“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.” – Ayrton Senna
Even more so than usual, I’ve been thinking about Russell Westbrook. Let me start over: I’ve been thinking about Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans’ uphill charge into the Western Conference playoffs. Standing in their way, of course, for most of the second half of the season has been the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have spent the majority of their injury-riddled season as presumed playoff participants. As Westbrook continues his quest to personally decimate everything in his path, Davis has led the Pelicans to the eighth and final spot with a week to go. New Orleans holds the tiebreaker but plays a much tougher schedule. The Thunder have Westbrook; does any team need more than that?
Davis hasn’t been alone in this: Tyreke Evans and Omer Asik have contributed nicely, as have several others, particularly when Davis has missed time due to injury. It would be impossible, however, to make the mistake of thinking that this team is anything other than the Anthony Davis Show, or that the Pelicans would be anywhere near playoff contention without Davis as their shining light.
Producing night after night is something familiar to both Davis and Westbrook. Davis is playing so well, so consistently, that he finds himself in the middle of one of the greatest seasons by Player Efficiency Rating ever. In just his third season, Anthony Davis is a bona fide MVP candidate with a seemingly non-existent ceiling. Here is an obligatory reminder that a guy averaging 24 points, 10 rebounds and almost three blocks per game turned 22 only a month ago.
Westbrook seems unfulfilled, wouldn’t you say? Without Kevin Durant or Serge Ibaka, Russ is the living, breathing embodiment of taking matters into his own hands. While it would be repetitive to go jarring on about his exploits, something I’ve already done at length and will no doubt pursue again in the future, something tumultuous is brewing. With each loss that the Thunder begrudgingly take, Westbrook may be giving fuel to the fire that the doubters have been burning in a trash can since he arrived in 2008.
Sunday’s three-point loss against erstwhile running mate James Harden and the Houston Rockets, in which Westbrook notched yet another triple-double, must’ve been particularly damning, given the circumstances. I can’t help but think that Russ will go back to that effort as a low if the Thunder fall short of the postseason. Maybe Westbrook’s leadership style, evocative of Patton shooting at the Luftwaffe with his pistol, simply isn’t enough to force the Thunder into the playoffs on sheer stubbornness and determination alone.
(By the way, for the curious: Bill Walton is the only player ever to win both Sixth Man of the Year and MVP. Harden was the Sixth Man of the Year in 2012.)
Remember that Finals run in 2012? A young core, complete with a certified all-time scorer, a brilliant, fearless nutjob of a point guard and a clutch scoring wing off the bench, along with a dynamic big man: that was the blueprint to success. Oklahoma City was supposed to be the future of the Western Conference. It may still be, though its future not-so-suddenly appears slightly dimmer than one brewing down south, in New Orleans.
Both Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis seem to push the outermost limits of basketball capability every single night, albeit in different ways and under different circumstances. To assert that Davis is surpassing Westbrook is to lose the plot on both of them, though it makes for lively barroom discussions. It doesn’t hurt that Davis has shown flashes of anger – directed at the best team in the league, no less – at a time when many young players are happy simply to be here. Davis is no longer happy simply to be here, and until and unless the Thunder destroy something beautiful at a time when it matters, it will be unclear whether Westbrook ever was.