The hot-take ecosystem in sports is unforgiving and relentless. There can be no waffling or clinging to the fence. There can only be cannonballing into one side of an argument or another – hard and fast enough to break the sound barrier, ideally. In this land of fever and fury Stephen A Smith is like that volcano churning away in Iceland, constantly on fire, always popping off.
Last week ESPN’s king of scream looked primed to go full Vesuvius when a recent game between the Indiana Pacers and the Washington Wizards was broached for discussion on his weekday morning shout show, First Take. The main takeaway from that game, the Wizards’ third victory in 11 tries, was this stat line: 35 points, 21 assists and 14 rebounds in 39 minutes played; only Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson have come close to that performance – and even so, they never scored or rebounded quite that much.
It was the kind of effort that usually has Screamin’ A gushing about said player being “a problem” or “a bad man”. But when that bad man turned out to be the Wizards’ Russell Westbrook, well, there was a problem. Mount St Yellin was left totally cold. After 30 seconds of obligatory “due-respect” preamble, Smith stopped mincing his words. “Westbrook’s numbers last night mean absolutely nothing to me,” he said with sober certitude. “When we look at his game, it’s the same stuff every year. (…) But I’m at a point in time in [Westbrook’s] career where it ain’t about that no more. It’s about whether or not you can get to another level to win the chip.”
Then it was the turn of Westbrook’s wife, to erupt. “I don’t know how many times I have to be minding my own business and randomly be subjected to you slandering my husband (who also happens to be minding his own business, being happy and living his best life),” she wrote on Instagram.
Westbrook himself was more philosophical. “I grew up in the streets,” the Long Beach, California, native told reporters. “I don’t have to be an NBA champion. I know many people that got NBA championships that’s miserable, haven’t done nothing for their community, haven’t done nothing for the people of our world.
“I don’t say much. I don’t like to go back and forth about people, but one thing I won’t allow to happen anymore is to let people create narratives and constantly just talk shit for no reason about me.”
Pity Westbrook, the incandescent point guard who assists on so many strong opinions – all of them ostensibly so personal. He does himself no favors by being so damn compelling to watch on court.
Like Michael Jordan before him, the 6ft 3in Westbrook approaches the game as if someone might be watching him for the first time, so deep is his commitment to not just showing up on court every night but giving the maximum effort. He’s a nine-time All-Star, an NBA MVP winner. He’s twice led the league in scoring and once dropped 43 points in an NBA finals game. He should be right next to Magic and the Big O in the Hall of Fame when it’s all said and done.
Most impressive: Westbrook missed zero games through the first five years of his career while distinguishing himself as a production marvel. In Year 12, at 32, Westbrook leads the league in triple doubles while averaging a triple-double himself. The more he achieves, alas, the harder Smith and others find it to resist the temptation to dwell on his shortcomings.
They never fail to bring up those 11 seasons he spent in Oklahoma City, ripe fodder for a 30 for 30 documentary to-be-named-later. For the bulk of that time, those teams featured not only Westbrook but also Kevin Durant and James Harden – that’s right, three of the last five MVP winners. But when those teams either couldn’t get out of the Western Conference or were turned back in the NBA finals by that other super team in Miami – and Durant and Harden left and found success on their own – it became almost too convenient to blame Westbrook for holding back the group, even as he was putting the finishing touches on his MVP season with the Thunder in 2017.
A failed reunion with Harden in Houston via a 2019 trade all but sealed Westbrook’s on-court reputation as a selfish stat chaser; never mind that he became the third player in history to compile 19,000 points, 6,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists in a career while playing in Mike D’Antoni’s Harden-isolated offense. And now, after being swapped for Washington stalwart John Wall and a future lottery pick late last year, Westbrook can’t even get credit for the emergence of Bradley Beal – the longtime Wall sidekick turned stopgap who is currently leading the league in scoring. If anything, this hurts Westbrook even more.
It’s long been conventional wisdom in the NBA that a team needs at minimum two star players to be a championship threat. But with Westbrook and Beal in the backcourt, Washington languish in the Eastern Conference cellar with Orlando and Detroit – neighbors who at least can say they recently divested themselves of their best players. Meanwhile, the Hawks and the Knicks – the Knicks! – are thriving. Instead of tutting at first-year GM Tommy Sheppard for creating so much roster imbalance or roasting coach Scott Brooks for his historically numb and dumb rotational feel, the debate stalls out on how much better the Wizards would be or how much more impressive Westbrook would be as a talent if he could pile up three-pointers like Damian Lillard, who would probably trade careers with him at this point.
Conversations about NBA history start in the past and jump into the present. If Michael Jordan had played the game now, he’d average better than 50 a night. But if Westbrook were sent back in time 30 years? Shoot, it’s almost too easy to imagine him being as revered as the Big O was in his day, asserting dominance with his midrange game when he wasn’t winning rebound battles against the likes of Charles Barkley – who, of course, can totally relate. Clearly, most Westbrook critics have the guy all wrong. He’s not some hoops cyborg who has been programmed to play the game to meet his own ends. He’s more like the Buddhist monk who spends weeks etching a sand mandala only to wipe the slate clean in the end. Westbrook plays not for his legacy, but for the moment. The reward is the work.
There’s still plenty time left on the clock for Westbrook to go ring chasing if indeed he chooses to pull a Blake Griffin or a LaMarcus Aldridge down the road – or better yet: finally hooks up with a coach who understands how best to exploit his singular skillset. In the meantime maybe Westbrook and the Stephen A’s of the world will see that they’re really not that far apart. Which is to say: there’s plenty of entertainment value in watching both as long as neither is taken too seriously.