Russell Westbrook will probably be the NBA’s new MVP. The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard deserves it, too: he’s made history by averaging a triple-double in a season forged for the ages. His 2016-17 assault shall be remembered as one of the most bombastic campaigns of basketball individualism of all time—even the haters can grant him that handily. But there’s a lot of debate to be had between them and his lovers about the fetishization of raw statistical numbers, the value of filling a productivity vacuum on a fairly gutted roster, and what it means to be a giant piranha in a tiny southern pond as we approach Westbrook’s likely crowning. All of these arguments, with their non-Westbrook half tending to favor James Harden as MVP, beg questions about what kind of stories we want from the sport.
Those ready to dismiss Westbrook’s gaudy numbers and ridiculous usage level probably don’t feel much for the romance of his rugged archetype. Like Kobe Bryant and the proto, 1980’s Michael Jordan before him, No. 0 is making NBA spectacle from pushing the limits of what one guard can do all on his own. (It’s no coincidence that Jordan has championed Westbrook since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City and put him in this Man vs. Nature position; M.J. sponsored Westbrook as he was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame last offseason, and his all-powerful Nike imprint has shot Westbrook to the top of their branding priorities as well). Playing a season that’s essentially 82 48-minute guitar solos, Westbrook’s amazing play has been in the service of exhibition, above all. And while said exhibition has been breathtaking, practically no one believes that, even if he were to average more than 50 points and 20 assists per game, he would be able to push his team to a deep playoff run.
Harden, by all means, is the more modern guard, in a more convincing position to win. He is more immediately deferential, more unpredictable, and equipped with a much better jumper. A lot of this has to do with Harden’s options—a bevy shooters to spread the floor on offense, namely—but it’s also nearly impossible to imagine Westbrook playing any differently than how he does right now, particularly since he showed much of this cannibalizing of possessions, even if they end with someone else shooting, when Durant was by his side. Part of the thrill of watching Westbrook has always been riding an extremely fine line with him, lying impossibly between unstoppable and self-defeating. Now that the talent around him has diminished so much, there’s no pot of gold for him to capture or to ruin. He’s played as well as anyone can, but only in the name of staying alive; never thriving in the wins and losses columns. His is the glory of a mom-and-pop restaurant merely saving their business, and doing it one perfectly constructed dish at a time.
This is amazing, but it is also Sisyphean and certainly it is exhausting. The Thunder lost badly (118-87) against Harden’s Houston Rockets in Game 1 for the first bout of a seven-game series, and all signs point to a mercy kill, whether it be quick or long. The question is whether this Westbrook-first phase of the Thunder will continue into next season, and if it does, for how long can it go on after that? Positively Beckettian in his in-vain refutation of the inevitable, the expected MVP shows no signs of slowing his roll, regardless of the low roof above his hopes for victory. If OKC doesn’t find another star to pair with him—and how could they, one of the least attractive destinations in the league, do such a thing?—or at least some more reliable shooters on the wings to take some weight off his berserker shoulders, it seems he may be content to play this way forever. Napoleon, fighting through Waterloo for the rest of his career. And if he can keep averaging triple doubles each season, who’s to say he shouldn’t always be MVP?
It should make you tired to think about this, but Westbrook seems pleased to play this way. There has been a fresh whimsy in his voice with reporters, accustomed to bracing themselves for his dismissive snarls, this season. He is enjoying the extra space on the floor and within broadcasts. It’s easy to call this vain or egotistical; perhaps he is, instead, just finally allowed to be natural. A one-man destroyer has always been who he is, and now that he can be that unfettered, it seems possible that living this way is more important to him than any championship could ever be. It’s a rare opportunity to watch him heave mortar blasts from his island, as it drifts away from the continent of the game. Westbrook’s future is a bit of a quagmire, but his most recent triumph, whether it lasts beyond this singular season or not, is a stylistic coup, made in the name of a basketball romance of decreasing contemporary relevance. How often, in sports, do we get to watch someone so fully die for something?