The 2017 NBA MVP, Russell Westbrook, has had a stormy career. His unorthodox playing style has been scrutinized by fans and analysts alike, making him one of the most controversial players in the league. And despite being a nine-time All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist for Team USA, it seemed that no team wanted to have him in their ranks.
Straight Outta Compton to the NBA
Harsh environments can shape diamonds. As Alfred said in The Dark Knight Rises: “There is a prison in a more ancient part of the world. A pit where men are thrown to suffer and die. But sometimes, a man rises from the darkness. Sometimes the Pit sends something back.”
LA’s Compton can be a rough place to grow up in, with high crime rates and violence, yet from all the ruckus of the streets, rose Russell Westbrook.
His passion and bright energy are a product of his days on the Compton courts, where his father taught him how to play.
Had fun spreading some Christmas cheer to my students at @rwwnhs and @rwwnms last week. Each student got a pair of my @jumpman23 shoes & had some fun at the Christmas party. Thanks to @lapf, @jumpman23 & @thehoopsbus for helping make this event awesome! Merry Christmas everyone! pic.twitter.com/UFunVcv7v1
— Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) December 24, 2021
His father, Russell Westbrook Jr., worked in a bread factory and played basketball in his spare time. When young Russel showed interest in hoops, his dad did everything he could to train him. The two of them would exercise for hours at a time.
They focused on mid-distance shots. The goal was for Russell to be able to perform flawlessly with one foot, then two, in motion, then static. The ball would only touch the net… nothing else.
Through the workouts, Westbrook learned to identify all the possible ways to do funky shots: being off-balance, moving too fast, and not having the feet positioned correctly. “A lot of times, I do it when those things aren’t right. That’s all from my father. That’s all him and me, basically,” he wrote in a note to the NY Times.
But like many bright minds, Westbrook seems to be the kind that’s misunderstood, someone from whom you can expect great things and nothing at the same time. This is something that does not fit the philosophy of most high-performance teams.
A legacy of nonsense NBA trades
Westbrook sculpted a superstar career with the Oklahoma City Thunder. In 11 seasons he achieved records such as exceeding 100 triple-doubles. There are only three players besides him who have passed the 100 triple-doubles mark: Oscar Robertson (181), Magic Johnson (131), and Jason Kidd (107).
In July 2019, after a mutual agreement with the Thunder, the player was transferred to the Houston Rockets. He completed just one season with the Rockets and would ask to leave, mentioning a toxic, star-center environment.
After a year in Houston, in December 2020, he was traded to the Washington Wizards in exchange for John Wall. Injuries kept him away from the court for a while. However, he managed to show that he still was up there by passing Oscar Robertson’s triple-double record and achieving seven games in a row with more than 15 assists.
But after just one season, another trade would come, this time to his home in California; the Lakers wanted him for something greater.
The Lakers fiasco
Westbrook had some of the worst moments of his career with the Lakers. The team acquired him in hopes of building a Big Three alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
James himself wanted the team to trade for Westbrook. Experts and fans predicted that Westbrook’s playing style just didn’t fit with the roster the Lakers had and that the move was a disaster waiting to happen, but the front office listened to James. The numbers don’t lie. It was a mess!
The expectations for the Lakers were to win another championship, of course, but Westbrook struggled to fit in with his teammates, and sometimes they didn’t even know why he was taking some shots.
In 2022, Westbrook’s poor performance was harshly criticized, and former Laker legend Magic Johnson assured that the point guard was the worst transfer in the history of the Lakers.
Johnson said on Shannon Sharpe’s podcast that Westbrook needed to take responsibility for his poor performance and stop blaming others.
.@MagicJohnson gives Russell Westbrook advice after he was once boo’d & called Tragic Magic:
“First off, take accountability. If you don’t play well, admit it. Stop trying to fight the media and the fans and go out and perform.” pic.twitter.com/e65ntai8Rj
— Club Shay Shay (@ClubShayShay) October 24, 2022
During the 2022-23 season, he barely averaged 15.9 points per game. The fans and the team got tired of his poor level of play and pointed at him as responsible for the team’s poor record.
The Russell Westbrook Lakers Experience: Part 3 ( Westbrick) 😳😳🔥🔥💀💀 Please Trade Russ … pic.twitter.com/rdnUlg9Ldz
— Jordan Nichols (@JordanN1333272) February 6, 2022
His performance and broken relationship with fans and teammates caused the Lakers to show him the back door.
Russell Westbrook walking past the Lakers locker room on his way to the Clippers pic.twitter.com/KzoEjgbLHQ
— iregretlikingsports (@Jimmy2424555) February 20, 2023
Is it really the worst trade ever?
NBA history is littered with stories of trades that promised teams glory and failed miserably.
Here are a few that come to mind: :
Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson
The Pistons traded their star, a franchise player who led them to win the 2004 NBA Finals, for Allen Iverson, who certainly was no longer in his prime. The trade was a disaster, “The Answer” was relegated to being a bench player, and he openly said he preferred retirement to sit out every game and was not re-signed the following season.
Kobe Bryant for Vlade Divac
The Hornets regretted this move the rest of their lives, as they let go of arguably the second-best player in history, behind Michael Jordan.
Kobe took the trade as a challenge to prove to the Hornets that they had lost a great star.
“Charlotte never wanted me,” Bryant said in 2015. “[Hornets coach Dave] Cowens told me he didn’t want me. It wasn’t a question of me even playing [in Charlotte]. They had a couple of guards already, a couple of small forwards already. So it wasn’t like I would be off the bench much.
I knew who Dave Cowens was and [was] pretty excited [to play for him]. Then I was like, ‘Oh, all right, they don’t want me.’ I quickly transitioned from smiley kid to killer instinct.”
I think Westbrook is not a bad player, and while his trades can be categorized as pretty lousy, he just failed to find the proper context to thrive.
On paper, the Clippers are a much better fit than the Lakers for Westbrook, it’s up to him to make the most of this opportunity. He has to prove his doubters wrong, this is likely his last chance to show everyone that he can still contribute in the league. He can’t afford to fail once again.
The Clippers believe Westbrook’s abilities can fill in gaps and strengthen areas they need to strengthen, like attacking defenses with drives into the paint, more rebounding, and athleticism.
“We want Russ to be Russ,” Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue said after the team acquired Westbrook, “and so if he’s doing too much, or not enough, I’ll let him know. But we wanted him to be the player that he is.”