If you closed your eyes, you could probably paint the picture if tasked. It’s a Tuesday, or maybe a Wednesday. The Lakers are down, they’re on the road, their energy is sapped. Although the incoming loss is not ideal, it’s a reasonable letdown effort in the grand scheme of things, considering the team is in the middle of a brutal stretch where the games seem to never stop. These types of defeats simply transpire during the doldrums of a long season.
But then it happens. He happens.
Maybe it’s in the form of a timely steal, a thunderous block, or a particularly audacious pass only he would dare to attempt. It will more likely, however, be an awe-inspiring finish at the rim. An aerial assault of the kind that has swung the momentum of games for the last 13 years.
Then the scream comes. A guttural yell loud enough to rattle the rafters in the arena and rows of suburban windows miles away. Perhaps even traveling cities, states, before reaching and reverberating the dip bar he routinely hung from outside the South Los Angeles apartment he grew up in.
The moment likely sparks a run, if not leads to a comeback win, and afterwards the team will point to the instant where the course was changed. And to the man who was behind the wheel.
We can see all of this, even set a watch to it, because in a league known for it’s chameleon-like ability to change, to adapt, Russell Westbrook has never wavered. He is one of the very few remaining constants. A folktale come to life, and one his new team is hoping is still being written.
Although he has yet to play a single minute as a Laker, the move to bring in the polarizing point guard has already sparked contentious debates on the positives and negatives of his arrival to the club. And the truth is, both sides of the argument are likely valid.
On the court, the team will bank on Westbrook to do what he always has. His dynamic ability to create for himself and others — which in the process will spell LeBron James from further responsibility duties — will be a welcome addition. His knack for simultaneously soaring and bruising for rebounds and lay-in’s will add a new dimension to their lead guard position, and jumpstart what was a stalled transition game a season ago.
But his most valuable contribution may ultimately not be based on what he does on the floor, but how he does it, and the corresponding effects it may have.
When Westbrook eventually retires (he will claw and kick his way for as long as possible to prevent this from happening) he will likely be remembered for two things: 1) his ability to gobble up triple doubles like you or I throw back potato chips, and 2) his legendary work ethic. It will be the latter the Lakers ultimately hopes has a trickle down effect on the team, and their stars.
Westbrook’s inner drive and breakneck approach to the game has become the stuff of legend throughout his career. Opposing players, teammates, coaches, even the media, have found themselves dumbfounded by his relentlessness. Even intimidated in some cases. Because Westbrook does not simply “play” basketball, he pulverizes it.
With a chip on his shoulder as large as Montana, Westbrook’s approach to basketball is similar to that of how a hawk hunts its prey. First he soars to get a better gauge of his opportunities, then he hovers over his unsuspecting victim before he eventually pounces, talons out. It’s graceful at times, but there’s nothing “play” about how he goes about the sport. And he never lets up. Just ask anyone whose seen it up close.
“We play 82 games, there are gonna be nights when your team just doesn’t have it. Four games in five nights, you’re tired, you’re beaten down, it’s a long trip, there’s flight issues. Russell is so unique that it doesn’t happen to him. It’s nuts,” Westbrook’s former coach Billy Donovan told Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated in 2015.
“He plays with a rage, that ignites this whole team, this whole arena,” said Kevin Durant in the same story.
“His give-a-fuck-level is very, very high,” added Thunder teammate Nick Collison.
“You see it in his eyes. It’s just a level of focus and will that I have never seen before. Never. Nobody. I’ve been around a lot of focused dudes, but to be consistently like that — that’s crazy,” former teammate Anthony Morrow told The New York Times.
NBA players don’t just say things like that about other NBA players normally. Westbrook’s almost superhuman level of care, and the effort he puts in to basketball will inevitably have an impact on any roster. The very same way if you were to see a coworker show up to work early, do their job, other’s jobs, your job, eat lunch standing up (peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in this case) and clock out after everyone else, it would affect even the laziest among us.
In Westbrook’s case, this type of work ethic is drawing respect from some of the league’s greatest players, and also pushing them to be better in their own right in the process.
“We have a guy who pushes us every night. Russ pushes me. He pushes everybody to be ready to go,” Bradley Beal told the Athletic this past season. “And I think that’s something I’ve definitely channeled this year, just making sure that I’m ready to compete on a nightly basis.”
Beal’s sentiment is not a blip, as it has also been echoed in other forms in the past by the likes of Victor Oladipo and Paul George, both crediting their time playing alongside Westbrook in helping propel their individual games.
It is hard not to hold out hope that the same influence will be had on a player like Anthony Davis this year. Because although the uber-talented big has every tool to be outright dominant, there have been more than enough occasions where he has drifted, played lackadaisically, and did not showcase the necessary drive the team needed on a nightly basis.
Beside making his life easier on-the-court, Westbrook holds the necessary cache and respect to give Davis that kick in the ass when he needs it. Same for James, and the rest of the veteran heavy team because there are maybe only a handful of players who have earned that right — and Westbrook is one of them.
“Misunderstood,” this is what Ben Mehić (who covered Westbrook last season for Bullet’s Forever) told me when I asked for a single word that described the point guard. “At this point in his career, he’s more of a mentor and leader than All-NBA game-changer (which he still can be, albeit not nearly as often as he once was). He commands respect in a locker room.”
With that said, the 32-year-old’s approach is not savory for every individual or every ear. The same drive and strict routine that has been credited to conversations with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant is not for the faint of heart. While both legends have previously praised Westbrook, and each individually commenting how much of his game reminds them of theirs, that confidence also is the exact thing that gets him into trouble on the court.
The ill-advised jump-shots when he’s gone cold come far too often. His attempts to turn back time on his drives to rim only to run smack dab into a crowd generate too many turnovers. In a sense, Westbrook has been cursed with the oxymoron that he may care too much. It is in these instances where the Lakers may run into trouble.
Westbrook’s deficiencies on the court have sometimes hindered the ceiling of the teams he’s played on in the past, but having the likes of James and Davis beside him could be the missing ingredients he’s missed all along. That is, if the trio can each get the best out of each other.
This will not be seen immediately, because — as with most star players joining forces for the first time — patience will be essential. The growing pains, battles in practice, film room spats, those are where the kinks get worked out. And where improvement happens, if Westbrook has his way.
The Lakers’ experiment with Westbrook will likely be judged by whether or not they win a championship, fair or not. But, if he can somehow be that spark to a player on the precipice of consistent greatness like Davis, extend James’ playing career by helping carry the offensive burden, or simply light a fire under a squad that may need it, his tenure can still be successful — and his mythos only more legendary.
So maybe keep a more careful eye on random Laker games this season, one of the non-marquee games if possible. And if you notice the team’s effort level seeming more up to par than what was the case a season ago, this will very likely be because of Westbrook. The NBA’s very own folktale hero, still twisting an ankle or spraining a finger, en route to a ball that would seem just out of reach or not worth pursuing to most. Because there is no stop for Westbrook. Only go, all the time.