russell westbrook still doesn't care what you think

Words: Nathaniel Friedman

Photography: AP Photo/Danny Johnston

Almost despite himself, Russell Westbrook now makes sense. Kevin Durant was the Thunder’s franchise player and Russ was abrasive anti-matter. When Durant skipped town, the polarities reversed. The sports morality police may not have come out in full force for KD—maybe as a civilization we’ve evolved beyond such petty thinking—but he’s no longer a sympathetic figure. Westbrook, on the other hand, finds himself in the unlikely position of upstanding citizen. In one day, Westbrook has gone from an outsider sowing chaos to a key component of the NBA’s ecosystem.

Throughout his career, Russell Westbrook has been a genuinely mysterious figure. Unwinding him has proven nearly impossible because so many of his decisions come down to a question of intent. And Russ, god bless his soul, might be the least intentional athlete we’ve ever seen. Suddenly, though, he fits in. He’s gone from the league’s consummate individualist to a symbol of something larger than himself. Instead of our being forced to accept him on his own unfathomable terms, newly-minted good guy Russell Westbrook finds himself neatly packaged for public consumption.

For Westbrook purists like myself, it’s an unfortunate, even comical, turn of events. But there’s something refreshing about seeing an anti-hero cast as a leading man, or at least thrust into a role that seems completely at odds with his personality (and our expectations). On the court, Westbrook defined himself through not only a refusal to accept orthodoxy but a rejection of anything fixed or constant. Westbrook is defiant in the extreme. If you read between the lines, his detractors often call him out for the basketball equivalent of nihilism. Expect those same people to now praise him for his fealty.

Westbrook’s decision didn’t come down solely to principle. LeBron James took a fairly minuscule pay cut when he took his talents to South Beach and it became a badge of honor; Durant left millions and millions on the table this summer, to the point where many assumed he would stick around for a couple of years just to make maximum bank. Westbrook’s new deal allows him to cash in to the fullest degree. Conveniently, the right thing for Russell Westbrook to do also happens to be the most lucrative.

There’s also the opportunity to be the unquestioned face of his franchise. Westbrook is strangely ingenuous; it’s never really felt right to call him selfish, accuse him of chasing stats, or suggest that he’s blinded by his own ego. But it’s safe to say that Westbrook—whose co-existence with Durant was slippery at best—now has exactly the showcase he’s always wanted. Last season, Westbrook racked up triple-doubles at a remarkable clip. But his 2014-15 campaign, during which he reached a level of intensity and exertion that verged on disturbing, remains the stuff of legend. And most of it happened with Durant looking on in street clothes. 

RUSSELL WESTBROOK UNLEASHED, intoned with some combination of giddiness and outright dread, is the big headline here. But the Thunder won’t simply be a vehicle for Westbrook’s furor. They will still be a very good team, if not an elite one. For the first time ever, the franchise has a solid supporting cast and a competent coach. The Serge Ibaka trade altered the complexion of their roster but they got versatile guard Victor Oladipo in return. Still, there’s a crackpot consistency to Westbrook. Choosing to remain in the stronger West is far from the path of least resistance. Boston, a rumored destination for Westbrook either through trade or free agency next summer, would give him a far better shot at the Finals. Yet chasing a title doesn’t really seem to be on Westbrook’s radar. It’s as if he’s almost too competitive in the moment to get hung up on the big picture.

There’s also a part of me that wonders if Westbrook chose to stick around in part because of the the Thunder-Warriors rivalry, which was fraught even before Durant’s move. While we’ll probably never know for certain, there’s a distinct possibility that Westbrook—who barely understands the line between bold and foolhardy—wants very much to be a thorn in Golden State’s side. It’s a gross understatement to call Westbrook emotional and it’s entirely possible that his heart, not his head, is what’s guiding him here. Westbrook always needs a reason—whether real or imagined—and if it wasn’t personal with the Warriors before, it certainly is now.

There will be rampant speculation as to exactly what Westbrook thinks about Durant. Certainly, though, the optics of the situation are startling. Kevin Durant walked out on a contender to join arguably the greatest team in NBA history; almost grimly, Westbrook embraced adversity by staying behind. KD took a shortcut, Westbrook opted to make his life even more difficult than it had to be. Westbrook wants very much to see just how far he can take this team. He’ll play the only way he knows how and either breathe new life into the Thunder or run them into the ground.

There are no martyrs in sports. With Westbrook, though, there’s an element of bravura that borders on self-sabotage. He would almost rather go down in a blaze of glory than nab the easy win. It’s a drive so uncouth and senseless that it seemingly works against his newfound nobility. Russell Westbrook views the world as one gigantic middle finger and responds in kind. Again, the question of intent: Do we really believe that a player as apocalyptic as Westbrook is being governed by principle here? Isn’t it more likely that by sheer coincidence, honor and dignity just happened to align with the same need for perpetual conflict that’s driven Westbrook for his entire career?

Absolutely nothing about Russell Westbrook has changed; the shift has been in our perception of him. What remains to be seen is how this narrative holds up over the course of an entire season. Certainly, we haven’t uncovered the real Russell Westbrook. We’ve just been afforded the opportunity to see him in a new light. On a fundamental level, Westbrook is allergic to making people too happy or letting them get too comfortable. Whatever it is that compelled him to stay in Oklahoma City, it sure as hell wasn’t you or I. Kevin Durant may have made an unpopular decision, but it’s Westbrook who could give a fuck about a popularity contest.