Defiance has been the fuel to everything Russell Westbrook has been and accomplished in his NBA career.
It didn’t matter what his critics or opponents said, because very often his play — or rather the result of his performances — had the last word.
Now, as he’s underperformed in a Los Angeles Lakers uniform, the greatest initiator of pressure in the NBA, he’s seeing and hearing everything and no longer has the game to mute all the noise.
An athlete in decline is the main course here, with everything else being a side dish. There’s so much in one snapshot, so much Westbrook revealed in his most recent news conference that it’s almost impossible to digest in one sitting.
“I, 100 percent stand behind my wife. It’s not just because of this year. She’s reached a point this year where it’s really weighing on them,” Westbrook said. “This is just a game. This is just a game, this is not the end-all be-all, and when it comes to basketball, I don’t mind the criticism of missing and making shots, but the moment it becomes where, you know, my name is getting shamed, it becomes an issue.”
There’s a man defending his wife. Westbrook’s wife, Nina, expressed herself with multiple tweets on fans or even a media member taking things too far with criticisms. It’s difficult to determine the line between fairness and harshness when the volume is so loud and the love for a spouse goes deeper than the passion of even a rabid fan.
There’s the generational basketball player who is fighting Father Time, unable to negotiate the angles he can’t conquer and the fact his elevator no longer goes to the penthouse.
And there’s the player on the marquee franchise in all of sports having to deal with daily failure — and no mercy being shown, to the point where he doesn’t want his family coming to home games.
Multiple times Russell Westbrook has gone to lengths to explain how much being back home in Los Angeles means to him. Sometimes it comes off as holding your family as a human shield to defend yourself against accountability, especially when he hasn’t been known to take kindly to criticism or questions from the media.
He could just be a player showing more depth than we believed to exist, considering Westbrook proudly boasted at the peak of his powers that the ball was his only friend on the court.
His brand has been one of defiance, the guy with the Jordan Brand commercial, “Now I do what I want,” when Kevin Durant departed Oklahoma City for the Bay Area in 2016. Clever timing and capitalizing on Jordan Brand’s part, but it only deepened the impression of Westbrook playing on one person’s terms: his own.
There’s a price to pay on the defiance, and the bill is coming due at the worst possible time. The ones who’ve been waiting for this day to come, knowing Westbrook’s recklessness would have an expiration date if he didn’t evolve and grow, aren’t going to show much grace.
The wolves circled around Allen Iverson in a similar nature once his uniqueness could no longer overpower his warts. He went from All-Star to out of the league in fewer than two years because the fall happens so fast.
One might fear Westbrook is following the same path.
Westbrook’s arrival in Los Angeles, facilitated by LeBron James no doubt, also plays a part in this. The resentment of James and the fandom of James meet at the intersection of Westbrook Boulevard, and he’s weaponless to defend himself on the floor.
Every wayward shot that hits the side of the backboard, every errant pass that turns into a pick-two reflects badly on James, and his most ardent fans need someone to blame. James’ detractors love pointing out his failures.
And the Lakers fans who have champagne dreams and have forgotten about the days where Nick Young was the franchise ambassador want it all, all the time.
Westbrook and his decline make for an easy target.
Westbrook’s acerbic, competitive nature — the rocking of the baby, the Euro step in celebration after a spellbinding move — made the double birds in Philadelphia useless.
But now, the rabbit has the gun and it ain’t no fun.
Calling him “Westbrick” as a play on his last name and his inaccurate aim at the rim comes across as more clever than harmful. But when it’s mixed in with what Nina Westbrook said “[obscenities] and death wishes for me and my family,” everything will strike a nerve. It’ll be hard to differentiate intentions, especially from afar.
There are cases when fans go too far, and the return from the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t make most of them more empathetic or understanding. Some Knicks fan spat near Trae Young during the playoffs last year, when the world was getting its first taste of real air.
Young, like Westbrook, leans into being the heel, and the NBA is better for the variety. Some clearly take it too far and wouldn’t be so eager to hurl insults if the threat of true vigilante justice was on the menu — operating from the cloak of “the customer is always right” and “I buy my ticket so take my disrespect .”
Westbrook loved shutting up opposing crowds and players. Now that he’s clearly on the downslope and perhaps not as accepting of it, everyone is grabbing their pound of flesh.
And Westbrook’s display of vulnerability in the face of his struggles doesn’t ring the same way as others because it’s not parallel with what we’ve known him to be. It’s not that Westbrook had the thickest skin to criticism, but he was so competitively stubborn and athletically gifted there was no way to know if he bled, let alone bruised.
Playing on national television every night and no longer being in relative obscurity — apologies to Oklahoma City, Houston and Washington — places another layer of attention and scrutiny on his play.
The Lakers’ overall underachievement needs a facial villain, and Westbrook has always been happy to fill the role. James is playing at a high level, and Anthony Davis is unavailable due to constant injury. It’s hard to boo a coach who goes out of his way to remove his personality from the equation, and no matter how much the Lakers dysfunction is displayed for the world to see, Jeanie Buss and the Rambis family aren’t missing layups or tossing it to the other team.
For better or worse, Westbrook has absorbed love and criticism for his tunnel-vision approach. He’s often been the patron saint for players who refused to conform to the analytic world or even to those who believed in playing the “right way,” whatever that means.
Perhaps Westbrook putting home fans on notice will get them off his back, but the road crowds will only lather up even more. For a player who’s been so mentally tough through the years, Westbrook has reached a breaking point — one that can only be rectified by the factor he has most control over: his play.