminate the horizon. Did you gaze in awe, or did you worry about the calamity to follow? He is the lightning. What follows is the Thunder.

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To crib one of Sam Presti’s favorite lines, Russ is a force of nature. You’re either with it, or you’re against it. The parameters shift every time we try to examine Westbrook’s place on the point guard spectrum, but after 10 years—after all the refinement he’s made to his play, after the record-breaking feats of individualism—it’s still the raw, unmolded energy that we champion in him more than anything else. In an age when LeBron flexes for the ’Gram almost daily, Westbrook’s military-strict workout routines under the cover of darkness carry with them the same folkloric quality that Kobe Bryant’s used to possess. “When I watch Westbrook’s energy, it reminds me of the energy that I thought I played with ’til I saw him play,” Kevin Garnett recently said in a Reddit AMA. KG was the most intense on-court presence of a generation; to see him crack and laugh at himself for even trying to compare his mentality to Westbrook’s is jarring. The folly in trying to fit Russ in the context of the game’s best contemporary point guards is that he also embodies the qualities you’d hope to see in the game’s best wings or big men. They see themselves in Westbrook; boil down Westbrook’s essence, and what’s left is something universal.

Russ is a true one-of-one, and even keeping the comparisons within the realm of basketball feels limiting. In a different sport, Westbrook’s athleticism would still expand beyond positional boundaries. It’s impossible to talk about Westbrook these days without citing some numbers, so here are a few of my favorites: Racing from one end of the court to the other, Westbrook’s top speed with the ball in his hands reaches 21.6 miles per hour, a rate on par with some of the NFL’s speediest wide receivers. He accelerates at a rate of 27.16 feet per second squared, which is faster than the estimated rate of Deuce McAllister (26.25), the New Orleans Saints’ all-time leading rusher, whose fastest 40 time was a 4.26. We’ve seen what happens when that speed and power is superimposed onto a court 94 feet long and 50 feet wide: It becomes a game-breaking agent.

“[Westbrook’s] got speed that you can’t scout for, that you can’t plan for," longtime opponent and first-time teammate Paul George said about Westbrook after the Thunder-Pelicans preseason game, their first together. “We joke about it, how to run a fast break with him because he's so fast. By the time you catch it, your feet are all messed up trying to catch up to him. So it’s going to be an adjustment, but again, you’ve got a guy that puts that much pressure on a defense, it’s going to make the game so much easier for me. My job is the easy part, just to finish those plays for him.”

Westbrook cut his teeth alongside Kevin Durant in a rigidly dichotomized offense. It was a study of contrasts between 1A and 1B, two players capable of taking on the entire opposition themselves, so they did. Last season was something new: Westbrook was both the monarch and the yeoman. This season, something newer still: a traditional hierarchy of talent with Westbrook as the godhead, something Russ has never experienced before. It won’t be as easy as simply doing everything by yourself when you have a tenured scorer and one of the league’s best two-way players darting down the wings in your periphery.

The Thunder want to run this season; they were top-10 in pace in 2016-17, but the 100.5 possessions they averaged per 48 minutes could stand to ramp up with their new set of stars. Westbrook barreling down the middle of the lane will invariably draw at least three sets of eyes in his direction; much of Carmelo Anthony’s utility on this team already figures into Westbrook’s full-speed drive-and-kick muscle memory. In the preseason, we’ve already seen the seeds sown for a fruitful (and interchangeable) pick-and-pop arrangement among Westbrook, Melo, and George. But to maximize George’s specific talents, Russ will have to create space off the ball, using himself as a decoy on occasion rather than always serving as the wrecking ball. As the team’s unquestioned leader, Westbrook won’t be asked to defer, but he’ll be asked to diversify. The difference is semantic: It’s a request that’s made in a language Westbrook might be more receptive to, a request that was ignored in the Durant era, when deference was painted as a moral obligation. You don’t put Westbrook in a corner.

As the orthodoxy of basketball positionality either rewrites itself or vanishes altogether into the next generation, Westbrook is the point guard who lights the way forward. I’m not X or Y, I’m a basketball player is the new catch-all cliché for a league still trying to suss out what appears to be an ongoing offensive revolution. For most players, it’s a hedge—a way to signal to their team that they’re open to anything, so long as it doesn’t limit their playing time. For Westbrook, it’s a basketball-specific variant of his unlimited worldview: Why not?

Is it really that simple? It would explain Westbrook’s general revulsion to the media; if it really is that simple, then we’re making a lot of fuss out of nothing (no surprise there). But we also know Russ to be meticulous to a fault. He is a curator, selective of what he does and doesn’t let out into the public. He is rage incarnate on the court, cool and curt off of it. Where his words are imprecise, his body language—or, rather, the language on his body—often rings loud and clear. Without saying a word, he turns pettiness into pageantry:

That is, indeed, one of the joys of scrutinizing Westbrook: You see what you want to see and read into what you want to read into because he isn’t going to make it any clearer. In millennial America, where your job is an extension of your identity as a person, somehow Russ talks about being a basketball player as though he’s talking about what he imagines being a lawyer, or a babysitter, or a Disneyland cast member leading a parade down Main Street is like. Within the vagueness of his descriptions are modern koans. In 2012, following a comeback victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals in which Westbrook had a leading performance, he noted, “My job as a point guard is to come out and keep competing.” Nearly five years later, after three knee surgeries, a conscious uncoupling from his longtime running mate, and a triple-double season for the ages, the fundamental understanding of what it is he does is the same. As he told The New York Times’ Sam Anderson earlier this year, “My job is to get to the ball before the next guy.”

Maybe the message really is that simple, and maybe his superhuman physicality is the metalanguage that dots the I and crosses the T. Maybe in a league that shifts in convention as suddenly as the NBA does, a mission statement as vague as “keep competing” is the only thing you can hold onto. Steve Nash once said point guards are born, not made. For a while, that felt true. But forces of nature have no reason to adhere to that kind of arbitrary distinction. Westbrook is like no point guard of the past, and there will be no point guard of the future who can repackage all of his idiosyncrasies. He is the point guard of today. And he will be until tomorrow.