Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook can be a volatile, frustrating player despite his considerable abilities. He's one of the best backcourt scorers in the league, but sometimes focuses on his own scoring too much. He's an essential part of what the Thunder do, but also the sort of personality that demands a specialized method of coaching. At this point in his career, these contradictions and complications are fairly well established.
Nevertheless, Westbrook is still capable of acting out in ways that make people ask why he can't be more like his more widely beloved teammate Kevin Durant. On Thursday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Westbrook had one of those moments. With just under nine minutes left in the third quarter and the Thunder up 65-40, Westbrook was whistled for a five-second backdown violation (aka the Mark Jackson rule). Immediately after the call, he began to yell at teammate Thabo Sefolosha, who cut through the lane during Westbrook's post-up and brought a second defender into the area. Westbrook couldn't move into the lane as he wanted, and he blamed Sefolosha for it.
Roughly a minute later, OKC head coach Scott Brooks subbed out Westbrook, presumably because he wasn't happy with his attitude. Assistant coach Maurice Cheeks attempted to calm down Westbrook on the bench, but he was ineffective. So a very angry Westbrook stormed off and headed back into the locker room for several minutes. He returned in a better mood (and with a towel on his head), and the Thunder went on to win by the comfortable score of 106-89. Westbrook was a major reason for that margin of victory — he finished with 21 points on 9-of-17 shooting, nine rebounds, and six assists.
You can watch Westbrook's outburst above. After the jump, take a look at the play that made him so mad.
There was initially some confusion as to why Westbrook acted out. Royce Young of Daily Thunder accurately noted that Westbrook was upset with Sefolosha, but Craig Sager of TNT initially reported that Westbrook and Durant were in a feud. Thankfully, Sager corrected that information with three minutes left in the game.
It is hard to excuse Westbrook's actions, because he yelled at a teammate over a lost possession when the Thunder were up 25 points. That sort of behavior is quite emphatically not what coaches like to see from their All-NBA players — those guys are typically expected to be leaders who galvanize the rest of the roster and enhance team cohesion.
On the other hand, Westbrook has proven that he will follow up every one of these dust-ups with the sort of electric play that makes the Thunder one of the NBA's handful of serious title contenders. While Westbrook's outbursts are bad, they're also temporary and don't get in the way of the brilliance that makes him a necessary part of OKC's long-term plans. Sure, he could be more brilliant, but it's not as if his least professional actions are stopping him from being an All-NBA-level player. He's really great anyway.
I suppose it can be argued that Westbrook's immaturity will eventually become untenable, but he's done enough dumb things in his career that it's hard to imagine his relationship with his teammates and coaches becoming impossible. Because, while Westbrook can let his emotions get the better of him, he's also startlingly effective as a basketball player. That's a sort of maturity, as well, even if it's not the emotional type.
In short, the qualities that make Westbrook yell at a teammate and get upset on the bench are bad, but they aren't keeping him from incandescent superstardom. He's able to be both kinds of player at the same time, and the sooner we all acknowledge that the more we'll be able to appreciate how great he is.
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