After watching Russell Westbrook’s recent performances this season, I can’t help but think that Russell Westbrook is the Lebron James of NBA point guards. The things that separate Lebron from everyone else are his skill set, size, strength, and freakish athletic ability. Some of these qualities are taught, while others are innate. These tools have given James the opportunity to earn 2 MVPs and twice lead his team to the NBA Finals.
First off, comparing Russell to Lebron is not necessarily apples to oranges, but it is not what I’m intending to do here. While a one on one game between the two would be entertaining, I’m sure Lebron’s size and strength advantage would trump Russell’s athleticism and quickness. It is after all, basketball, where the player who is closest to the rim (taller) has the advantage most of the time. But, can the same things that give Lebron advantages, be the things that give Russell that extra edge and hopefully lead him to be one of the greats?
3 S’s: Size, Strength, and Speed
Individually, each of these characteristics can lead a player to have an advantage over another player. But if you possess an advantage in all 3 of these categories, the battle is already halfway won. That’s the thing about Lebron James. His size (6’8”) makes him above average for the small forward position. His speed can be matched by only a couple players at his position. But his strength is what completely makes him a match-up nightmare for the opposing player and defense. But when you put all 3 to work against the opponent, this is where Lebron overwhelms the opposition.
Russell Westbrook is basically upper middle class when it comes to size in the point guard class. In looking at all the starting point guards in the league, the average height is about 6’3”, with Tyreke Evans being the tallest at 6’6” and Jameer Nelson and DJ Augustine/Kemba Walker coming in at about 5’11 ¾”. Russell is about 6’3 ½”. Nothing is going to overly separate him in this category.
One of Russell’s main advantages is his strength. Only about 3 or 4 other point guards can compete with Westbrook in regards to strength. The factor that makes Russell different is in how his muscles distribute themselves on his body. The best comparison I can make is to Alfonso Soriano, the 2nd baseman who played for the New York Yankees, Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, and Texas Rangers this past decade. From 2002 to 2008, Soriano averaged 35.5 homeruns per season, a run unheard of for a 2nd baseman. What’s amazing about this run is in how Soriano’s musculature appears on his body. Soriano is all of 6’1” and 190 lbs. So a hulking Paul Bunyan he is not. Instead, Soriano has a wiry frame that packs muscle in an elongated fashion, instead of stacking muscle on muscle. This type of musculature is good for power and …
Speed. In that same time frame, Soriano also averaged 29 stolen bases, which is pretty good for any baseball player that doesn’t necessarily specialize in speed, a la a pinch runner or lead off hitter. So, where Tyreke Evans and Deron Williams are bigger and stronger than Russell, his advantage at speed neutralizes that deficiency. Just ask Derek Fisher, one of the stronger, yet slower point guards in the NBA.
Like James, Russell’s combination of these 3 characteristics (the 3 S’s) make him a load to handle for most point guards on a nightly basis. Knowing that you have these attributes leads to a person having….
Freakish athletic ability
The combination of the 3 S’s above, leads to having freakish athletic ability. Anybody who has high qualifications in the 3 S’s, is going to manifest itself in having this kind of athletic ability. The legendary, mythological stories of Lebron James grabbing a not so great lob with his hand nearly at the top of the square on the backboard and being so far above the rim that he couldn’t dunk it, but instead had to let it drop from above the rim are that of internet lore. Of course it happened in practice. Of course there were no cameras around. And of course, some teammates confirmed it. But, based on his athleticism, its something that we can consider possible. With Russell, it’s sort of the same way, but we get to see some of these things live in an NBA game. The dunk over Lamar Odom in their first playoff run against the Lakers in 2010. The lob that Earl Watson threw off the backboard, and Russell grabbed with one hand and dunked while skying over a Warriors player (we see you Marco Bellinelli). The facial he gave the Rockets last season. All tales of a book that is currently being written.
