In a game 6 playoff loss, Russell Westbrook confirmed everything his critics say about him. Westbrook was reckless, angry, selfish, relentless, motivated. He was full on Russ, the beauty and the beast. It’s the most unsettling thing about the gifted, talented Westbrook who a year ago won the MVP. He can’t get out of his own way. He has a very narcissistic game when he is under stress. He took 43 shots in a closeout game. To put that in perspective. When Kobe Bryant scored 81 points against the Raptors, he took 46 shots. So what the hell was he doing? He was all in, that’s what. Russ being Russ. It’s not a compliment.
This is the NBA life. When you are the best player on your team, when you are the highest paid player on your team, when everything is about your talent and your game, your mental approach, your leadership, then it is more than your scoring, or your rebounding, or your light. It’s can you make teammates better? Can you elevate more than yourself?
Phil Jackson once said about coaching that it is about ridding players of their innate selfishness and getting them to accept and submit themselves to team goals. Professional basketball is a we game and not a me game.
Carmelo Anthony is part of the we who didn’t perform, as if old age has beaten him over the head with a stick. Or, Westbrook has created a passivity in Anthony and a disinterest that gave him a ghost like appeareance on the court. Paul George came to OKC with one foot in and one foot in L.A. but was willing to give it a go, particularly if the Thunder were contenders.
Count Paul Pierce as one who thought the Thunder were contenders. His argument was that the Thunder were not constructed for the regular season, for a Wednesday night in Memphis and a Thursday night in Dallas. With the time off during the playoffs and the focus on one team the Thunder, with their elegant talent, was prized to make a run.
That sounded good enough as a projection for a team that performs like a team but too often than not, Westbrook, the good of him and the bad of him, tilts the entire concept of how a team functions as a secondary assist to how he performs. He can carry a team with his brilliance or he can sink a team with his obsessiveness. He has yet to prove he can play with other All-Stars, that he is generous enough on the court, kind enough, unselfish enough. He puts on a show when he is supposed to be executing a game plan.
So what now Thunder?
Another Phil Jackson reflection. He said of Kobe Bryant that the regular season was about Kobe dominating his position and proving to everyone he was better than they were but during the playoffs he settled in to team goals because he was desperate to win a title.
Westbrook is desperate too but for what exactly? And how does the GM who traded James Harden proceed when he is paying Westbrook $35 million next season and two years after that, $43 million?
Carmelo has a player option so the Thunder may lose both George and Anthony and it will be Westbrook by himself again which, actually, is how he probably likes it. He doesn’t have to worry about sharing the ball. He doesn’t have to concern himself with legitimizing the talents of his teammates. His teammates are props to his greatness and therein is the Westbrook paradox Sam Presti is stuck with. Selfishness is not great. Selfishness though is easy.
Even without George and Anthony, the Thunder are still financially overwhelmed. They can’t sign a max player but perhaps what Westbrook’s career will be defined by is Westbrook’s intensity driving everything. He doesn’t need another max player. His strength is his tunnel vision and it is his weakness. His GM has to manage that on a good day and a bad day. There’s a lot of bitter and a lot of sweet.
Last year with Victor Oladipo as a teammate, Westbrook lost in the first round to the Houston Rockets. This year, with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony as teammates, Westbrook lost in the first round to Utah. The only constant in both years is Westbrook.
Leading by not leading.