The United States of Russ Is Starting To Crack

Three years ago when he was abandoned, Russell Westbrook was the victim, and like all victims, he had his sympathizers, apologists, constituents, fans, and cheering section. A vulnerable Russell Westbrook was familiar. All of us have been, at some point, left by somebody we didn’t expect to leave us. We touch the wound.  Russell Westbrook was relatable.

Shortly after the disaster, Russell Westbrook signed a contract, pledged his loyalty to OKC, and delivered a MVP  trophy to his personal shelf while making triple double history. Did it matter that the Thunder lost in the first round of the playoffs? Or, the following year in the first round of the playoffs they lost? And this year, likely another first round loser?

How are players defined? By what they do or who they are? Is achievement necessary for adoration or can you put up numbers and remain beloved? Can loyalty sustain playoff mediocrity?

The OKC Thunder are the only team in the playoffs nearing elimination while signing checks for two 2019 All-Stars. They are losing to a team with just one All-Star. The math is the math. Two beats one. But when it is Russell Westbrook, two is less than one.

Here is what is happening aside from Paul George’s shoulder. Before the playoffs started, the 2018-19 season was an awful Westbrook year, despite his triple double mania. He only made 29% of his threes but he took nearly 6 threes a game. He shot a very unimpressive 42%. He made 65% of his free throws, his worst percentage ever. His offensive rating was the second worst of his career even as his defensive rating was exceptional. But you don’t build around a player who is dominant on the defensive end and struggles making shots.

More evidence Westbrook’s season failed him: his PER and his usage rate were a 9 year low which seems to imply when Russ isn’t in full domination mode he isn’t effective. His midrange game has never been anything to write home about but 20% 3-10 feet and 33% 10-16 feet means all he can do at a high level, besides defend, is finish at the rim. He made 31% of his jumpers, and with less than 3 minutes to go he connected on 39%, not what we call money in bank.

In the playoffs, he has been a catastrophe, only making 36% of his shots, not averaging double figures in rebounds and assists, with an offensive rating of 98, which mirrors his offensive rating last season in the playoffs with a healthy Paul George. Then his offensive rating was 99. The difference now is that in addition to a morose offensive game, Westbrook’s defense has gone fishing. 

For the first time in his career, his playoff PER is 14.2. As a first year in the playoffs blur, his PER was 24.3. But he was playing with Kevin Durant and James Harden and that is the real of the real.

Russell Westbrook has a lot of want-to but want-to doesn’t rise to can-do. He’s not Kevin Durant. He’s not offensively talented. He cannot score from every spot on the floor. He doesn’t have a shooter’s touch. He can’t catch and shoot or drain pull ups. He has never learned how to pace himself in games, how to moderate his energy so less is more, and then more is more. Westbrook 100 miles an hour 24-7 is how you lose playoff games. You get more by giving less. His midrange game has some life in the playoffs, better than his regular season, but it’s not enough to save the Thunder.

All the Westbrook sympathizers have turned into the Westbrook critics and haters. He is being compared to Allen Iverson. He is being talked about as a basketball player and not a winner. He is being excoriated for a contract that will pay him for three more years before Russ has a player option for $46 million. The Thunder are in quicksand. They are stuck and Russell Westbrook cannot save them. The player who could (save them) ran to the west coast. He left a mess in his wake.

Change is inevitable. The same ones who said Russ was a victim are now saying Kevin Durant was heroic for getting the hell out and letting Russ be Russ all by himself.

There is something about the way Westbrook plays now, as if he is the King and this is his empire and everyone else has to suffer through him. It is annoyingly selfish. That kind of game is fine if you win- when you win it is justified. But when you lose, things fall apart. 

This is a sport that doesn’t suffer fools nor bad sportsmanship, and overpaid playoff losers have their reputations flung through a sieve. If the tail is wagging the dog, there is a problem. In OKC, it starts with Russell Westbrook, then continues down the line with the Thunder front office enabling hurt feelings. You win here. Or, you lose badly. There is no middle earth.