Russell Westbrook has never been more popular than he is right this second.
The classic Howland Effect player, he came into the NBA with any number of question marks: concerns about his natural position, his fit with a dominant scorer, his willingness to share the ball, his willingness to subject himself to a grander plan, his willingness not to brood at all times. Was he just an incredible athlete who happened to play ball, or a budding star who would someday figure it out?
Almost everything said about Westbrook over his first four NBA seasons, right up until last week, focused on growth and development, and by "growth and development," I mean change.
Westbrook never fit the tropes, so the world said he had to change, or else the Oklahoma City Thunder would never be anything, and the partnership with Kevin Durant would never work, and Westbrook would never reach the heights for which gifts like his were meant for. That Westbrook's max extension was almost immediately met with an analysis of how or when the Thunder could trade him says it all.
And now, Westbrook is there. He's flown this high once before: during and after the 2010 FIBA World Championships, where he, Derrick Rose and Durant killed the international competition. But so few NBA fans in the United States actually paid attention to the FIBA Worlds that the triumph was celebrated in near silence; besides, winning an international title with an All-Star team is nothing. Even Charles Barkley and Reggie Miller have won those.
So if Westbrook always needed to change, to grow in order to reach the heights in his reach, and if he has now reached those heights, then he must have changed ... right?
Nope. He's the same player he's always been: brash, aggressive, closer to Marbury and Francis than Stockton or CP3. And it's working just fine for the Thunder, who go into the NBA Finals favorites over the freaking Miami Heat. A year ago, you couldn't mention Westbrook's name without drawing shaken heads and laments. Now he's everyone's favorite Finals MVP candidate. When I compared Westbrook to St. Derrick Rose last season, I received some pretty legit hate mail and saw 172 comments worth of vigilant opposition. Russ has never been more popular than he is right now because, well, honestly, he has never been all that popular.
This isn't a new Russell Westbrook, nope. In fact, he's a more impure point guard than ever. A year ago, when folks were calling him "Westbrick" and blaming him (not the Thunder's inability to defend Dirk Nowitzki) for OKC's West finals loss, he was considered too gunny, too selfish to be a championship.
This season, he scored more and recorded fewer assists. And the narrative has changed, and he's now touted as one of the league's brightest stars. But he's no more efficient than he'd been last season. (His field goal percentage improved, but his foul drawing dropped; his True Shooting percentage was .538 both seasons.) He's still turnover-prone, he still uses more possessions than the greatest scorer in the world, and he still breaks off plays to empty a clip of mid-range jumpers on a regular basis.
He's the same damn player, but now everyone loves him. The Thunder aren't better because Westbrook saw the light: Durant better creates for himself, James Harden has turned into a force, and Serge Ibaka became an elite defender.
You know, "aggressive" is just "selfish" in a winning effort. That's all that has changed with Westbrook: his team looks damn near invincible, so that aura of excellence is newly imbued upon him. If the Thunder lose, that glow will be stripped off in a snap, and we'll be back to "Westbrick" chatter in no time.
Given the type of player that Russ is and always will be, this is his fate: his reputation hangs like a vane, and the Thunder's fortune is his wind. He will embody everything that everyone hates about the "combo guard" when OKC falters. He will embody the will to carry his team on his back when they succeed.
It's an Iversonian narrative with a twist: Westbrook doesn't have the defense of being without teammates who can score.
But here's the second twist: with Westbrook's tendencies in full effect, rocking at max volume, the Thunder have the best offense in the NBA. Iverson's Sixers never even came close. Again, success is a helluva defense. What folks need to realize is that even absent this elite team performance, Westbrook's individual production -- impure, anti-Cousian as though it may be -- is elite.
You see in Russell Westbrook what you want to see. Right now, you see heavenly laurels. I pray you don't lose that vision if the Thunder fall behind.
The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.