1988 was a game-changing year.
The NBA was ruled by a flying men, Bad Boys and His Airness. The PBA was ushering in a new era with a bunch of hotshot rookies. The rivalry between Katipunan and Taft was starting anew in the UAAP.
Beyond basketball, 1988 gave us icons like Rain Man, Big and Die Hard. Another Michael was rising up the charts with his own Bad style. DJ Jazzy Jeff, NWA, Biz Markie, Run DMC were all rolling. Even in the world of sneakers something fresh was coming. Mike rocked a pair of J’s that shone brightest, even though surrounded by All-Stars.
Good, bad, hilarious and legendary, 1988 is a year to remember. It’s a classic year, an iconic time, a perfect 50.
It was a chilly, Saturday evening, when the Chicago Bulls found themselves up against the New Jersey Nets. The date read November 12, 1988, just about the start of the NBA season. Even though that was the case, the Bulls were already in the midst of a tough stretch to their season, playing their fourth game in five days. They were 3-2 at that point, with the team clearly hungry to finally go deep into the playoffs after being eliminated in the first round for three straight seasons.
Leading the way for Chicago was Michael Jordan. He was was slowly climbing his way up the echelon of NBA greats. There was an issue though: he wasn’t winning as much basketball games as some fans would have hoped. One of them happened to be this game against the Nets, where the Bulls lost 97-91, a game after they had beaten this same Nets team by 12 points at home.
The loss wasn’t because of a lack of effort from Jordan. He led all scorers with 42 points while grabbing seven rebounds, dishing out six assists and coming up with three steals. Two games before, he scored 52 in a win versus the Boston Celtics. The night before, he had 36 points while sparking a fourth quarter surge versus the Nets. He was literally doing everything for Chicago, but even that wasn’t enough to appease some fans.
Jordan was a polarizing personality. His competitiveness was a quality worth emulating, but he wasn’t exactly viewed as a good teammate. He was a talented scorer, but some even went as far as to call him selfish. Despite averaging 5.9 assists the previous season to pair with his 35 points per game average, there was this perception of His Airness being a ball hog. The biggest knock on MJ’s growing resume was his inability to get out of the first round of the Playoffs.
As the Bulls endured their third loss for the season, a future NBA superstar was born that chilly November day thirty years ago.
He is someone who is going to have the same intensity and electricity as Jordan. He’s built in a smaller, but much more explosive package. The difference between this future superstar and Jordan was the fact that both come from different eras with different playing styles and mentalities.
That child born on November 12, 1988 was Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook has become one of the faces of this new generation of the NBA. He’s the reigning MVP, and the leader of an Oklahoma City Thunder team projected to be strong contenders come the Playoffs. This season hasn’t exactly been his best in terms of his overall efficiency, but no one can’t deny how good of a player he’s become in today’s spread out era.
A big reason for Westbrook’s success on the court is because of his supreme athleticism. To find someone who can match his ability to go coast to coast in the blink of an eye would be a challenge in itself. He’s a freak of nature who not only possesses the speed and agility needed in today’s game, but also the strength to withstand even the biggest of players every time he goes to the rim.
His athleticism is such an effective quality that he maximizes this to the brim in today’s spread out NBA. The increased amount of space around the court is perfect for Westbrook’s drives, as it makes it easier for him to get to the rim any time he’s surrounded by a bunch of shooters on the floor. It’s no surprise then he’s slowly blossoming beside one of the better off-ball players in the league in Paul George.
However, today’s NBA isn’t just about the floor being spread out and which makes moving from the outside to the inside much easier. It’s also about playing the percentages and taking the best shots possible. The two most efficient shots in today’s NBA are the ones around the restricted area from, the three-point line, and from the free throw line. Westbrook has slowly improved in these areas, and it’s resulted to good things for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Arguably the best attacking guard in the league, Westbrook averages 8.4 attempts per game within the Restricted Area as per NBA Stats, which ranks 2nd in the league just behind 7 footer Andre Drummond. For context, Westbrook is just 6’3”, a full nine inches smaller than Drummond. But Westbrook isn’t your regular 6’3” point guard. He gets to the rim with unbridled rage, making the most out of his athletic gifts.
Another thing that Westbrook’s athleticism helps with is when it comes to free throw attempts. Since he’s such a small guy, he’s prone to take hits from bigger players every time he drives to the rim in that furious way he normally does. The result has been 386 free throw attempts for the entire season, which ranks seventh in the NBA as per Basketball Reference.
