“I don’t really care what nobody think about me,” Westbrook told reporters afterward.
Here’s what to think about Westbrook: If the Wizards are relevant, if they’re scary to any postseason opponent they might face, he is the most important factor. Bradley Beal is a scoring maestro, a Washington mainstay who should be credited for both patience and development in a situation that has felt bleak more often than not.
But Westbrook brings an edge, and if it seems sinister at times, that’s fine. Think of it this way: The Wizards are potentially scary not just because of Westbrook’s scowl but because of his do-anything-and-everything play and his fall-in-line-behind-me-because-I-know-what-I’m-doing leadership.
“Going into the season,” Coach Scott Brooks said, “he was the perfect medicine.”
Imagine framing a discussion about the Wizards this way: They could be a national draw in the playoffs. Was it even that way four years ago, when the player who was traded for Westbrook, John Wall, hit the buzzer-beater that forced a seventh game of a second-round series against the Boston Celtics — the high-water mark of this era of Washington basketball? Doubtful.
Go back further. The Gilbert Arenas-Caron Butler-Antawn Jamison Wizards were fun to watch and fun to listen to (pre-guns in the locker room, of course). But those teams won one playoff series in four seasons, lost four others, and were a collective 8-18 in the postseason before it all fell apart in an unimaginable manner. They entertained. They were never a national threat.
Before that came Michael Jordan, and no one in the history of the sport is more relevant or regal than His Airness. But that was a coda, and for all the bodies in the building, Jordan’s two seasons in a Wizards uniform resulted in zero playoff games.
So we have this group, led by the league’s leading scorer in Beal (a career-high 31.3 points per game) and the league’s leading assist man in Westbrook (a career-high 11.0 dishes per game), offering star power and story lines. It’s weird for all this optimism to flow around a team that is 28-34 and in 10th place in the Eastern Conference, but consider the possibilities.
Tenth in the conference earns a spot in the play-in tournament, and a spot in the play-in tournament means the Wizards would be a contender to face the top-seeded Brooklyn Nets in the first round. Suddenly, a franchise that has been a national afterthought would be a contender for the sport’s brightest stage. Brooks and Westbrook facing Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and James Harden, all of whom shared formative years together with the Oklahoma City Thunder — including a run to the NBA Finals. Westbrook vs. Harden, who uneasily coexisted during a single season together with the Houston Rockets that helped feed into Westbrook’s reputation as …
Wait. Brooks, who served as Westbrook’s coach for his first seven years in the league, is stepping in to take the charge.
“It bothers me,” Brooks said Thursday by phone. “It makes me disgusted, because there’s so many people that have influence that can basically throw out a narrative that they think, that they have no clue about.
“But they have the power of the pen and the power of their words and can influence a lot of people. But one, they don’t follow it close enough, or two, they’re too lazy to do the research to really see if this is actually true or not. The narrative that they started early on on him is disgusting. It’s embarrassing.”
One message here: Find someone who loves you and will defend you the way Scott Brooks loves and defends Russell Westbrook. But the other message: Watch how Westbrook plays, how he reacts to his teammates’ success and what he later says before deciding who he is right now. Brooks will tell you the idea that Westbrook is a me-first point guard is laughable. Westbrook has been over the territory so frequently he all but has a ready-made speech to shrug it off.
“There is not a teammate, a coach, anybody that can say I’m a bad teammate, bad guy, bad person,” Westbrook said. “I am a person that wants to see others do well. And that’s simply it.”
Except his development in his 13th season isn’t that simple. Take a timeout from Wednesday night’s 116-107 thumping of the LeBron James-less Lakers, a game in which Westbrook had 18 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists for his 12th triple-double in 14 games. Brooks had drawn up a play, but when the huddle broke, he looked at the clock. He had 50 more seconds before the horn blew. He called Westbrook over.
“Russell,” he said. “What do you think about this?”
Westbrook had other ideas: Put big man Daniel Gafford in one corner, “because they’re not going to switch off him,” Westbrook told Brooks. Then put guard Raul Neto in the right corner.
“That gives us a better chance to get a good shot out of this,” Westbrook said.
“After the game, I thought about it,” Brooks said, “and I’m like, ‘Wow, it’s totally changed.’ Sometimes, he’s coaching me.”
When the Wizards began running away from the Lakers in the second half, Westbrook flipped a full-court pass to a streaking Ish Smith, who uncharacteristically dunked it home. From there, Westbrook went toward the sideline, exhorting the pandemic-limited crowd. He smiled and waved his arms. Ah, for that moment when there are 20,000 fans at Capital One Arena rather than 2,133.
“This game is fun,” Westbrook said. “You should enjoy it, and that’s how I look at it. It’s fun. As much as I love competing and I love going out and winning games, this game is fun, man.”
Right now, for the Wizards, that’s exactly what it is. It’s too bad that’s been an infrequent characterization over a generation. But here comes Friday night’s game at the Cleveland Cavaliers, then nine more to close the regular season in May, then maybe even a playoff berth and — gulp — a playoff run?
Yeah, yeah, they’re under .500 and have a hard time getting defensive stops. But they’re being talked about in a way they haven’t been in … well, who knows how long? They just might matter nationally, and that’s because of Russell Westbrook’s complete package — his game and his mind, his work ethic and his snarling attitude.
“He’s a savant,” Brooks said. “I’ve been around a lot of players as a player and a lot of players as a coach. His consistency, his approach, his dedication to the game that he loves and his teammates, I would put him at the top of the list. He’s demanding, and you know what? As a leader, you have to be demanding. He demands it out of himself.”
He’s now demanding it out of the Wizards, who are in turn demanding attention.