In the Trees, a Defense of Westbrook

Sometimes, I just can't believe my ears. Just this morning, I was sitting at my desk and gazing out into the canopy of trees outside of my window, when I heard a creaking, creaking sound. This is the city, make no mistake about that, but in my daydream, I imagined that a few gray squirrels had constructed a pulley system to the higher branches of this great oak tree, in order to hoist up their sacred objects (furniture, acorns, record collections) to the tallest limbs. Realizing that this was actually a wheelbarrow being pushed by a nearby human being, likely hoisting piles of mulch to a nearby garden, I zoinked out of it.

When I first heard the first calls describing the follies of Russell Westbrook's jacked up shot attempts as a diversionary tactic, comparing him to the last great "team cancer" of the league, I couldn't believe my ears either. I thought, "What? The friendly neighborhood Russell Westbrook who everybody applauded during the season for his year-to-year improvement is now one of the most epic disappointments that the league has ever seen?"

For all that has become of the Russell Westbrook / Stephon Marbury metaphor, what I can't believe the most is that many media members have decided to frame it as a "Marbury was selfish and turned crazy... so naturally Westbrook will be the same way!" as opposed to not assuming things will always turn out as a pastiche of what we've already been through. Just because they play slightly similarly doesn't indicate a linking of psyches. Although, I guess I can understand it. As I’ve often said, who likes thought when you can just drag out old tropes about the recently deceased? When I wrote a long aside about the two players in “On the Subway, a Defense of Rondo” at the end of March, that’s what it was based in: an analysis of play, versus pure psychoanalytical analogy. Things have undoubtedly gotten a little sloppier, a little more superficial, since then.

Drawing an correspondence between the “2011 playoff version” of Westbrook and Minnesota Timberwolves-era Marbury hearkens us back into what's been regarded as a bleaker age of pro basketball for various reasons. The latter period has been claimed as an irrelevant era in the league, as it was largely framed by very good players that were framed by their own “thuggishness” (at least, public personas based partially in having racial identity rooted in the hegemonic perception of blackness in the early-mid 1990s), at least in comparison to Jordan, Karl Malone, and the stars of the golden age, who were of course, great guys. Whereas now we are living in the brand new condominiums of a sparkling, shining revival in telvision ratings and press coverage, Marbury is a bulletpoint on the list of where things went wrong in the post-Jordan era.

When we criticize Westbrook’s “selfishness,” what we’re implicitly doing is referring back to this push for social and class equality that these players helped represent through their coming of age, a progression into a just society that was never realized (e.g. in basketball, Stern’s dress code; in politics, the Bush tax cuts; in music, all of the good rappers getting dead). No matter what Mos Def has said, this idealistic society of individual agency was rejected by its time, which is sort of horrible because we are likely behind the kind of socioeconomic equality that was alluded to by artists, poets and athletes of that time. Even 2Pac.

And through this needless farce of recollecting the young, god-in-training Garnett and his erratic sidekick, we are damning the culture that this era of pro basketball represents, without giving much thought to the context behind it – the time in our history in which those players grew and matured. We couldn't handle it, so we pushed back.

In retrospect, only Marbury played his card wrong, and clearly represented himself as a person way harder than his skills afforded him at the time, by pushing too soon to become a focal part of the Timberwolves’ offense (or to make as much as KG, whichever). It would have been just as simple to draw the conclusion that Garnett, amazing teammate at the time in the same way that Durant is considered now, had the same sort of questions about his role compared to his own burgeoning dynamo. If all shoot-first point guards are compared to "selfish thugs" of the late 1990s like Iverson or Francis, how did Rose become the heroic Jordan and Westbrook become... Marbury? How do we decide who becomes the hero and who becomes a villain? Is it based on who wears a backpack in post-game press conferences?

Westbrook still has that kind of possibility, that kind of virtue, that kind of purity. Beyond looking at usage statistics to prove his “selfishness” compared to his comrade, we know that this wondrous element of promise remains, and it is why we should still hold out hope.

There should have been a balance, but essentially I think the argument in the mainstream press has become, “Westbrook is selfish like Marbury,” and not an underlying reasoning to why he even appears that way. Just because we witnessed Marbury become a classic “team cancer” and flame out until his name was synonymous with selfish pigheadedness, it doesn’t indicate the eventual fate of our blossoming star in Oklahoma. The present provides us with a perspective that will not be so kind to us someday. It is not too late for young Russell. Dude can figure it out if we leave him alone and let him learn. But yo, as far as tropes go, “eventual tragedy” is a good one to keep pushing an impressionable man into.

Russell Westbrook has the ability and knowhow to work beyond what Marbury did as a young scoring PG and compliment Durant in a lot of ways (aka, by passing him the ball, as well as picking up the slack when his shot is off, which he did during the season and through the playoffs and nobody gave a crap). He doesn't need "his own team" to succeed. His whole team is young and maturing, there aren't many scoring options (like, besides Durant, Harden and Westbrook, exactly whom would you expect to average over 10 PPG?) and their most prevalent offensive option are a guy that comes off the bench – and even still, is fairly inconsistent – or somebody constantly being double-teamed because he can score anywhere on the court.

