I’ve never been the parent of a maturing teenager. My oldest is less than 10 years of age, so I have a few more years before I have to deal with hormones and rebellion. But as a newcomer to the 30 year old club, I still feel like I’m young enough to remember my teenage years, and remember the triumphs and pitfalls that my parents felt as I was coming up. I would figure that as a parent of a burgeoning adult, you would learn to take the good with the bad, and you would hope that for every bad decision, there would be a solution and a lesson learned. At the end of the journey, the ultimate goal would be to see a mature adult that is able to handle real life situations and is able to enjoy life to the fullest.
While extremely different, parenthood and fandom can also be very similar. Its takes time, money, and patience for the nourishment and development of both children and sports teams. While children usually mature in a linear chronological order, sports teams are constantly shifted and changed in an attempt to continually improve. Where the childhood of a kid may take between 18-21 years, the life of the core of a team usually never lasts more than 5 seasons. Teams like the San Antonio Spurs, whose core has been together for a decade plus, is the exception, not the rule.
Being a fan of the Oklahoma City Thunder, one of the things that have required the most patience has been the development of Russell Westbrook. Westbrook is the rare case of a player that came into the league initially with no expectations, blossomed into a bonified superstar with high expectations, and has taken the brunt of criticism because he has fallen just shy of those high expectations.
Westbrook’s skill set has never been a problem. If anything, his development over the last four seasons has taken most of the league by surprise. When he came out of UCLA, he was viewed as a defensive specialist, probably comparable to fellow UCLA alum Arron Afflalo. His ceiling was definitely nowhere close to being a top 5 scorer in the league. But a lot like Michael Jordan in 1984, when the shackles of the college game were taken off, the other-worldly athleticism took over. And in the right system, those gifts manifested themselves into what you see in Westbrook today.
But just like the trials and tribulations a parent faces when they are raising a teenager, Russell Westbrook’s ascension into a Top 10 player has not been without pitfalls. The path to get to where Westbrook is today has made a bit more difficult by the fact that he plays one of the most important and difficult positions in the game: point guard. As the team’s main distributor, any weakness on the offensive end is immensely exposed because of the position’s high usage rate. Throughout his career, Westbrook’s propensity for turnovers has always been a crux to an otherwise spectacular arsenal. It’s usually what supporters and detractors, alike, point to when looking for flaws in Westbrook’s game.
As the team’s main distributor, a point guard’s main purpose is to manage the game and direct the team’s offense. The thinking is that this is made a lot easier if there are plenty of weapons out there on the floor. But what happens if you have the No. 1 offensive weapon in the game on the floor with you? Most point guards would relish that and pad their stats. As great a player as Magic Johnson was, he was made even better by playing with Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Cooper, James Worthy, and Byron Scott. Same applies to John Stockton and Karl Malone. But what if you, yourself, are a Top 5 offensive weapon in the game also? The art of knowing when to pass and when to score is something that most point guards don’t have to think about. Westbrook had to learn the trickiest part of the trade, while learning how to play the position.
The thing that makes raising teenagers most difficult isn’t the mistakes or the bad decisions. Those are expected. You don’t learn to drive without hitting a couple curbs. It’s the rebellion and attitude associated with the mistakes. The, “I can do this by myself, leave me the hell alone” attitude. It’s a right of passage that most people go through; their need to experience life on their own, rules be damned. But when your attitude is on display for millions to see and for thousands to tweet about, it can make the progress of your development that much more difficult. When the national media senses any angle to make a story, they flock to it like sharks to blood.
And that’s what happened in last season’s playoffs. You had the league’s leading scorer who is by all accounts, a media/NBA darling, and the non-conformist point guard who could care less about the media, on the same team. Success breeds attention, good and bad. Instead of focusing on one of the youngest teams in the league being in the conference finals, the media decided to focus on the fact that the point guard was taking shots late in close games, instead of passing it to the best scorer in the league. The players involved didn’t care. The coaches involved didn’t care. But the media ate it up and perception became most people’s reality.
One of the triumphs of parenting is watching that child grow up to become a fully functional, independent adult. One of the triumphs of being a fan, is watching that young player finally take those steps to become that great veteran that teams need to win championships. Someone that, when the road gets tough, they create diamonds instead of wilting under the pressure. During the 4-game sweep of the Dallas Mavericks in the 2012 playoffs, Russell Westbrook finally became what we, as fans, were waiting for. He scored when he needed to (which was a lot in the first 2 games), managed the game, and protected the ball. He played lock down defense on Jason Terry and was a ball hawking free safety when ever it was needed.
But the biggest sign of his maturity (and that of the team, for that matter) was what happened in game 4 of the series. With the Thunder down by 13 entering the 4th quarter, the Thunder needed a spark on both ends of the floor. What had been a shooting clinic by the Mavericks guards in the 3rd quarter (5-7 FG overall (4-5 3ptFG)), turned into a dry well in the 4th quarter when Westbrook took his turn locking down the perimeter. Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, and Delonte West combined to go 1-6 FG in the 4th quarter. Also, Coach Scott Brooks, with the confidence that this would not affect Westbrook at all, decided to stick with the hot hand, and let James Harden run the point with Westbrook playing off the ball. What resulted was Harden getting 15 points and 3 assists in the 4th quarter, and propelling the Thunder to the victory.
Sometimes, the most difficult kids to raise are the non-conformist. The ones that don’t allow peer pressure to dictate their paths in life. The ones that march to their own drum. The ones that stay introverted. It’s difficult to know what someone thinks or what makes them tick, if they never let it be known. That’s Russell. The media is still baffled by this guy and that makes them uncomfortable. But, what we are seeing on the court is a sight to behold. We are seeing the non-conformist point guard turning into the best point guard in the game, right before our eyes. And that, as a fan and supporter of the Thunder, makes me extremely proud.