It's tempting to say we've never seen anything quite like Russell Westbrook. And on a first glance, that may indeed be correct. In my short twenty six years of watching basketball, I can't say I've ever seen a 6'3, 200 pound point guard with the strength, athleticism and speed that the 26 year old Westbrook brings to the table. As far as physical gifts go, only LeBron James and Derrick Rose come close, and neither of them quite matches the total combination Westbrook possesses. More importantly though, what Westbrook has goes beyond the physical gifts; it's a desire to be great every single game, every single moment. When you watch Russell Westbrook play basketball, you know he is going to leave every last piece of himself out there for victory, regardless of whether it's an NBA Finals game or a December contest against the Orlando Magic. Many guys over the years have had this gene, but not like him. Not at this moment at least.
In the last seven games he's played in, Westbrook, minus his exceptionally talented co-star Kevin Durant, has strapped the Oklahoma City Thunder on his back in glorious fashion. Since Durant was sidelined from recurring problems with his foot on February 19th, Westbrook has averaged 35 points, 11 rebounds and 10.8 assists per game, one of the greatest stretches in recent basketball memory (and one that would likely be better if he hadn't missed a game this past Sunday). How great? During this streak, Westbrook became the first player since James to average to record three straight triple doubles (the streak would end with four straight triple doubles) and joined Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as the only other player to average 30 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists in a month. This is the stuff of legend, and you don't need to look at stats to know that. Watching Westbrook, a person my age mind you, do the things he's done on a basketball court these past seven games has been absolutely breathtaking. I can't remember anything quite like it.
And yet, I keep getting the funny feeling that what I'm seeing here isn't just an MVP caliber stretch, but a ceiling, and a ceiling that Russell Westbrook isn't going to be able to break. You see, for all of the greatness we've seen from Westbrook these past seven games he's played, there's a problem that cannot be avoided. No, it's not his 4.5 turnovers a game or his average at best 43.5% shooting from the field. Both areas could be better, but Westbrook's high number of assists and ability to get points from the free throw line cancel out those concerns. The issue is the biggest stat of all, the only one that matters; 4-3. That right there is the record for the Thunder during Westbrook's seven game run. Yes, the Thunder are only one game over .500 during Westbrook's run, having failed to beat a team with a winning record and barely being able to beat the lowly 76ers (a team that is trying so hard to tank, GM Sam Hinke likely attempted to trade the whole team a day later for playing well). The lack of wins has been enough to keep the Thunder from being comfortably being in the playoffs, and has shown something that, frankly, I don't think enough people are ready to accept yet; Russell Westbrook cannot win you an NBA title as the alpha dog of a team.
Now, is that statement necessarily fair? Probably not. Seven games is admittedly not a huge sample size to go on and without Westbrook's phenomenal and his manic effort, there's no way the Thunder even win two of those seven games he played. On top of that, the Thunder sans Durant don't have anyone on the roster close to Westbrook's level, and head coach Scott Brooks (with all due respect) isn't exactly Phil Jackson on the sidelines. There's more reasons than just Westbrook that the team hasn't been more successful. At the same time though, I can't imagine LeBron James or even Durant putting up these numbers over seven games and not winning at least six of them. That's what alpha dogs do; they don't just put up great stats, they make their teammates better and pull out wins whatever way they can. For whatever reason during this run, Westbrook hasn't done that the way you would expect LeBron, Durant, Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant to do so. So many people are quick to compare him to these names, but in reality he looks more like a forgotten star from the most recent generation; Allen Iverson.
Remember when I said earlier it seemed like we hadn't seen anyone like Westbrook before? Not true; Iverson, the former 76ers star, was doing the same thing fifteen years ago that Westbrook is now. Aside from Westbrook being taller and having a superstar teammate alongside him, the similarities between the two are surprising. Like Iverson, Westbrook is the kind of physical specimen we'd never seen before he entered the NBA. Like Iverson, Westbrook is a much, MUCH better passer than he's given credit for. Like Iverson, Westbrook has the ability to be absolutely breathtaking one moment and incredibly maddening the next. And like Iverson, there is a fire in which Westbrook plays with that is both the greatest and worst thing about him. In his famous "practice" press conference, Iverson said of basketball that it was the game he "lived and died for", and you could tell that was true every time he stepped on the court. Westbrook, to a fault, is the same. It's why he is so fascinating to watch, so loved by fans and basketball pundits alike.
Of course, for all of Iverson's greatness, he never did win an NBA title and his legacy is that of a gifted individual who was selfish and never made his teammates better. Is that Russell Westbrook's future? I could try to make this as nice as possible, but yes, I do believe it is. For the life of me, I cannot imagine the Thunder winning more than a game this postseason with Westbrook leading the way, and frankly I don't think a team with Westbrook as its alpha dog star is anything more than an eighth seed. For all his gifts, does he really make his teammates better? For all his fire, is it really the making of a top notch superstar or an unbelievable co-star? All I know for sure is that if you give me Kevin Durant and a solid if unspectacular supporting cast, that team can make a playoff run. Ditto for LeBron James and James Harden. Westbrook? I don't see it. I would love to have him on my team, but as the second best player, not the first.
Don't misunderstand this here; I'm not saying Russell Westbrook isn't a great player. He is, and this run he's had is one of the most entertaining, fascinating pieces of basketball I've seen in a long time. He's also only 26 years old, has never played with an outstanding coach, and could very easily be the type of player I'm saying he's not. But right now, the two things that his great run have revealed are that the Thunder need (not likely, need) Kevin Durant back in order to be a championship contender and that if Russell Westbrook is your best player, you need more. Harsh, yes, but true in this writer's opinion. That's the thing about reckless youth. It's wild, breathtaking and fun, but in the long run, you just can't live like that.