In the one playoff contest that the Mavericks took off of the Thunder heading into Monday’s Game 5, Dallas found a way to get under Russell Westbrook’s skin before the opening tip. Perhaps Mark Cuban had that in mind when the Dallas owner tweaked Oklahoma City’s point guard just prior to a must-win for his Mavs.
Cuban told reporters that the Thunder had “one superstar”: Kevin Durant. As for Westbrook, the owner would only go so far as to call him an “all-star,” which would be exceedingly high praise for most NBA players but feels like a backhanded compliment, at best, for this one.
Cuban began his comments by calling Durant a “top three” player in the NBA. “They’re lucky to have him,” he said of the 2014 NBA MVP. “They’ve got one superstar, he plays like it, and he’s good.”
Here is the exchange that followed, via Erik Horne of NewsOK.com:
Reporter No. 1: “Wait … Russell Westbrook’s not a superstar?”
Cuban: “I think he’s an all-star but not a superstar.”
Reporter No. 2: “What defines a superstar to you, Mark?”
Cuban: “When you look at Dirk [Nowitzki] – I’m not going to talk about other team’s players other than what I just said – Dirk for 15 years won 50 games no matter what. We put Moe, Larry and Curly next to him and he won 50 games … and I know there’s your headline.”
Reporter 1: “Absolutely.”
Cuban: “Russell’s certainly an all-star, but I consider Durant a superstar. You look at Dirk all those years to now, he carries teams to 50 wins. To me, that’s [what makes a superstar] … it wasn’t until we got J-Kidd [Jason Kidd] that we had another Hall of Famer. So, to go the 15 years where Dirk won 50, that’s a superstar. There’s only a few guys that you put them on any team and they’ll win 50 games. To me that’s the definition of a superstar.”
It’s not Westbrook’s fault that he has had Durant as a teammate for his entire, eight-year career, but many feel that the 2014-15 season, in which an injured Durant played just 27 games, cemented the guard’s superstar status. Westbrook put the Thunder on his back, leading the NBA in scoring (28.1) and barely missing the playoffs in the rugged Western Conference; in the East, OKC’s 45-37 record that season would have netted it the sixth seed.
All Westbrook did this season was average a double-double (23.5 points, 10.4 assists), and lead the NBA in triple-doubles (18) for a second straight year. In addition, the 6-foot-3 Westbrook ranked third in the league in player efficiency rating — behind Durant, as well as NBA leader Steph Curry — and second in assists and fifth in steals per game. Oh, and Westbrook was named the MVP of the All-Star Game for a second straight year and is also very likely to repeat as a top-five finisher in league MVP voting.
But to Cuban, none of that adds up to “superstar.” On the other hand, the owner’s comments could be seen as the verbal equivalent of the gamesmanship in which a pair of Mavs, Charlie Villanueva and Justin Anderson, engaged before Game 2 of the Dallas-OKC playoff series, when they made a point of getting in Westbrook’s way as he performed a pregame dance routine with teammate Cameron Payne.
Westbrook was also fined $25,000 by the NBA for shouting an obscenity at a Mavs fan during Game 4 in Dallas, so Cuban and his players have plenty of reason to feel that the Thunder guard doesn’t have the longest of fuses. And with Dallas teetering on the brink of elimination, the owner had plenty of incentive to try to throw Westbrook off his game, even if going to such lengths could be viewed as giving him something akin to superstar treatment.
Update: Westbrook more than had the last laugh, leading all players with 36 points and 12 assists — and nearly notching a triple-double, falling one assist short — as the Thunder beat the Mavs, 118-114, and knocked Dallas out of the postseason in five games. However, with less than 30 seconds left in the game, Anderson again found a way to antagonize the OKC guard, this time landing a cheap-shot elbow on Westbrook during a scramble for the ball.
Anderson can expect to hear from the NBA about that. Meanwhile, Westbrook will be leading his squad into the second round of the playoffs, with more opportunities to prove to almost everyone but a certain rival team’s owner that he is deserving of the “superstar” label.
After the game, Durant did not mince words in the slightest. At a press conference, Westbrook was asked about Cuban’s “superstar” comments, but Durant stepped in and ensured that his impending free-agency tour will not include a stop in Dallas.
“He’s an idiot. … That’s what he have to say about that,” Durant said. “He’s an idiot. Next question.”
Dirk Nowitzki of the Mavericks may have had the best line, though. Asked his impression of his boss’s remark about Westbrook’s skills, he smiled and said, “I’d take him.”