Commentary

Basketball: Love him or not, you have to watch Westbrook

Russell Westbrook has no conscience. And this is why he is the most compelling NBA player right now.

In a league filled with media-friendly, team-first- me-second and fan-accessible stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry, Westbrook wears a sneer to every game and scowls: "Give me the ball."

He hogs the ball; he drives for lay-ups fearlessly and relentlessly. He throws up low-percentage attempts repeatedly; he hits improbable shots. Passing is not his first option even if he faces three defenders; yet when the chips are down, he will battle for rebounds and feed open team-mates for easy shots.

He is a one-man show at Oklahoma City Thunder, and a historically great one at that. On Friday, he became just the second player to average a triple-double in an NBA season - 31.7 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists a game.

It is a mark which James has never come close to; nor did Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson or any of the NBA stars in the past 55 years. The last time it happened was in 1962, achieved by Oscar Robertson - in a different era of basketball (with about 25 more possessions per game), on a now-defunct franchise (Cincinnati Royals).

Westbrook is undoubtedly one of the most amazing players ever, yet he has also polarised the NBA - some accuse him of being the biggest ball hog on the planet, neglecting his team-mates and not improving his franchise's title-winning chances.


Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City grabbing a rebound even as he takes a tumble. He is much more likely to be MVP than win the NBA title with the Thunder. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Yet, no one can deny that fans would rather watch individual stars like Westbrook than well-drilled title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs.

No one can accuse him of lacking confidence, though, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Westbrook last week: "In a good way, he's got no conscience.

"It doesn't bother him to take the last shot. They're not all going to go in, but he likes being in that situation. He likes the responsibility...

"He's ready to do it again the next game. A lot of guys aren't like that. They shy away. They don't want to be in that situation."

Westbrook is undoubtedly one of the most amazing players ever, yet he has also polarised the NBA - some accuse him of being the biggest ball hog on the planet, neglecting his team-mates and not improving his franchise's title-winning chances.

It is generally accepted that if a player reaches a triple-double in a game, he has influenced a game signficantly - not only has he scored a decent spate of points, but he has contributed defensively with rebounds and lifted his team-mates with assists.

Imagine doing that consistently throughout an 82-game season. It takes a singular intensity - a reason to silence doubters - that the player carries for an entire season.

And Robertson, as well as Westbrook, came with baggage.

Robertson, or Big O, was revered as a player - and reviled as a team-mate. According to one of those team-mates, Zelmo Beaty: "He was such a perfectionist that I never could have lived up to his expectations.

"The way he'd scream at (Royals team-mate Wayne Embry, 'You dummy, catch the ball. I put the ball right in your hands, how could you drop that one?' I felt sorry for Wayne."

Robertson's constant fury was the product of incessant racism early on in his career. When his high school became the first all-black team to win the state title in Indiana in 1955, Indianapolis rerouted its annual championship parade towards the ghetto, refusing to let them celebrate with the majority of the city.

So while he was a supreme talent with the basketball, his constant antagonism with his (white) team-mates meant he did not win his first NBA title until he joined forces at the Milwaukee Bucks with a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971 - a full 10 years into his career.

Westbrook, while not damaged by racism, has made intensity part of his game since he arrived at the Thunder in 2008. With Kevin Durant as the main superstar, he was seen as an ideal sidekick - his fire blending well with with Durant's ice-cool demeanour.

After the Thunder narrowly lost to the Warriors in last year's Western Conference finals, Durant bolted as a free agent - to the Warriors, much to the consternation of the Thunder and, especially, Westbrook.

Saddled with an average cast, yet unable to accept defeat, he took it upon himself to drag his team as far as he could - team-mates be damned.

So far, so good. The Thunder are in the play-offs, and his hodge-podge gang of team-mates defer to him in crunch time, they spread the floor to give him space to operate, and they willingly set screens for him to get him open looks to launch his shots.

Things will be different come the play-offs. Smart teams like the Warriors and the Spurs have figured out the Thunder: either they smother Westbrook and dare the other players to step up, or they stifle everyone and dare Westbrook to do it all.

Can Westbrook outlast these teams by himself, for four play-off series, and win the Larry O'Brien trophy? Even Jordan couldn't, until he had a stellar supporting cast.

Westbrook will be hot favourite for the regular-season Most Valuable Player accolade, but his Thunder team will remain long shots for the NBA title.

It is the "curse" that every one-man show in the NBA is saddled with, because no matter how much he can do - even averaging a triple-double in a season - it is always easier for opponents to narrow in and defend one target, than having to deal with five different scoring threats.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Love him or not, you have to watch Westbrook'. Print Edition | Subscribe