Russell Westbrook will never win an NBA title.
As takes go, this might be more mild than you first think. Westbrook is going to be 30 years old this season and the Golden State Warriors’ juggernaut continues to power on, in another Conference Finals, and with rumors of a Klay Thompson extension, showing they are prepared to plow into the luxury tax. Westbrook, though, will likely be in the top five of MVP voting once again, and is one of two players to ever average a triple double in a season (he’s now done it twice). He is a fascinating, polarizing character who challenges what the goals and expectations for an NBA team are supposed to be, and whether fans and front offices have prioritized their values in the “correct” way. What is the correct way?
The story of the 2017-18 NBA season was tanking, the value of it, the debate of it, and the spread of it. After the NBA trade deadline, there were almost 10 teams that were in the act of tanking, and it was ugly. If you were tuning into a night of League Pass, you would have to parse the list of six to ten games, and figure out how many of these games features two teams that were actually actively attempting to win the game. And unlike any other sport, or really any other entertainment experience as a whole, the fans of these teams were happily rooting for failure. The tanking got so bad that the Chicago Bulls, a team that was tanking the entire year, ended the season tied for 7th worst in the league. The goal of every one of these teams is to somehow get players to help win a championship down the road, potentially four or five years from now – yet none of these teams will likely land a player as talented as Russell Westbrook.
NBA teams are tanking like never before for a franchise cornerstone like Russell Westbrook.
Russell Westbrook is imperfect; as imperfect as a star can be. In the age of the three-point shot, he is a horrible three point shooting guard, never placing above the 36th percentile of three point shooters, per Cleaning The Glass. He is a perfectly average mid range shooter, shooting 38% for his career. His defense has been questionable at best over recent years, and was overrated per on-off numbers when he was younger. When you really think about it, the last time a point guard like Westbrook (high usage; bad shooter) won an NBA Title was Isiah Thomas with the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons. Needless to say, the league has changed since. If there were a new draft, an NBA fantasy draft, with every team picking solely to win a championship, Russell arguably might not even go in the first round. Its almost impossible to imagine Westbrook on one of these contending teams right now, whether it be Golden State, Houston, or Cleveland, and taking his 20 shots a game over shots from either LeBron, Harden, or Curry. And yet, I still wholeheartedly believe that Russell Westbrook has an unfairly bad reputation – here’s why.
We as an NBA community have created extremely unfair expectations for our teams, and our superstars. The advent of the Hinkie formula, and tanking as a whole, has created a scenario where if a team isn’t close to a title, large pockets of the respective fandom wants the organization to “blow it up”: trade everyone and accumulate draft picks, with the eventual goal of winning a title. The Sixers have tainted the minds of fans and front offices alike, who are all convinced that that all they had to do was tank, and they were automatically guaranteed two stars in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons (and Markelle Fultz? Maybe?). The real truth is that the circumstances around the Philadelphia success story are probably specific to Philadelphia. In Hinkie, the Sixers had an amazing general manager who was able to go out and prey on opposing GMs and make smart moves. In the same timespan, perennial tankers like the Kings, Magic, and Suns have continued to, well, tank. The Sixers were also amazingly lucky in multiple ways. In the first draft where the Sixers’ tank was just starting, the entire league knew that the Sixers were infatuated with Andrew Wiggins and that the Bucks were infatuated with Jabari Parker, with many sources saying that the Bucks would have taken Jabari number one, regardless. So the Sixers entered in with a pretty good chance of getting their #1 choice in Andrew Wiggins. However, they slid to third and didn’t get to take Wiggins, instead ending up with Joel Embiid. When thinking about how a team wins a title, or even becomes a title contender, you can always point back to little lucky moments like this one.
For the most part, tanking hasn’t led to championship teams.
This brings us back to Westbrook. At the end of the 2018 playoffs, there has been chatter in the pundit class, the executive class via leaking, and the general NBA fanbase that Oklahoma City should look to trade Westbrook this offseason. Its easy to see why if the goal is to maximize a championship – he’s going to be 30 years old this year and his best days are probably behind him; due to his talent there would probably be a team that thinks they can construct a championship-caliber team around him, even if they’d most likely be wrong. Major sites such as The Big Lead propose that Oklahoma City should trade Westbrook to get a return of something like two Clippers first rounders, Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari. I’m sure there is some segment of the Oklahoma City fan base that would be happy with that trade. However, an NBA season is filled with 82 games – 82 game days; 82 chances to see the players on the team play, and 41 chances for a fan base to go see their team play in person; 41 games for a season ticket holder to go see. 82 times that some of the best players in the world suit up and play basketball during the regular season. The “I hate the NBA guy” loves to say that the regular season is meaningless and all that matters is the playoffs. This is garbage. As ESPN personality Bomani Jones said on Twitter, “even an irrelevant NBA game is a game with NBA players, and they’re incredible. I really don’t need much more than that”. There are few better personifications of the talent that NBA players possess than Russell Westbrook, who can take the ball coast to coast with ease, grab 20 rebounds just to show that he can, or pass out 15 assists for the same reason. Even if a team with Russell Westbrook doesn’t win a title, the amount of enjoyment that he provides by himself is immense, and watching a coast to coast dunk is something that people remember after they leave a game, or go to sleep after watching the game on League Pass.
There are some hard statistics that prove that most fan bases actually don’t care about winning nearly as much as they say they do. The NBA is in the middle of a historic rise in popularity, with spikes in national TV ratings each of the last number of years. And yet, in the last three years, only two fanbases have had the pleasure of seeing their teams in the Finals at all, and it very well might be four straight with the Cavs and Warriors each just a series away once again. Additionally, if one tracks the prices of tickets for NBA games compared to most any other sport, they’d notice a very different trend – the large-market teams drive ticket prices to go up in other sports, such as when the Yankees come to town, or the Dallas Cowboys, where the out of town fanbase will come to see their team play and the prices will rise with this increase in demand. In basketball, the prices go up for when the top talent comes into town. Sure, there are some amount of Cleveland Cavaliers fans that show up when LeBron is in the building, but the truth is it’s mostly fans of the home team who are coming out specifically to see LeBron. The part of this that is remarkable, based on the current idea of sports fandom, is that the fan is paying a higher price to see LeBron, and yet their team is more likely than not going to lose because LeBron is so extremely good. On top of all of that, if you go to a LeBron game, and your team wins and he plays poorly or doesn’t play many minutes, you might even feel cheated by the experience.
The Cowboys are always good news for ticket sales, per SeatGeek.
So why are we wasting so much time and effort to find the flaws in a player like Russell Westbrook and not simply enjoying the massive amounts of skill? Why do we fans look to find the negatives in players such as Westbrook, LeBron, Curry, and Durant and not simply admire these future Hall of Famers who are changing the league on the fly? Why do we let our tribal ideologies make us root against someone because we happen to be born in a certain city, even if in reality these people just want to see LeBron succeed? Russell Westbrook will probably never win an NBA title – and when I really think about it, that’s okay.
by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University