In Friday night’s game, the transference of Westbrook’s shots and attempts to a muffled Durant wouldn’t have done any good. In this series against Memphis, the defensive prowess of Shane Battier, Tony Allen and Marc Gasol have forced Durant into a secondary offensive role on his own team. Westbrook has allowed them, especially of late, to maintain competitiveness. If Durant misses an open jumper after he finally gets free from that powerful wing defense, that isn't on Westbrook. They remain the best young duo in the league. The unnecessarily large margin of Game 6, in particular, is more indicative of Scott Brooks’ coaching style than anything else. If anything, we are seeing the limits to Brooks’ talent, and if anything, that needs to be evaluated in the off-season more than whether Russell shot too much during the playoffs.

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KneeJerkNBA said...

Nice post! Agree that Brooks needs to figure out how to involve Durant, not Russ.

Kelly said...

I don't have much of an opinion about Westbrook beyond thinking that the Thunder as a whole are really overrated and that they're only contenders because the Western Conference is down this year.

However, I do think that the Marbury-era fantasy of some kind of grand, untethered individual agency is utterly ridiculous, in life in general and in basketball in particular. Marbury et al. didn't herald some kind of rejected utopian hopes for whatever; they really were pernicious elements on their teams -- "cancers" in the parlance basketball writers have chosen. Marbury et al. ruined their teams' title hopes by acting out the stupid "alpha dog!" fantasies.

Meanwhile, the teams who won titles during that era -- the Lakers and Spurs -- were coherent teams that played together, trusted one another, and kept the superhero stuff in check. In particular, they were teams that didn't constantly run stupid isos.

Part of what's made this year's playoffs so great is that it has featured numerous great teams that have played coherently together. When Westbrook takes 30 shots and the Thunder lose while Durant fumes, it really discloses the absolute limitation of the fantasy that a single "Alpha Dog!" player is necessary and sufficient to win and advance in the playoffs.

Say what you will about LeBron and the Heat, but everything that's happened with them over the last year is entirely about rejecting the notion that a single player should (and should be able to) do everything on his own. Meanwhile, Durant -- OKC's lone star player! -- gets frozen out while Westbrook destroys his team's chances and Scott Brooks lets it happen.

Chris said...

I think I flatly disagree with your Spurs / Lakers comparison. Those two teams functioned entirely based on a duo of stars playing at a very high level together - Duncan/Robinson, Bryant/O'Neal - and not much else, including almost interchangable point guard help! I believe that the coaches' smart, coherent systems was probably the one facet beyond those two duos that allowed them to prosper.

Now when somebody says "going Kobe!", they mean it in the same way that the earlier shooting/point guards weren't allowed to do without being slandered as selfish, in that it basically indicates a high rate of shooting with little return. McGrady and Hill did the same thing early, but they weren't PGs, so it didn't matter. They are remembered as tragic figures for the illumination they could have provided.

But because those "point guards" at the turn of the century were shoot-first (because of a combination of ego, injury, comparatively poor coaching and cultural demonization of what "blackness" represented), they are blamed for ruining the league at the time, instead of systematic failures.

Kelly said...

I don't mean to discount the systems: those Lakers and Spurs teams worked specifically because of how Jackson and Popovich persuaded their star players to buy into the systems and orchestrated a trust that made them willing to pass the ball to whoever was open, whether or not the dude was one of the several stars. Robert Horry's probably the signal figure here: he was never a super star but he was always trusted enough within those systems to get a reputation for hitting big shots all the time and to end up winning seven rings.

One story we could tell about the 04 Lakers season and the period through their 09 title was that Kobe, well, "went Kobe" and that if he wanted to win another title he had to work out the stupid alpha dog stuff (through things like the 81 point game, demanding Bynum be traded, demanding he be traded, not trusting his teammates in the 08 Finals, and so on) and come back into the fold of a coherent team. Obviously the Lakers had several stars by 09, but they also had role players like Trevor Ariza playing huge minutes.

I know the meme about how there hasn't been a Finals in forever that didn't involve Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, Robinson, Olajuwon, Jordan, whatever, but the real truth of that line's that the only teams that win Championships are the ones that manage to integrate their star players into a coherent framework so that, for instance, LeBron will continue to pass Mario Chalmers the ball for an open shot just because it's the play most likely to help the Heat win.

I won't deny that the Starbury, Iverson, Stevie Franchise stuff was kind of fun to watch, but their shoot-first/don't-pass mindsets made them impossible to play with and made it impossible for them to win Championships. It's probably an open question about where those mindsets came from, but I don't think the source was thwarted utopian hopes except in a Fred-Jameson-rhetorical-hoops sort of way.

Kelly said...

By the way I think that -- as a phrase, concept, and comparison -- "alpha dog!" is really really perverse.

Chris said...

I agree about the "alpha dog" mentality being perverse - that's sort of why I didn't address it. We both realize and cherish how much of a team game this is.

And I guess I meant that the children of the late 80s and early 90s arrived in a curious socioeconomical and cultural time, which influenced their style and modes of play, and encouraged individual agency. Unfortunately, as you said, you need a system and not constant gross iso plays to win.

I'm on my phone, so this is messy to express, but I think we agree on the most important points of my argument about this being a distraction tactic.

Anonymous said...

FWIW Iverson lead the NBA in assists several times.

Kirk Krack said...

can you specify exactly which times those were?

SYL said...

Durant is perhaps still a year away from being the "every time, every big game" player that other great scorers were in their primes. Until then, they will probably need Westbrook to step it up a bit in the playoffs. I think they are in the WCF because of Westbrook (and others), not in spite of him.

Chris said...

syl, i completely agree.

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