The freakish athleticism also shows up on the defensive end of the floor if a player wants to work hard enough to show it. The same things that overwhelm defenders on the offensive side of the court, are also the things than can overwhelm an opponent on the defensive side of the court. Lebron is an average man defender, but a great help defender, getting into the passing lanes for steals, and coming up with self-esteem rattling blocks from the weak side or from behind. This is the only part of Russell’s game that leaves you longing a little. He was touted as a defensive guard coming out of college, but has only been an average defender in his young NBA career. But ask any of the international guards that he defended during the World Championships whether he can defend, and I’m sure you’ll get a resounding “YES” in whatever language they speak.
Russell has the ability to be one of the better defenders in the league. The question is, does he want to be? He has shown more signs of being a shutdown defender this year. The aggressiveness that we saw in the World Championships is being shown more this season and that has led to a better defensive game plan from Russell. But that also leads to him gambling more and putting the rest of his team in 5 on 4 situations whenever his gambles don’t work. Through film-study, coaching, and experience, this part of his game can be fixed. The fact that he actually wants to be a better defensive player is the first step in becoming a better defender.
This may be the biggest difference between Lebron and Russell. While Lebron was your prototypical prodigy and came into the NBA with a deep skill-set, Russell had to learn a position that was not natural to him. And he had to learn it at the highest level of competition, night in and night out. So while Lebron has just had to refine and improve his skill set, Russell has had to constantly add more and more skills to his repertoire based on the learning curve. Organic growth at this level is very rarely seen from the point guard position. Yeah, you can have players learn a skill here or there, but to have a player go from where Russell was his rookie year to where he is now, is very rarely seen in professional sports. And this is what leads to the biggest difference between Lebron and Russell…..
The will to constantly want to learn and get better is something that I think separates these two players. Russell’s meteoric rise is a manifestation of the hours of practice he has put in since his first day of minicamp in 2008. Great players usually take off in their 3rd season. This happened to Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Michael Jordan, etc. It’s the time when the game slows down for the player and their instincts begin to take over. All the stuff that Russell has learned and practiced these past 3 ½ years (refining his jump shot, knowing when to attack and when to pull up, learning how to run a team) are finally coming to fruition. Is he still a work in progress? Of course. What he showed in the first 2 weeks of the season, is where the learning comes into play. But what we’ve seen the last two weeks is the player that is destined for greatness.
I don’t think Lebron has this will. Yes, he has all the talent in the world. But he basically came to the league a finished product. He just had to constantly get better at what he already knew he could do. He just now added a post-up game to his arsenal, and he’s 8 years into his career. With Russell, we don’t know what the ceiling is. We don’t know how far up he can go. Can he be a 25 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds per game player? Based on his career arc so far, I wouldn’t put it past the realm of possibility.
Another thing that separates these two players is their mind-sets at the end of games. While Russell may make mistakes late in games, they are usually an effect of him needing to do something within the scope of the offense. When 3/5th of the offense is stagnant, and the main offensive weapon (Durant) is being heavily guarded, the only option is for Russell to somehow get off a shot. This is what leads to the bad shots and charge calls in close games. But the fact that he is willing to take these shots (and make some of them) shows a willingness to shine in pressure situations that is severely lacking in James’ game. As seen in last season’s Finals, when the pressure got hot, James usually deferred to Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Russell seems to be learning what needs to get done to close games. Whether its hitting a couple 20 footers, getting the ball to the hot hand, grabbing the necessary rebound, driving the lane for a deuce, or, most importantly, hitting free throws consistently, he has been one of the main, if not the main, component in us winning close games.
For all of his faults, Russell has always been a player that has wanted to improve in order to prove his detractors wrong. It’s what makes that cauldron of heat inside of him boil. It’s the reason he asks “Why not?”, instead of “Why?”. It is because of this passion, that the Oklahoma City Thunder signed him to a max extension for the full 5 years. With this extension, the Thunder now have 2 of the top 15 players in the league signed for the next 5 seasons. So instead of comparing one player to the next, maybe it would be more apropos to compare the Thunder to what would seemingly be one of their main competitor should they win the West….the Miami Heat. But, hopefully, I’ll save that article for sometime in June.