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.