This week, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been trounced in the two opening games of the Western Conference Finals, losing on Monday by 17 and on Wednesday by a whopping 35. Down 2-0 in the series and without injured starter Serge Ibaka, the Thunder will most likely be eliminated by the Spurs. Perhaps in an effort to celebrate the Thunder before their season ends, Brian Philips of Grantland wrote a brilliant piece on Wednesday about the career trajectory of Thunder All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook.
Philips meditates on the perceptions of Westbrook’s unorthodox style of play. Early in his career, basketball followers scoffed at Westbrook’s eccentric interpretation of the point-guard position. Philips talks about the perception of his NBA-readiness after two years of college hoops at UCLA:
“[UCLA] would end up losing in a 78-63 blowout in the national semis against Derrick Rose’s Memphis team [in 2008]. Westbrook had 22, the most of any UCLA player, but the loss crystallized something. Heading into the draft, a player like Rose could be fetishized for his natural feel for the point [guard] position, just as, say, Chris Paul had been before him. Westbrook was by contrast too odd, too unbalanced. He was a project, a mess.”
The consensus around basketball at the time was that Westbrook’s style was too unusual for him to succeed. For this reason, more conventional point guards were routinely favored over him.
Philips describes Westbrook’s reconstruction of the point guard ideal:
“A point guard lives in the calm at the center of the game, in the silent geometry of it. Westbrook lived in the roar. Build him a basketball game and he’d try to knock it over, like a toddler with a block tower.”
In the early stages of Westbrook’s career, basketball followers (me included) wanted Westbrook to play the point guard position the traditional way. Our expectations of how a point guard should play precluded us from fully appreciating Westbrook’s immense talent.
Now, and in the last four years, Philips argues, Westbrook’s skill set has become too eye-popping to ignore. In fact, basketball followers by and large now embrace Westbrook’s reinvention of the point guard position:
“The whole idea of #LetWestbrookBeWestbrook is that watching a spectacularly gifted, idiosyncratic player operate without constraints is more fun than watching a clockwork offense.”
Basketball aficionados have let go of expectations for Westbrook. Now we simply put our feet up and let his play make our jaws drop.
In his discussion of Westbrook’s career, Philips illuminates a peculiar human tendency: our expectations often blind us from a greater truth. I’m reminded of the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Two of Christ’s disciples walk seven miles away from Jerusalem, devastated that their lord was crucified three days earlier. When Jesus himself begins to walk with them, the disciples are “kept from recognizing him” (Luke 24:16).
How in the world do they not recognize the resurrected Jesus? It’s safe to say it had something to do with their expectations. In particular, they expected that their savior would not suffer. As they tell the stranger, who unbeknownst to them is Jesus, “The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:20-21). Over dinner later in the day, Jesus breaks the bread and gives it to them, and the disciples’ “eyes were opened and they recognized him” (Luke 24:31). The reality of the resurrection stumps the stubborn expectations of the disciples.
The bread has been broken, our expectations collapsed. Our eyes are now open to Russell Westbrook’s talent.
Philips gives one more bone for Mockingbird readers and writers to chew on. He describes how Westbrook creates spectacular plays out of what seem like lost possessions, defining the Russell Westbrook Paradox: “A creator whose medium is rubble” – an image we can surely impute to a different kind of Creator.