If you wanted a microcosm of Russell Westbrook’s mad, doomed run through the 2014-15 NBA calendar, you could do worse than to look at the game that ended his season. Oklahoma City’s 138-113 win over Minnesota on Wednesday night carried all the hallmarks — sorry, scorch marks — of the campaign that saw Westbrook become the annihilating angel of modern basketball: a savior, a villain, an MVP candidate, a team-carrying hero, a team-destroying narcissist, a martyr, a lunatic, and a clown, often at the same time and to the same people. The game had:
An insane amount of scoring: Westbrook went for 23 points in the first quarter (on 7-of-8 shooting) and 34 by halftime, both new Thunder records — and this is a franchise that’s had Kevin Durant for his entire career.
Gaping roster holes: Durant missed his 55th game of the season; Serge Ibaka missed his 18th. If the 2014-15 Thunder were Space Jam, the entire squad would have gone down with acute pencil sprain in November.
A sense of mounting panic: OKC had to win to have a chance at landing the 8-seed in the West; if they lost, they’d be out of the playoffs. This was the perfect climax for a year in which the Thunder started out as title contenders, only to see their postseason hopes burn up in a kerosene fire of injuries and bad luck.
Westbrook leading a squad of strangers he met on Craigslist into the fluorescent mouth of hell: Oklahoma City drastically retooled its roster around the injury crisis, leading to a universe in which Enes Kanter somehow emerged as a local folk hero and Dion Waiters capped off the season with a disciplined 33 points. The only constant among all these spare parts was Westbrook, knifing at the rim like a matador who decided to charge the bull.
Deep statistical chaos: Westbrook finished the season with 11 triple-doubles, something only two players, Grant Hill and Jason Kidd, have done in the last 20 years; he was first in the league in scoring, second in steals, fourth in assists, and first among guards in rebounding. On Wednesday, he put up a 34/3 first-half/second-half scoring split1 while leading his team on a 138-point rampage in a do-or-die game, with seven assists and eight rebounds thrown in. And if those numbers don’t make a ton of sense, well, welcome to Russell Westbrook’s Season of Flame.
Westbrook sat the entire fourth quarter after Oklahoma City built a 21-point lead.
Glory becoming futility, futility becoming glory, like a snake swallowing its own tail: Westbrook locked up the scoring title and won a dominating victory, only neither achievement mattered because the Pelicans’ win over the Spurs knocked the Thunder out of the playoffs. All season long, or at least since Durant’s foot injury crushed OKC’s title hopes, Westbrook’s game has had this almost Sisyphean quality of resolve. How appropriate was it that his season ended with an award he didn’t care about2 and a win that doubled as a loss?
What does it mean to you? he was asked after the game; Shit, he answered.
David Sherman/Getty Images
When you add a player’s name to the MVP conversation, something odd happens. You start focusing on his weaknesses. Westbrook’s critics, who are numerous and not unacquainted with television cameras, have spent the last two months picking his game apart in search of reasons why he doesn’t deserve the award. He’s selfish (wait, didn’t he average 8.6 assists this year?). He’s inconsistent (uh, he scored 30-plus points 29 times this season). His field goal percentage is mediocre (fair, though you try shooting 50 percent on a team whose second most potent scoring threat is currently a 6-foot-11 Turk best known for his searing vendetta against the state of Utah). His defense is haywire (also fair) and his turnovers are up (he spent half the year passing to cardboard cutouts with “Player TK” Sharpied on them, but whatever). He also led a team that won just 45 games and missed the playoffs; the last player to win the MVP without reaching the postseason was Kareem, who did it when Gerald Ford was president.
I almost never agree with Russ’s critics about anything — basketball, basic life philosophy, the true meaning of joy — but you know what? In this case, they’re right. Russell Westbrook is not the MVP. The difference is that the Russ doubters act as if this is because his game is somehow fundamentally invalid, while to me, it’s what makes him so worth celebrating. Being MVP means becoming the focal point of a consensus, an emblem of how the cognoscenti think basketball should look right now. And if Russell Westbrook has a higher purpose, it’s to smash consensus and leave the cognoscenti sleepless and terrified.
