Success and failure through the lens of Russell Westbrook

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Russell Westbrook isn’t the most hated player in the NBA, nor is he the most criticized. Yet the baffling misreads of Westbrook’s game — which paint him as either incompetent of villainous — have persisted into the offseason, so much so that his name alone was somehow deemed a suitable taunt for Kevin Durant. It’s all very confusing, and somehow stems from the fact that Westbrook didn’t pass Durant the ball enough, or didn’t make enough of his shots, or didn’t manage to fill whatever role the basketball adoring public demand that he fill.

Yet beneath all of the bile heaped his way, Westbrook is still a star. His decision making isn’t perfect, but he’s nonetheless an amazingly productive and effective basketball player. So much so that Kevin Pelton, in a piece for ESPN Insider, explored the benefits of the Hornets trading Chris Paul — who has the ability to become an unrestricted free agent next summer — for Westbrook. Pelton’s case is definitely persuasive; New Orleans’ evaporating roster makes rebuilding around Westbrook an incredibly sensible plan, one that the Hornets’ brass ought explore.

Yet embedded within Pelton’s hypothetical argument are some more immediately relevant (and important) caveats to the criticism aimed at Westbrook:

In front of a TV audience that had seen relatively little of Oklahoma City throughout the season, Westbrook was the scapegoat for the Thunder’s inability to construct an effective late-game offense. Westbrook deserved some of the blame; he lacks the kind of court vision to find teammates when they slip open for a split second, which is part of what makes Paul so special. Westbrook also has a tendency to overdribble when the play breaks down, trusting his own ability more than that of his teammates.

Still, Westbrook can only run the plays called from the sideline, and Oklahoma City’s half-court playbook is limited. When defenses took Kevin Durant away with physical defense, Westbrook creating on the fly was often the only alternative. Additionally, the Thunder were victims of their own success. Oklahoma City’s problems were only revealed because the Thunder made an impressive run to the Western Conference finals — further in the postseason than Paul, for one, has ever advanced.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting Westbrook to be the best player he can possibly be, but turning each of his faults into a crusade against his game is foolish. He does, as Pelton notes, lack the court vision of players like Paul. He’s not an elite playmaker, even though his physical gifts enable him to create dribble penetration in ways few other players can. His decision making, too, isn’t perfect, and neither is his jumper. Yet all of these are detractions from the whole of Westbrook’s game rather than the other way around; he’s a player who pushed his team to the Conference Finals, not one who cost them a trip to take a step further. He did what he could under the circumstances, and though Westbrook’s playoff showing wasn’t without its own faults, it’s unfair that only he — and not Durant, or Scott Brooks, or any other member of the Thunder — should be defined by them.