Russell Westbrook Is the Second Banana
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Chris Ryan: I am typing these words while wearing a T-shirt that depicts Russell Westbrook as Ziggy Stardust–era David Bowie. I have gotten in approximately 16 office arguments about Westbrook in 2015, and it’s only February. In another tab on my browser, there’s a story on ESPN.com comparing Westbrook, statistically, to Magic Johnson. Westbrook is my favorite basketball player. I wrote the 95 Theses for the Church of Westbrook. So I can say this with a clear conscience:
Russell Westbrook is the second motherf$*&#ing banana.
Even with Kevin Durant out — again — after surgery to adjust the screw in his foot to make playing basketball a more comfortable experience. Even with Durant working on the umpteenth draft of his public persona, in public. Even though Westbrook is performing like the shark who ate Samuel L. Jackson when Durant doesn’t play this season, he is still the second banana.
It’s fashionable right now to think that Westbrook might be emerging from Durant’s shadow — that he might even be eclipsing Durant in some way. There may come a time when Westbrook gets to run the Thunder (or the Lakers), and when that time comes, he can have a bushel of second bananas of his own to make up for his mistakes and offset his personality traits. Until then, and while he still wears Thunder colors and still plays with the reigning MVP, Russ is the Slash to Durant’s Axl, the Phife to his Tip, and, perhaps most accurately, the Pippen to his Jordan.
The last comparison is becoming increasingly apt. If we had had Twitter, Vine, YouTube, and the 24-hour sports news cycle back in the mid-’90s, who knows what kind of cult would have grown up around Pippen? Westbrook is a one-man content provider. His dunks, his celebrations, his postgame quotes, and his pregame outfits all supply grist for the mill.
If we’d had that kind of media infrastructure during the days of Pippen, and if he’d had as many take-bakers tending to ovens as we do now, I’m sure there would be plenty of people putting forward “What’s Jordan Without Pippen” bangers. They’d talk about how Scottie was the bricks and mortar, and Jordan was (just) the steeple at the top.
The inverse is true with the Westbrook-Durant dynamic. People think Russell is the cursive to Durant’s block printing, the Inception bong to Durant’s classical concerto; some even think Westbrook is the real MVP.
And here’s the thing: Maybe Russ thinks that too. He probably does. And that’s why he’s the second banana.
Second bananas do second banana shit. They do things like thirstily look on when the alpha dog wins the MVP trophy. They act out on the court and wear capri pants off it. They are the dudes who need to be told to settle down, to focus, to keep it together. Second bananas have that luxury; when you’re a sidekick, you kick up a fuss.
Durant is the ocean from which the River Westbrook flows. Durant is Westbrook’s bail money. Durant allows Westbrook to be Westbrook. It is only through Durant’s consistency that Westbrook can play such an expressive game.
You may think that since Westbrook lost to Apollo Creed in the second round of our Second Banana bracket that the worm is turning and the public no longer views him as a supporting player. Nah.
Some things are written in pencil, and some things are carved into tablets. The idea of Durant as the alpha dog and Westbrook as his sidekick falls under the latter.
Kevin Durant Is the Second Banana
Andrew Sharp: Listen.
He is not a second banana.
Maybe he was a second banana at one point, maybe one day he will be again, but right now, that label doesn’t fit. If anyone’s the second banana, it’s Kevin Durant. It’s always been this way with the Thunder.
But Durant was the MVP, you say.
But the Thunder would barely make the playoffs without KD.
But last week Russ said, “Kevin’s one of the best players in the world, man, and I love my position I’m in now. You can be on your own and win a few games and then go home in the summer, but I’d rather win games and have a chance to win a championship every year.”
All of those things are true. That doesn’t change the basic reality of how the Thunder operate on the court. Think about which superstar sacrifices more of his game to make the Thunder work. Durant could average 40 a game for most teams in the NBA, but he doesn’t in OKC. He takes a backseat so that Russ can grab the wheel for 20 shots a game.
Isn’t that the ultimate litmus test for who runs things?
Think about what makes a great second banana on a basketball team. He blends seamlessly into the background when it’s time for others to attack. His skills are understated. He makes the most of every opportunity, but he doesn’t force anything. He takes less so the group can do more. He wants to win, but he doesn’t care how.
Isn’t that Durant? He could be the best second banana of all time … if only we’d accept that on this team, that’s his role.
This OKC discussion has been planned for months, but now that Chris and I are actually doing it, the timing is pretty amazing. Durant has been hurt, and the added adversity coupled with increased opportunity might just be enough to get Westbrook an MVP of his own.
Of course, this also comes at a time when everyone — and some people in particular — has gotten sick of arguing about the Thunder. So I’m not even here to argue. I’m just telling you the truth: If you take someone who’s never watched the NBA and have them watch a few Thunder games, that person will have no question about who leads this team.
Durant may have more commercials, Durant may have more scoring titles, Durant may go down as one of the 10 best players of all time. But don’t let your brain distract you from what you know in your heart. This Thunder team begins and ends with Russ. He gives them their angry edge, he adds that reckless element to the offense that makes the whole thing seem unstable, and he adds the thousand-pounds-of-C4 explosion that makes it all irresistible.
This works both ways, of course. If you go back to the 2012 Finals, or even the end of last year’s Spurs series, sometimes it seems like Westbrook’s success comes at Durant’s expense. Russ goes into takeover mode, and suddenly the best scorer on the planet can’t get into a rhythm. He’s left floating on the perimeter for possessions at a time while Westbrook takes on the entire defense. The first banana point guard hasn’t always been a good thing.
But it’s a good thing this year. Durant has been in and out of the lineup and Westbrook is hitting another level. Look at some of the games from the past month:
- 1/21 @ WSH — 32 points, 8 assists, 8 rebounds
- 2/2 vs. ORL — 25 points, 14 assists, 11 rebounds
- 2/4 @ NO — 45 points, 6 assists, 6 rebounds
- 2/6 vs. NO — 48 points, 11 assists, 9 rebounds
- 2/11 vs. MEM — 24 points, 9 assists, 9 rebounds
- 2/19 vs. DAL — 34 points, 10 assists, 5 rebounds
- 2/21 vs. CHA — 33 points, 10 assists, 7 rebounds
- 2/22 vs. DEN — 21 points, 17 assists, 8 rebounds
This is how it feels to watch Westbrook in 2015:
Will it end with a title? Will any of this last? I don’t know. That’s not what we’re talking about today. I’m just here to scream from the rooftops of this website: No matter how great Durant is, Russ is nobody’s lieutenant.
If you learn anything at all from Grantland’s Second Banana bracket, make it this: Russell Westbrook had no business being included in Grantland’s Second Banana bracket.
It’s why this team is more fun to argue about than the rest of the Western Conference combined. Sometimes KD and Westbrook are so amazing that none of it matters. Other times, it looks like the stubborn insanity that makes Russ incredible might be keeping Durant from being even more unstoppable. The best player in the league shouldn’t be anyone’s second banana, right? Then Russ will do something incredible again, and everyone will agree to watch a little longer to see if this can work. That’s where we’ve been for the last few years. Even now, nobody can look away.
And that’s what makes the Thunder so much fun.
Or, to be exact: Russell Westbrook is what makes the Thunder so much fun.