The NBA Playoffs are going on right now, and if you pay even casual attention to the games, you know about Portland’s Damian Lillard making a 37-foot buzzer-beating three pointer to close a first round series in which his TrailBlazers defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, 4 games to 1.
There had been some trash talk between Lillard and his positional counterpart, Russell Westbrook, throughout the series (and even in their regular season matchups). Portland had lost a key player to injury late in the regular season, and many — including me — picked OKC to win the series. That didn’t happen by a long shot.
Westbrook was true to his persona in his season-ending exit press conference the other day, using the good life that he lives with his family and the basketball accomplishments under his belt thus far in his career as a shield against the criticism sure to come his way after this third consecutive first round exit, one in which his direct opponent (Lillard) severely outplayed him.
Reading his quotes, Russell sounded just like LeBron James sounded after the Heat choked away the 2011 NBA Finals, losing in 6 games to the Dallas Mavericks.
But, I get it.
You just lost, very publicly, to someone you and many others thought you were better than. People are already recording videos and writing articles trashing you, your mentality and your supposed shortcomings and prescribing the changes that you must make in order to not fail again in this way.
Though it’s not really what’s happening, it can damn sure feel like the whole world is against you.
Of course you’re gonna defend yourself.
Reading through Russ’ quotes, though, there was one particular thing that stood out to me.
Russell talked about how he can do so many things at a high level. How he’s averaged a triple double for three straight years, and doesn’t think anyone else can do the same. How he’s taken every past criticism of his game and thrown it in the face of his critics. And how he’s still sure that he’s a great player despite the very public defeat he just suffered.
The object of the game is to win; I would assume that OKC’s (and Russ’) goal was the win the Portland series by winning four games before the other team did. Even after the loss, though, all Russ did was talk about himself, what he has and what he’s done and what he will do.
I had talented teammates in college who all had their own set of unique and admirable basketball skills. All pro-level talents. There were five of us. But the only time we could create the proper chemistry as a group was when there were 3 or fewer of us on the court together; all five at once never worked (we tried).
Because none of those teammates played well unless they were the team’s center of attention.
In basketball, some players are great when they have the ball in their hands — and if they don’t have the ball, you wouldn’t even know they were on the court.
Some players shine when they’re the star who’s making all the plays — and they’re visibly unhappy when someone else is getting more attention than they are.
To me, from watching the games and seeing the stats and reading the quotes, this is the challenge with Russell Westbrook: ever since experiencing being the #1 guy in OKC, he can only happy when he’s shining the most.
Even in defeat, Russ defended himself not with what the team needs to do, or how they will be better, but with what he himself has done and how no one else can replicate his statistical feats.
I’m not questioning if Russell Westbrook wants to win; I think he does, with a caveat.
I think Russ wants to win — as long as it’s done his way.
If I’m coaching Russell Westbrook, my first question in our first meeting is this:
What’s the most important outcome for you?
I’d wait for his answer. He’s probably say, “winning.”
Then I’d ask him if he OK with not averaging a triple double, or not leading the NBA in assists, if that resulted in more winning.
I would expect him to ask me how the two related.
I’d tell him that that’s a later discussion; for now I just want to know if he was willing to let go of those statistical achievements to win more basketball games. We would not be moving forward until he gave me a clear, unequivocal YES.
Between me and you, reader, it’s not about the triple doubles or assists. The question would be my way of finding out how much of Russell’s ego is attached to those stats versus how much is attached to winning games.
It’s the same challenge Phil Jackson brought to Michael Jordan when Jackson took over the Chicago Bulls (MJ’s stat was points; Jordan was good / competitive / smart enough to both win games and championships while still leading the league in scoring).
I wrote about Russ last year when OKC lost in the first round behind a barrage of missed Westbrook shots. It happened again this year, with fewer missed shots yet a similar outcome for similar reasons.
One guy who can’t be anything other than the center of attention.
- If you’re going to be that person around which everything revolves, you’d better be damned good at it. Because if and when you lose, it’s 100% your fault. And you can only lose but so many times before change is forced on you.
- There are a lot of people out there who are like Russell who don’t it through basketball. These are the folks who don’t listen, dominate conversations by force of habit, and appear to be capable of only talking about themselves. Do you know any of them?
- Many people who have grown accustomed to being a star find it hard to fall back and accept a supporting role. Most of them flat out refuse to do so altogether. They die a long, slow and lonely death.