Russell Westbrook and the question of what could be

Russell Westbrook has had a rough season for the Lakers, but he doesn’t deserve to shoulder all the blame for the team’s failures.

If you squinted and ignored Westbrook’s play, you could imagine how the marriage between him and the Lakers could work. The Los Angeles Lakers were desperately looking for non-LeBron James playmakers and initiators; his athleticism and the threat of his goal near the rim could have enabled him to be a deadly cutter; his passing skills could have opened up opportunities for others; the lower offensive load could have allowed him to be a better defender than ever. The problem was how much those hopes were ignored.

Russell Westbrook has always been who he is. Emphasis has shifted and contexts have changed, but the core of his game has remained the same. He is a man who believes in his ability to remake any given competition in his image, a man who will endlessly attack and attempt to seize power in hopes of enforcing that belief. In the past, that sense of vitality would let him run past, run on, around, and overtake defenders as they struggled to find reserves of energy, which Westbrook possessed many times. Now it often seems like a man is trying too hard and over-exerting himself. Even if the numbers look similar to the past, the impact is smaller.

Russell Westbrook hasn’t been the Lakers’ only or biggest problem this year

Russell Westbrook isn’t why the Lakers have been so overwhelming this year. The squad was poorly constructed from top to bottom, lacking enough shooters, capable defenders, wings or playmakers to be a senior contender. Most notable, however, were his mistakes. The missed shots are piling up and the airballs and the hard collisions from the backboard stand out. Those moments, combined with his personal lack of a championship, have made him an easy scapegoat for the team’s institutional failures. It’s not fair, but when you’re making over $40 million, it still has to happen.

In the past, one could imagine a more refined version of Westbrook emerging. Although in the same past his mistakes mattered only as much. Who could really criticize too much when he’s been one of the league’s top guards, earned All-NBA honors, and helped lead the Thunder into the postseason year after year? Looking at his 14 seasons combined, it’s not as if Westbrook has ever been unreliable, just that his form of reliability hasn’t been what many were hoping for.

I don’t blame Westbrook for having trouble adapting, for defying others’ cries to conform to others’ ideas about how to play. It was precisely this refusal that made him great in the first place. And when you’ve been able to defy the odds and laugh at ironclad laws like gravity, it must be hard to realize that there are concrete limits to what you can overcome through sheer willpower. It had worked before; why won’t it anymore That’s a question every great athlete has to ask themselves at some point in their life. With Westbrook everything he ever did was over the top; why should his decline be any different?

It’s too easy to trivialize what he’s accomplished as if his lack of a ring or the systemic issues plaguing this Lakers roster would undermine his legacy. Over time, perhaps it will be easier to put his mistakes and his accomplishments in context and not pretend that a season struggling in a terrible situation outweighs everything that went before it. He was an MVP, a player so omnivorously gifted that by hitting a triple-double three straight seasons, he made one of the most unique accomplishments in NBA history seem almost unimpressive. At his peak, he was one of the most dynamic players in NBA history, a man who could seemingly do anything as long as he wasn’t expected to do it in moderation.

Its demise has been exaggerated. He can still be of use, if perhaps only in a different context, as a player very different from the electric Burst who became MVP five years ago. Of course, there are many hypotheses, many ifs, in this scenario, and those of us who have followed and rooted for Westbrook and been moved by his skill and athleticism know that good and bad are intertwined.

The same things that make him a liability today have made him great in the past; they cannot be separated. At least there’s no indication yet that they might be. Why should it be different next time? It could be, but it would be foolish to imagine that. It’s not the end of the road for Russell Westbrook, but this season was a foreshadowing of what it could be like. Russell Westbrook and the question of what could be

John Verrall

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