In 2018, an obsession with the NBA means a dissection of the sport, from cryptic or petty tweets to deep analytics. It’s beautiful game to watch, and processing it from top to bottom is part of the deal.
Processing anything means a search for definable truths. NBA fandom is a paradox in that we’re drawn to its unpredictability, but we spend the 21 hours in between games calculating absolutes concerning players, teams, and future outcomes.
Russell Westbrook is at the heart of that paradox, as a player and—if you’re willing to abandon one of those already established absolutes—as a current championship contender.
As a spectator, Westbrook is the type of athlete who can draw you to the sport by watching him play just once. In a vacuum, it’s truly nonsense to watch him play and suggest he is not a transcendently dominant basketball player. You could determine this in the abstract sense by simply noticing how much more athletic and relentless he is than the other players on the court, or you can determine it in the very literal sense by pointing out that he is scoring more points than everybody else.
But complete NBA immersion means knowing this isn’t quite as true as it appears. There are conversations about efficiency. There is something to be said about shot selection and the idea that Westbrook’s most recent rebound was incredible but quite possibly unnecessary. By any standard, there are very few basketball players better than him, but by the tightly dissected standard of NBA Fandom, the list of players better than him is longer than what the eye-test would suggest.
This is level of consumption is fine with the NBA until it begins to subtract from the drama that’s supposed to be their biggest selling point. The Golden State Warriors have made definitive answers that much more attainable. Their roster has created a top heavy NBA that leaves less overall talent to trickle down and bad teams with so little talent to draw from that they understand competing is futile. It has created an easy to comprehend absolute: the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets or Cleveland Cavaliers are going to win the NBA championship, regardless of whether the other 27 teams try to win it or not. Even including the Rockets and Cavaliers in that sentence felt like a stretch.
The death of the NBA middle class is another discussion altogether (perhaps it never made sense to be a sixth seed trying to win a championship and NBA front offices have only recently realized), but the Thunder are the remedy to inevitability, perhaps not in reality, but at least in theory.
Westbrook is at the heart of all of this, because his mere presence on a roster makes it impossible for that team to be one of the league’s worst. He simply won’t allow it. His combination of hyper-competitiveness and all-world talent means he is trying to win the 2018 championship.
And in similar fashion, his team is flawed while obviously brimming with talent. He has another superstar in Paul George alongside him. He has whatever playoff savvy Carmelo Anthony has left in him. And Steven Adams is one of the NBA’s equalizers; he’s proven more than once that he can make the Warriors pay for small ball, and holding the secret weapon to basketball’s most unbeatable lineup is no small asset.
“With Paul and Carmelo here, Steven has gotten back to a role that he’s more comfortable in,” Billy Donovan said recently. “He’s taking care of the things he does well, and I think that’s a big factor.”
The Thunder are 4-2 this season against the Warriors, Rockets, Cavaliers and Raptors. The argument that their advancing in the playoffs is impossible is based on the notion that Westbrook can’t score 45 points every single night. But, really, he can. He might be the only player in NBA history that could have a dominant game and seemingly have the energy to immediately start a new game and do it again. Maybe George could bring that level of defensive dominance. Adams would happily fill in where needed.
The most enticing thing about Russell Westbrook is that he doesn’t believe what we’ve already accepted to be true.
Believing the Thunder can make a run this postseason is antithetical to the way you’ve joyfully consumed the NBA for a few years now. But believing in them—hopeless as it may seem—might bring you back to why you started watching it in the first place.