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It’s Time to Talk About Russell Westbrook (Again)

There have been many arcs in Westbrook’s career, but teaming up with LeBron James could be the defining moment for the most electrically non-defining player of his generation

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We should be freaking out more about Russell Westbrook. By “we” I mean you. I am already freaking out about Russell Westbrook quite a bit. For some of us, it’s a way of life. Freaking out about Russell Westbrook is to me what horse whispering is to a horse whisperer. It’s the thread that connects me to the universal essence. Robert Redford will (possibly) never play me in a movie, but if he does, he will be wearing a cowboy hat and staring at the severe beauty of the pale Montana sky while he murmurs, “26 points … 11 assists … 12 rebounds … on 37 percent shooting … my God, creation is marvelous.”

The rest of you, though? I don’t know. I feel like we could bump the national freakout up a notch. I’m not saying there’s no freaking out happening. It’s just been mild. It’s as if—to keep our metaphors corralled within the larger Horse Whisperer universe—you’re all concentrating on the whispering part and I’m going, “What if we went outside on the ranch and yelled at the top of our lungs?” Russell Westbrook, arguably the most divisive star in modern NBA history, is playing in a situation perfectly calibrated to bring all his maddening, beautiful, self-defeating, and transcendent qualities to a crisis point. He’s embarking on a kind of third-act trial by fire of radical basketball iconoclasm, one that will either validate his whole career or convince his doubters they were always right. Exciting and confusing deeds are being accomplished by and near him. Please join me now in the sage grass, where we will shriek at some chickens.

Consider: Like all former MVPs who hit 30 without winning a championship, Russ has spent his later career dogged by the suspicion that he’ll never land the big one, that some inherent flaw in his game or his personality makes him unfit to contribute to a title team. In Russ’s case, these suspicions have accrued an added intensity due to the high probability that they are correct. His game is wildly inefficient; as capable as he is of moments of astounding brilliance, he also stands furiously ready to, say, fire off a 30-foot air ball with 19 seconds left in a game in which his team trails by one. There are so many ways an NBA player can make you clutch your head; he might be the career leader in all of them. Is he a genius? Undeniably; but it’s also easy to see him as perverse, willful, a star for whom every midrange bucket is a Pyrrhic victory, a player eternally on the wrong side of an It he simply does not get. “For thy sake, Tobacco, I / Would do anything but die,” Charles Lamb wrote in 1805. I sometimes meditate on the ironies of that sentence while I watch NBA franchises take deep puffs of Russ in the fourth quarter.

And yet! This player, this wacko-jacko firebrand of system-killing mood-ball, this living embodiment of the question “what if Ayn Rand went to Studio 54 … and the whole dance floor got drafted by the SuperSonics?”—this dude, who once recorded 42 triple-doubles in a single season, who has the worst 3-point shooting percentage in the history of human beings with more than 2,500 NBA-level attempts, this dude has been hand-selected by LeBron James as an essential cog in the machine he’s building to return the title to Los Angeles.

I’m sorry, what?

Picture me in a Robert Redford shearling-lined trucker jacket, gazing stoically upon the majesty of the West as my face starts doing Beetlejuice-style tentacle-squiggles.

I mean, it’s perfect. Terrifying but perfect. Rarely does life set you up with such a clear set of stakes. Option A: Russ thrives under the wing of the first leader he’s ever played with who’s capable of compelling his full obedience (Kevin Durant and James Harden being at best problematic quasi-alphas, not fully licensed by the Michael Jordan Despotism Academy), buys in, plays smart, meshes with Anthony Davis and Carmelo Anthony, helps the Lakers win the championship, and proves he had it in him all along. Option B: Hotter heads prevail, Russ plays like he’s on a completely different team, L.A. loses in the second round, and he confirms himself as an influence so toxic to ultimate victory that not even LeBron, the winner among winners, is immune to him.

Is there a middle ground between these two options? Yes, in the sense that a giant asteroid hurtling toward Earth could technically destroy half, rather than all, of the planet. No, in the sense that the asteroid either hits us or doesn’t.

Why aren’t more people extremely excited about this story? There might be (he said icily) a bit of Westbrook fatigue in the NBA community—a player who demands so much attention, with so little perceived return, will eventually start to seem frustrating to your less quixotic sort of fan. But I’d guess the main reason is LeBron himself. LeBron is such an outsize presence in the NBA that everyone who plays with him ends up being enclosed in the Matryoshka doll of his own narrative. There’s no room for another protagonist. The question is never “what will Russell Westbrook do in L.A.?”; it’s always “has LeBron James—media mogul, star player and de facto GM of the Lakers—built a product that can deliver his sixth championship (we are all witnesses)?” Whatever Russ does, LeBron is seen as the prime mover. That’s silly, but only in the way that all of this is silly. Sports narratives are generally silly. They work the way they work.

The soul-deep second-tier status that goes along with being LeBron’s teammate has made it hard, in the past, for other offbeat megalomaniacs to play with him. Kyrie Irving, for instance, could not stand to dwell in the shadow; Kyrie wants the brightest possible spotlight, the biggest possible podium from which to explain to the world what he read on Wikipedia last night. In a weird way, though, I can see it working for Russ. He’s always played at a remove from mainstream NBA logic. So why not outsource the mainstream-NBA-logic stuff to LeBron and stop having to worry about it? It can be freeing, can’t it, not to be the frontman? Let the singer write the chart hits; concentrate on your own mind-melting guitar solos.

It’s too early to say whether it’s working, of course. I have my doubts, but I have doubts about my doubts. People say he’s “settling in.” The Lakers are a work in progress, with a lot of new parts to assimilate, and LeBron has missed some games with an ankle injury. The team currently has a negative point differential with Russ on the court; he’s shooting very, very badly from 3—22 percent!—even by his standards. On the other hand, he’s shooting well from 2-point range, and he’s taking fewer 15-footers. LeBron is saying nice things about him, encouraging him to “fit out” rather than fit in, which is an extremely smart way to work the word “fit” into a non-fashion-related sentence about Russell Westbrook. L.A. is 5-3, 1.5 games out of first place in the West. Carmelo Anthony has looked great off the bench. It’s a long season.

There’s already been time, however, for some surreal moments. Last week, Russ managed to get ejected from a game against his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Lakers, playing without LeBron, had choked away a 26-point first-half lead against their then-winless opponents. With 1.5 seconds left and the Thunder leading, OKC’s Darius Bazley elected to throw down a breakaway dunk rather than dribbling out the clock. Russ, stung by this violation of the protocols of good sportsmanship—not a code I had ever strongly associated with him, but the heart knows its own sense of honor—went after him, got his second technical, and was tossed. The whole thing felt bizarre. A few times in every NBA season there’s a game that makes you think, “Is this League Pass or am I dreaming?” I remember 1,377 missed 3-pointers. Afterward, Russ described himself as “old school,” and the amazing thing is he’s not even wrong; for all that I tend to view him as an avant-garde art project, there is a very specific sense in which pride, grit, and comprehensive indifference to advanced statistics do make him something of a throwback player. Dennis Rodman was old-school, too, in his way.

And so here we are: We’ve been thinking about Russell Westbrook for nine minutes, and I’ve already put The Horse Whisperer on my Apple TV watchlist and reversed my understanding of what several words mean. Basketball remains the best. The Lakers play the Thunder again tonight. Anything could happen. But among all the stories unfolding over this young season, don’t sleep on the new Russ arc. It could be the defining moment for the most electrically non-defining player of his generation. I won’t say I’m ready for it, because how could you be ready? But I can’t wait.