Russell Westbrook and the question of what could be

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Russell Westbrook has had a rough season for the Lakers, but he does not deserve to shoulder the blame for the team’s failures alone.

If one squinted and ignored Westbrook’s style of play, it was possible to imagine a way for the marriage between him and the Lakers to work out. The Los Angeles Lakers were desperate for playmakers and initiators not named LeBron James; his athleticism and the threat of his scoring near the rim could have enabled him to be a lethal cutter; his passing abilities could have opened up opportunities for others; the lesser offensive load could have enabled him to be a better defender than ever before. The problem was how much these hopes ignored.

Russell Westbrook has always been who he is. Emphases have 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 particular contest in his image, a man who will endlessly attack and try to take over in the hope of following through on that belief. In the past that sense of vitality had him running past, by, and around defenders, outpacing them as they struggled to find reserves of energy that Westbrook had many times over. Now, it often looks like a man trying too hard, overextending himself. Even when the numbers look similar to what they were in the past, the impact is lesser.

Russell Westbrook has not been the Lakers’ only or even biggest problem this year

Russell Westbrook is not the reason the Lakers have been so underwhelming this year. The roster was poorly constructed from top-to-bottom, lacking enough shooters, capable defenders, wings, or playmakers to be a high-level contender. However, his failings have been the most glaring. The missed shots accumulate and the airballs and the hard caroms off the backboard stand out. These moments, combined with his own individual 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 dollars, it is nevertheless bound to happen.

In the past, one could imagine a more refined version of Westbrook emerging. Though, in that same past, his faults only mattered so much. Who could really quibble too much when he was one of the best guards in the league, garnering All-NBA honors and helping lead the Thunder to the postseason year after year? Looking at his 14 seasons as a whole, it’s not that Westbrook was ever unreliable, just that his form of reliability was not the one that many hoped for.

I do not blame Westbrook for struggling to adjust, for resisting the cries from others to adapt to another’s ideas of how to play. It was this very refusal that made him great in the first place. And when you have been capable of defying every odd, laughing in the face of laws as ironclad as gravity, it must be hard to realize that there are concrete limits placed upon what you can overcome through sheer will. It had worked before; why won’t it anymore? It’s a question that every great athlete is forced to ask at some point in their lives. With Westbrook, everything he’s ever done has been exaggerated; why would his decline be any different?

It’s too easy to trivialize what he has achieved, as if his lack of a ring or the systemic issues plaguing this Lakers squad undercut his legacy. In time, perhaps it will be easier to place his failures and his accomplishments in context together, and not act as if one season flailing about in a terrible situation outweighs all that preceded it. He was an MVP, a player so omnivorously skilled that, by posting a triple-double for three seasons in a row, he made one of NBA history’s most singular achievements seem almost unimpressive. At his best, he was one of the most dynamic players in NBA history, a man who could seemingly do everything, as long as he was not expected to do it in moderation.

His decline has been exaggerated. He can still be of use, though perhaps only in a different context, as a player that is very different from the electric burst who won MVP five years ago. Of course, there are a lot of hypotheticals, a lot of if’s in this scenario and those of us who have followed Westbrook and rooted for him and been moved by his skill and athleticism know that the good and bad are intertwined.

The same things that make him a liability today are what made him great in the past; they cannot be separated. At least, there has yet to be any indication that they can be. Why would the next time be any different? It could be, but it’d be foolish to imagine that it will. It is not yet the end of the road for Russell Westbrook, but this season has been a foreshadowing of what it may look like.

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