The most Russell Westbrook moment of the most Russell Westbrook season did not take place on the floor. It happened in the locker room, where his contentious relationship with reporters?and perhaps with all human beings who want something from him?continued. Allen Iverson had called himself ?the biggest Westbrook fan, I think, there is? and beat writers dutifully went to Westbrook for a response. They got one, following some standard returned praise: ?I didn?t watch basketball much growing up,? Westbrook said when asked for specifics. So much for that conversation.
There?s something telling about that, and it isn?t that Westbrook just wants to get all conversation over with as quickly as humanly possible. Well, it?s not just that anyway. Because if that was the case, he would have given that answer even had he watched Iverson religiously. I don?t think he did. I think he was telling the truth. Because lying about it would require forethought and, at least when it comes to basketball, Westbrook seems unwilling to do it, if not incapable of it. In a world dominated by ego, he is the purest expression of id??a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations? as Sigmund Freud put it. And honestly, has any sportswriter ever written a better descriptor of Russell Westbrook than that? He more than anyone else in the NBA seems incontrovertibly in and of the present.
Here is the biggest difference between Russell Westbrook and Allen Iverson, and why perhaps the initial comparison was ill-made: Allen Iverson will be remembered as the last pre-analytics superstar, when it was possible to win MVP while shooting 42 percent from the floor. Westbrook? He?s the first post-analytics superstar, even as analytics become a larger and larger presence in the game. Because analytics measure what?s already happened, and to Westbrook, good or bad, those things simply don?t matter. They may as well not even exist. It?s not that his numbers are bad, it?s that those numbers measure who he was, not who he is.
So what drives him? It can?t just be anger, because anger generally burns bright and fast. Westbrook isn?t a nuclear explosion as much as an unceasing series of them, like the perpetual reaction that powers the sun. Even terms like ?rage? seem too small. Calling Westbrook angry is like calling the sun hot, it?s an oversimplification that just takes into account the surface. The ongoing cry of ?let Westbrook be Westbrook? is closer, vague though it seems, because it simply accepts that he just is. Westbrook defined is Westbrook controlled, and that?s just not happening.
There is a price to be paid for this, of course, especially when one?s next game that matters isn?t until October. Russell Westbrook will not be in the playoffs. He will not win MVP, and likely, in an NBA world where winning is increasingly rewarded over all else, not even make first-team All-NBA. He did win the scoring title, thanks to his 37-point effort in the Thunder finale. What does that mean to him? ?Shit,? he responded. ?It doesn?t mean nothing.?
Next season will be different, assuming Kevin Durant makes it all the way back from the Jones fracture that caused him to miss 55 games this season. But don?t expect Westbrook to take a step back, either. He can?t. Not when forward is the only way he knows.