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Trail Blazers 106, Lakers 104: The Sad End of Russell Westbrook
The Blazers pulled out a road win against a bad Lakers team, but the story was Russell Westbrook once again.
There's a lot to talk about from the Trail Blazers' end of their down-to-the-wire Sunday afternoon road win over the Lakers—Damian Lillard's second straight 41-point game, Josh Hart's rebounding, another good defensive game from Jusuf Nurkic, the cavalcade of avoidable turnovers that made the game much closer than it should have been. But the thing everyone will be talking about is the bricked, wide-open long two Russell Westbrook took with under 30 seconds remaining with the Lakers holding a one-point lead.
His own coach, Darvin Ham, said afterwards he wished Westbrook had attacked the rim instead. Chauncey Billups said he was fine playing off of Westbrook in that situation, a shocking admission from a coach about someone of his stature.
The Lakers are bad. I thought that before Sunday, and I would have thought it even if they'd beaten Portland as they should have. It's not Westbrook's fault Rob Pelinka built a roster with no shooters around an aging LeBron James, but this is what it's going to be as long as he's there.
There was always the possibility the later part of Westbrook's career would go this way, even if none of us wanted to believe it.
Westbrook is a no-doubt Hall of Famer, a member of the NBA's Top 75 all-time team and one of the greatest and most exciting players of his generation, but his days of being viewed that way are over. Everyone seems to realize it but him.
This was all very predictable. That doesn't make it any less sad.
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Westbrook's career feels polarizing in a way that's unique to the social-media era. Every topic of debate that's beaten to death on Twitter and the morning debate shows has some connection to him, and usually finds him on the less popular side.
The crowning achievement of Westbrook's career, the 2017 MVP campaign in which he became the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double for a full season, is the most controversial MVP award of the past decade. Two much more analytically-friendly players on teams with better records, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard, also had strong cases that year. His absurd box-score stats became a bug, not a feature, to his detractors. If you want to rail against "empty numbers that don't impact winning," Westbrook is your guy.
While Westbrook and Kevin Durant were teammates in Oklahoma City, Westbrook would often get blamed for taking too many shots or making bad decisions. It was hard to argue with the consistent success the pair had (four trips to the Western Conference Finals, including a trip to the Finals, over six years from 2011-16), but Durant was in the process of becoming one of the greatest players of all time and while Westbrook's eye-popping athleticism and breakneck pace made for great TV, the questions about how they fit together were real. When Durant left for Golden State in 2016, one of his burner accounts seemed to confirm he felt that way. If you want to defend Durant's decision to join the Warriors and run the league for three years, Westbrook is your guy.
Westbrook's trade from Washington (where he spent one unremarkable season after playing in Houston the year before) to the Lakers last summer made headlines for the star power, but it was easy to see the fit issues coming before he, James and Davis played a single game together. The season was defined by benchings, trade rumors, tension with head coach Frank Vogel (later fired) and a trip to the lottery. If you're a LeBron apologist looking to blame someone, anyone, for the dismal state of a Lakers team that's exactly what James signed up for, Westbrook is your guy.
As a personality in an increasingly personality-driven league, Westbrook also made it easy for fans to love or hate him. His willingness to stand up for himself and his family when they experienced racist hecklers at visiting arenas was admirable; his intentional difficulty in press conferences when being asked perfectly innocuous questions was more on the annoying side. By all accounts, he's a good guy who treats teammates and staffers well behind the scenes, and has a long track record of charitable work of many sorts. His forays into the fashion world and fondness for passive-aggressive social media posts make for good Twitter content but aren't for everyone. If you hate a certain kind of uncompromising NBA character, Westbrook is your guy.
The super-max contract rules that were initially designed to keep superstars with the teams that drafted them have introduced the word "albatross" into everyday fan discourse. Westbrook signed a five-year, $206 million extension with the Thunder that kicked in before the 2018-19 season; he has played for a different team in each of the first four years of that deal and will almost certainly make that five whenever he's traded this season—if he's not bought out by his new team. If you're the kind of fan that loves looking at salary-cap sheets and coming up with fake trades, and is kept up at night by the thought of someone making max money who isn't "worth it," Westbrook is your guy.
When Thad Foucher, Westbrook's longtime agent, cut ties in July, he pointed out that after being traded three times in three years, Westbrook's trade value at this point is purely as a salary number that the team trading for him would then buy out, leaving him to likely sign for a minimum deal as a free agent. And Foucher, who represented Westbrook for his entire career and is one of the most powerful and respected agents in the league, likely knows his value better than anyone. He wouldn't go to the lengths he did to distance himself if he didn't have ultimate confidence that he had the correct read on Westbrook's market.
Even if Westbrook is traded, bought out and signed somewhere before the season is over, there aren't going to be a lot of good feelings around the team that signs him. At this point, it's almost impossible to imagine him getting signed as a free agent by anyone next summer. He still has his fans and admirers in the league, but with all those different factions against him, he'll have a lot more people looking to bury him if it doesn't go well than to give him time to adjust. It won't be looked at as a smart, low-risk flier by his new team—it will be a make-good deal for him, a chance to prove that the perception about him is wrong, that he is willing to accept a supporting role and adapt his game. And there are several years of track record to suggest that best-case scenario won't be the one that plays out. What then?
It's tough to view Westbrook's current plight and not think of the last few years of Allen Iverson's career. A similarly electrifying, similarly divisive figure, Iverson's career was over essentially overnight after a 2008 trade to Detroit and refusal to agree to come off the bench. A brief stint in Memphis and an ill-fated return to Philadelphia later, and that was it.
Had Iverson been willing to change his game as he aged, he might have had a second act like Vince Carter or Grant Hill, who remade themselves as valuable role players after their Hall of Fame years were behind them and stretched their careers out to two decades.
If Westbrook is going to have that kind of redemption arc, it's now or never, and all signs are pointing to never.
In a few years, when Westbrook is getting his jersey retired in Oklahoma City and going into the Hall of Fame, this depressing final chapter will take a back seat. Fans will remember the triple-doubles, the explosive dunks and the crazy outfits, and talk about what could have been if he, Durant and Harden stayed together. Nobody gives the Memphis or Detroit years a second thought now when talking about Iverson, who has become a beloved NBA figure a decade after his retirement, even if he wasn't at the time.
But that doesn't mean it isn't a bummer to watch the last few years of Westbrook's career play out like this.