Russell Westbrook, despite co-starring with James Harden on the Houston Rockets this year, is still the same player as before. Why can’t he change?
We all like to believe that we are capable of change, able to become a better person than the one we are today. The whole self-help industry is founded upon this hope: that we are not forever bound and condemned to repeat the same mistakes we have made in the past. It’s true that there is something undeniably comforting about the idea that a brighter future is possible, that real lasting change is not some phantasm perpetually disappearing beyond the horizon, but something we can manifest through devoted effort. The problem is that, no matter how badly one may want those beliefs to be true, sometimes fatalism is a more realistic posture, however unsatisfying it may be.
When Russell Westbrook was traded to the Houston Rockets this offseason, reuniting him with James Harden, there were many questions asked about how these two players, as individualized of talents the NBA possesses, would be able to blend together. Even though Westbrook is an undeniable superstar, James Harden is the better player so there was some assumption that if one of the two would have to adjust, it would be Westbrook. If he were going to actually shift the way he’s played for the first 11 seasons of his career, wouldn’t it make sense that it would happen now? Now that his way of playing, in three seasons without Kevin Durant, has been proven to not lead to postseason success? Now that he is reunited with a longtime friend in James Harden? Wouldn’t he be willing to put self-interest and old habits aside in the interest of mutual success?
The answer so far this season is not as much as he may need to. It’s not that Westbrook is trying to usurp Harden’s role as team leader or anything that nefarious. Harden is averaging nearly 40 points per game and has the highest usage rate in the league, after all. Though Westbrook is not having to sacrifice too much so far as his usage rate is somehow higher than it was last season. He is, in many ways, the engine of this team even if it’s still defined by Harden’s modus operandi. Westbrook has almost single-handedly transformed the team from one that was 26th in pace last year to the third-fastest team this year, seeking out rebounds and running in transition as he always has. He’s still taking nearly 20 shots per game and spends a lot of time with the ball in his hands, though these shots are falling less than ever before.
A historically awful 3-point shooter, Westbrook is shooting less efficiently than ever before, only making 22 percent of his more than five 3-point attempts per game and just 42 percent overall. He is shooting well as ever from the restricted area, converting over 67 percent of his attempts from there when he’s able to get the lane either on a drive or by cutting, but he is not prioritizing these attempts as much as he likely should. With Harden counterbalancing him, he should have more opportunities to get easy buckets than ever before, but he has not yet found a way to do so. Instead, he regularly stands on the perimeter waiting for a spot-up opportunity that is not likely to go in.
Often, in order for real lasting change to occur, one has to hit a sort of rock bottom in their lives. This is not always the case, of course, but it doesn’t hurt to have an outside instigator for change. Westbrook, though, has been vindicated in many ways by this style of play. He’s won an MVP and averaged a triple-double three seasons in a row by not compromising, by staying true to who he is. Though his teams have continued to lose in the first round the last three seasons, it has to be easy for Westbrook to imagine that the problem does not lie with him, that All-NBA level talents don’t need to change, that the problem has been one of circumstances beyond his control.
One has to want to change, to have an incentive and compelling reason to do so. It’s hard to say goodbye to our past selves and begin the often difficult work of forging a new future so it often takes an earth-shattering moment, where our world is upended, to really look in the proverbial mirror and decide that things need to be different. However, even once that decision is made there are certain immutable qualities we all have — the rough matter we have to take into account no matter what we want to do moving forward — that seems to place a limit on just how much one can actually improve themselves.
For Russell Westbrook, he will always be a tenacious competitor, a man with a fire burning inside him that cannot be diminished. It’s hard to imagine a Westbrook that can take a backseat or accept that a team’s fate should not depend almost exclusively upon him. He has admittedly allowed Harden to shine, but the impulse to take over, the deep-seated belief that he is the best person to take a shot at any given moment — damn the probabilities — is still there. His tenacity and his confidence is admirable, but there comes a time when long-held beliefs about oneself need to be reexamined and though fans may wish that time had come for Westbrook, it does not appear that he agrees which is really all that matters.
At this point, Westbrook cannot be a great player in a vacuum. And just as none of us can become an abstracted good person, but only our best, particular selves, Westbrook can only become the best Russell Westbrook possible. Though after over a decade in the NBA, it’s not quite clear what that could entail knowing all we know about him. It may be that this is just who he is.