The Aesthetic: Russell Westbrook is the NBA’s last rebel


Russell Westbrook can be equal parts amazing and infuriating to watch. Whatever you might think about his decision-making, trust that he knows exactly what he’s doing.

The experience of watching Russell Westbrook is like watching Gary Larson’s rotund doofus pushing with all his might on the front door of the Midvale School for the Gifted, a door clearly marked ‘pull.’

It’s an iconic cultural image, capturing all the facepalming deflation of watching someone completely capable, missing something completely obvious. But, in the case of Westbrook, you can’t look away because you know at any moment he might just hulk out and smash the whole damn door right off the hinges.

So far this season, the pairing of Westbrook and James Harden has been something of a success, if not an overwhelming one. The Rockets are good, neither player seems to be grating under the presence of the other and, to date, the entire experiment has not collapsed in on itself.

And, interestingly, the fundamental nature of both players has remained remarkably intact. Westbrook has been the one to moderate his volume, bringing historic levels of offensive responsibility back towards the outer edges of normal. However, the dominant aesthetic of his game is the same. Westbrook is heat, the kind of extreme temperatures that come from extreme friction. Harden is cool, constantly looking for ways to avoid obstacles, to make his basketball life easier. Westbrook, often, seems to be seeking out the obstacles, looking to blast through them with explosive will or simply erode them away with stubborn persistence.

There is a common critique of the modern NBA, that the focus on pace-and-space and maximizing the return on offensive possessions with 3-point attempts are creating more homogeneity. This critique comes mostly from fans and media who are interested in product as opposed to process — there is plenty of variety in the ways teams go about trying to create open 3-point looks. I would posit that this underlying process, however that looks for a particular team, is the true defining element of the modern NBA era.

The understanding of pace-and-space has given teams a new set of tools with which to optimize the talents of their star players. The result, at least for the good teams, is perhaps more intentionality than we’ve ever seen in enmeshing together a star player’s unique tendencies and a holistic system to support them. The platonic ideal is player and system in a symbiotic balance.

Achieving this balance requires star players to surrender a certain amount of on-court agency. In theory, Harden has earned the freedom to take any shot he wants at any time, the same freedom Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade and countless other historic primary scorers have enjoyed. In practice, Harden is limited by a much deeper understanding of the relationship between his own skills, the other four players on the floor and the team’s offensive intentions. He could take any shot he wants but he, conspicuously, adheres to a defined pattern because of that systemic influence.

Harden is perhaps the most extreme example of this phenomenon but it’s true to a similar degree for most of the league’s elite primary creators — Luka Doncic, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, etc. The relationship is undermined by bad offenses, shaky coaching and shakier scorers, but, for the most part, being an elite creator in a high-functioning offense has become transactional — you agree to pare down your personal possibilities and focus your skills in a specific way, and we’ll surround you with a system that makes that job much easier.

The outlier to this trend has long been and continues to be, Westbrook.

The apparent obstinacy that defines Westbrook’s decision-making — taking so many 3s and making so few, assist and turnover rates on drives among the highest in the league — can easily be interpreted as him refusing to engage in this increasingly dominant transactional norm. He seems unwilling to cede his on-court agency, regardless of the return. He is often accused of fetishizing points and assists and round numbers but I think it’s just as likely that his true addiction is the ability to choose from an unlimited array of options.

This is not to say that Westbrook is a bad teammate or puts his own interests above that of the team. Over the course of his career, he has been uniquely productive, a prolific winner, and has undoubtedly found ways to make his teammates better. What he seems to be rebelling against is not the idea of a team but the idea of surrendering hypothetical possibilities. He has spent his career fighting for the right to try and make the right basketball play possession to possession, rather than on a season-long scale where the benefits of marginal advantages in expected value are realized.

In this way, Westbrook may be the last direct descendant of a school of basketball thought that can be traced back to Kobe and Jordan. The idea that talent and will should be masters, and skill and system should be servants, not living together in some hedonistic, intentional commune.

I think this is why it sometimes feels like Westbrook is a player from another era, and ultimately why the pairing between him and Harden is so fascinating. It was never about blending their absurd usage rates, it was about putting the NBA’s most obvious propagandist for modernity next to the last guerrilla warrior fighting for the way things used to be.

Westbrook has already lost the war. Probably, deep down, he knows it. But however frustrating it may be to watch him push when you know he should be pulling, there’s some nobility in his determination. He’s still here, on his hill, attacking the basket with ferocity, firing up 3-pointers, conjuring fastbreaks out of nothing but defensive rebounds and aggression, hoping that he can win enough battles to justify a basketball life of rebellion.

The Aesthetic is an irregular column series, treating basketball as a purely artistic medium. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.