Think about, I don’t know, the Oscars. Every year, the Best Picture race doubles as a kind of inquiry into American taste, or at least the antique, lily-white, male-driven facsimile of it represented by Academy voters. The movies that win aren’t necessarily the most groundbreaking or aesthetically challenging films of a given year. They’re the ones that satisfy certain criteria, that make the voters feel a particular way about filmmaking or about themselves or about life. The criteria change over time, as last year’s 200-minute historical epics become this year’s prestige biopics. But they change slowly, which means that it’s possible to trace Oscar films as a tradition — as a gradually evolving portrait of how the powers that be view excellence.
The MVP award is the same way. There are players who just feel like MVP candidates because they’re the players about whom the most people can agree. It’s easier to generate that kind of agreement in basketball than in movies, obviously, since wins and stats speak for themselves.3 Still, though, the MVP award tends to focus on certain types of stars — depending on the era, it might be the best player on the best team, the deadliest shooting guard, or the most dominant big man. What do the voters want basketball to look like in a given year? Steve Nash won more MVPs than Kobe has; the answer is often more contingent than you’d think.
Of course, the more you look into wins and stats, even the increasingly useful stats that basketball now offers, the less you find that they actually speak for themselves. But it’s a useful fiction.
One of the exciting things about this year’s MVP race is that whoever wins, it’s likely to reflect a stylistic evolution. Steph Curry and James Harden are both products of the new emphasis on 3-point shooting, the death of the midrange jumper, and next-gen tactics; they do not look like the players who’ve won it before. But if Curry and Harden are the equivalent of a new movie genre entering the Oscar vernacular — The Apartment winning the year after Ben-Hur, say — Westbrook is like some avant-garde European art-porn film whose function is to implode your entire idea of genre. The characters aren’t developed. The story doesn’t make sense. The constant unexplained flashes to inverted-color renderings of paintings from the Louvre make you wonder whether you’re watching a critique of capitalism or an ad for seizure medication. It’s not polished and it’s often frustrating. But it amazes you, too. And for a couple of hours after you leave the theater, the world looks like a strange and different place.
Movies like that don’t win a ton of Oscars, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t great. Russell Westbrook isn’t the MVP,4 but that doesn’t mean his season of ransacking basketball wasn’t one of the most memorable things we’ve ever seen in the NBA. Westbrook is polarizing, unapologetic, furious, alienating, unstoppable, and vanquished.5 You can say his season was a failure, I guess, if you want to look at things that way. But would you really rather live in a world where it didn’t exist?
Who is? My vote is for Curry; when faced with two players who had roughly comparable seasons, why wouldn’t you choose the one who made you laugh out loud from sheer happiness? I mean, why shouldn’t that count?
I know that James Harden is some of those things, but he’s never all of them at the same time.
Russell Westbrook is not the MVP because the MVP should never make you murmur “he’s not so much playing basketball as fighting the Wars of the Roses.”
Russell Westbrook is not the MVP because the MVP should compete against the opposing team, not against the concept of basketball itself.
Russell Westbrook is not the MVP because the MVP should execute a plan successfully, not somehow turn a crisis into a flaming starship that crash-lands in a realm beyond failure and success.
Russell Westbrook is not the MVP because the MVP should never make you realize you need to rewatch Pierrot le Fou as research for a column about him.
Russell Westbrook is not the MVP because the MVP should never make you jot down “seems to be transforming into pure sound” in your game notes the one time you catch him live.
Russell Westbrook is not the MVP because the MVP should never make you write “he’s probably the best player in the league, he’s just not the best player on his own team” and have that make perfect sense in your own mind.
Russell Westbrook is not the MVP because he did all of these things in 2014-15. And oh man, I’m glad he did.