It would be unfair to compare Westbrook to the likes of Stephen Curry and James Harden when it comes to three-point shooting since their games are so distinct. But all things considered, Russ has embraced that part of the game today. He’s a career 31% three-point shooter on 3.5 attempts based on NBA Stats. It’s enough attempts, at an average percentage to keep defenses honest. This forces them to close out on Westbrook when he has the ball near the three-point line rather than simply sagging off him and daring him to take those. If you do dare him now, he’ll probably be more than glad to let it fly.
More than his performance on court, Westbrook has emerged as one of the most colorful characters off of it. His outfits scream new age and no holds barred. He could be wearing a suit one game, then he has a photographer’s vest the next. It’s that kind of “now I do what I want” kind of attitude which fans of today’s NBA have loved the most from him.
But to color Westbrook as just this eccentric, modern personality would be doing him injustice. That IDGAF attitude may scream modern, but the reality of it is that, it reminds fans more of how the NBA used to be. Some go as far to say the NBA today is soft, and Russ is one of the few players who brings that go hard, ruthless, killer mentality that former players love.
On the court, the flashes of the old school game have shown themselves with how Westbrook handles things. It’s most evident with his nature as a ball-dominant guard, who prefers offensive action to run through him. He likes to be the one to bring the ball down, set things up, and as much as possible, get the assist in the process – normally to a rolling Steven Adams or curling George. He averages a usage rate of 34.0%, good for second in the league among players who play 15 or more minutes as per NBA Stats. All of that usage from Russ has usually resulted to good things for OKC.
As much as Westbrook has embraced modern principles in how offenses are run in today’s NBA, he also still reverts to some old school, non-analytics moves. He takes a lot of mid-range shots, 6.8 per game to be exact, 2nd in the league as per NBA Stats. These are treated as inefficient shots by many because it is one farther from the basket without as much reward as a shot from the restricted area. But if you can make these, then why not take them right?
Over the years, Westbrook has mastered the use of the mid-range, most especially from the elbows where he loves to shoot from there coming from fast-breaks or off screens, then stopping and popping from that very spot for the bucket. Because of the gravity he gets from his drives, defenses second-guess themselves and normally end up giving Russ the right amount of space to pull-up from mid-range. It’s turned into one of his most lethal weapons since then.
But the most old school about Westbrook isn’t necessarily how he plays. He reminds fans a lot of Jordan or Kobe Bryant because of the intensity he brings on the court on a daily basis. “Now I do what I want” isn’t just some marketing gimmick created to sell a bunch of shoes. It’s the kind of person he is. After being set free from the pressure of satisfying Kevin Durant as his co-alpha in Oklahoma City, Westbrook has since then embraced the title of being THE guy, for better or for worse.
This was most evident last season when he averaged a triple double en route to his first ever MVP. Fans absolutely loved the intensity Westbrook brought every night, reminding them of how MJ carried his teams despite its lack of talent, and how Kobe would demand the ball during the clutch.
However, this kind of intensity from Russ also showed just how polarizing he can be as a player. Because he was so demanding, many branded him as a selfish player who simply padded his stats for the sake of individual success. Some say he drove Kevin Durant out, because the two of them had such a difficult time meshing mostly due to Russ being so dominant with the ball. KD wanted an offense with flow. Russ wanted absolute control, and it led to the other fleeing Oklahoma City to join a team that gave him the chance at that flow he has long wanted.
Driving players away, alleged or not, screams Jordan and Bryant. Many say Westbrook is in that same lineage of players who have Mamba Mentality. He’s intense, incredibly competitive and does anything to win games. But another characteristic these players with the Mamba Mentality is how they’re lone wolves in today’s NBA. They’ll shine, but for them to find any form of team success would be close to impossible because of how the game is played today. That is then where we draw the line between Westbrook and the likes of Kobe and MJ.
Westbrook is not a lone wolf, even though his ball-dominant tendencies say so. Before, you could make an argument that he was, but right now, you simply can’t. He still has those tendencies which remind you of the old age, the bogging down of the offense during the clutch and taking plenty of mid-range shots. But he’s also blended himself well into the new age by taking more threes, continuing to attack the restricted area for the most efficient shot and even revolutionizing the modern fashion culture of the league.
Westbrook is different. He’s a unique character who has blended the old, chilly, intense tendencies he was born with, while blending in the things he’s had to live with as a player in the modern NBA. Westbrook will continue to be Westbrook, whether you like it or not.
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