It’s Game 2 of the First Round Western Conference Playoffs Series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Dallas Mavericks. Down 85-84 with 40 seconds remaining, Thunder Coach Billy Donovan draws up a play the gets Russell Westbrook coming off a pin down from Durant for a wide open three. He misses. Journeyman guard Raymond Felton grabs the rebound and 11 seconds later takes Westbrook off the dribble to the lane and makes the layup that gives the Mavericks a lead they would not relinquish as they steal Game 2 in Oklahoma City.
Russell Westbrook came into the Association as an incomplete player; a dazzling athlete capable of exploding past and over the defense but unwilling or unable to facilitate and make his team better. In the opposite respect was early Kanye West, a driven Dropout working tirelessly to provide beats for local Chicago MCs, and eventually international superstars for Roc-a-Fella Records, before taking his own part of the spotlight when he showed that he was more than just a producer.
In Westbrook’s mind though, he was always the same player, it just took a while for the rest of the world to come to understand it. Ye had the same drive to be known as a complete artist, but it wasn’t until he was given his chance with Roc-A-Fella on his debut The College Dropout. In 2016, Westbrook finished second in the league with 10.4 assists per (almost doubling his assist totals since 2011), while his scoring has remained elite. His eFG% has continued to rise despite his terrible 3P%, which is right at 30% for his career, making him one of the worst 3 Point shooters of all time with over 1,500 attempts. Despite the glaring hole in his game, he remains among the most entertaining players in the game, perhaps only behind one Wardell Stephen Curry. Kanye similarly has a glaring weakness in his raw singing voice. Instead of letting that define him, or limit him to just rapping, he unapologetically embraced it and it’s imperfections on 808s and Heartbreak where he almost eschews rapping entirely. While his heavy use of Auto-Tune was viewed by some as a crutch to hide his natural singing voice, he’s stated repeatedly that it makes him work harder to improve because the effect exaggerates his mistakes, often to greater emotional effect.
It’s these moments that make them relatable, because an infallible superstar is less interesting (and yes Mark Cuban, Russ is a superstar). It’s the self-confidence that is so inspiring in both of them. The confidence that allows Ye to rent out Madison Square Garden to premier his album. The confidence in himself that prompts his coach to draw up a play that gets an open three for him in a game deciding situation. The confidence that allows them both to appear in front of the paparazzi in some off the wall outfits.
Russ is similarly unapologetic in that his 3PA have only risen over his career (despite his gaudy shooting numbers), yet his productivity in every other facet of the game has sky rocketed. This has made them both maybe the most polarizing people in the respective crafts despite their obvious talents. They are brash in their approach and willing to take chances with their exuberant fashion choices being the overlapping circles in the Venn diagram between them. You’ll never see them tone down their true self to be more likable. What you see is what you get. Westbrook’s “choir boy” comments in his Air Jordan ad ring even more obviously true when you contrast the press conferences of Steph Curry. Curry’s on court swagger is almost completely lost in his detached, politically correct answers whereas Westbrook will openly laugh at the idea that Steph is an underrated defender (though according to ESPN’s Stats & Info, Curry was Westbrook’s primary defender in the WCF for 25 of his shot attempts. On those plays, Westbrook only hit 32 percent of them while he shot 44 percent on 84 attempts when any other Warrior was guarding him).
The question was asked for Kevin Durant, who gave a much more diplomatic answer and probably the Jay Z to Westbrook’s Yeezy, the more likable and affable business man. Plug Durant into any system and he’ll make them better. He can dominate the ball in a Thunder/Raptors type of iso offense, but he’d just as easily fit into a more egalitarian ball movement offense with the Warriors or Spurs. Either way he’s a superstar player that’s gonna get his buckets. Even if they drift apart in Duran’ts impending free agency (and Westbrook’s in the 2017 summer), we are guaranteed some entertaining basketball from Westbrook as he has the ability unlike any other, to really turn up his game to another level like he did in the ’14-’15 campaign after Durant went down, amassing triple doubles regularly and completely carrying his team.
Thoughts about the thoughts
Brian: I’m still waiting for the basketball game Das Racist: a player who is so meta that they play a game-within-the-game, who drags a basketball court onto the court and plays this game-within-the-game based on what happens in the game-outside-the-game; strange loops becomes strange hoops.
All stats come from Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.