Russell Westbrook’s new deal with Jordan Brand offers up some interesting parallels with his eponymous label-mate. Before we go any further, let’s be clear: There is only one G.O.A.T, and Russ isn’t close to him — even when you compare Michael Jordan‘s first four years in the NBA against Westbrook’s — MJ’s the superior player from a statistical and talent standpoint. But the two share certain characteristics that are often paradoxically opposed to one another. Both players, Westbrook and a young MJ, want to win so badly they sometimes exert too much effort to win, even, oftentimes, to a team’s detriment. Both have also stubbornly refused to try alternative, more traditional avenues to basketball success. It’s hard to hold yourself back when it’s quite clear (to them, at least, and to others) they cannot be stopped even when it might be in the team’s best interests.
At the beginning of Jordan’s career, he was an athletic marvel scoring at will inside the three-point line, and that’s how Russ dominates now. They’re both explosive going toward the rim, where few opposing players are capable of stopping their dribble penetration. Jordan set an NBA playoff record that still stands when he scored 63 points in an overtime Game 2 loss to eventual NBA champion Boston in 1986. For the game, MJ connected on 22-of-41 field goals from the floor and was 19-of-21 from the line. Russ dropped 43 points on Miami in Game 4 of the NBA Finals this past June by connecting on 20-of-33 field goals from the floor. During that Game 4, Russ only attempted three free throws, connecting on them all, even as he repeatedly drew contact at the rim; he didn’t attempt a three-pointer, just like Jordan didn’t in his game against Boston. For a larger view, Westbrook averaged 19.0 points, 6.8 assists, 43 percent from the field and 3.5 turnovers per game in his first four seasons. MJ countered with an astonishing 32.7 points, 5.3 assists, 51 percent from the field and 3.3 turnovers per game. The similarities don’t stop there.
Both can and did finish at the rim with an exuberance that’s downright violent. Russell’s tomahawk on Argentina with Team USA in London and his put-back slam in the aforementioned Finals game against Miami offer perfect contemporary examples of MJ’s emphatic slams in the mid-80s. Both players descend on the rim with an explosiveness unequaled by most of the league and especially for their size; they dunk angry, like the dunk is an extension of their own assertive personalities: “I will dunk on you to show you that I own you, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.” They declare their dominance with the dunk, dribble drive and mid-range jumper.
That same in-your-face attitude is perhaps where they’re most alike. After Jordan had been in the league a couple years, and everyone had sufficiently marveled at his prodigious scoring and athleticism, people started to question whether his brand (pun, very much intended) of ball dominating basketball could win. After MJ’s first four years, the murmurings of his doubters grew louder for similar reasons, and that continued for three more years as the Bad Boy Pistons inherited the Celtics’ reins and continued the Bulls beatdown.
When MJ finally did break through in 1991, he did so on his own terms. People can talk about him learning to believe in the team concept, but he was still a score-first off-guard, albeit one who could, and did, pass to his teammates a little more (hello John Paxson).
Russ’ first four years in the league have gone a bit different because he plays with one of the most natural and gifted scorers the modern game has ever seen. MJ never had a scoring talent the likes of Kevin Durant beside him, so he was free to take the majority of shots. Scottie, Horace, Paxson and later Kerr, Rodman and Ron Harper, all played second fiddle on MJ’s dominant 90s team, but in OKC, Russ is the second fiddle. Think about why that must be discouraging for someone as talented as Russ. He’s unstoppable driving to the basket. When the Skip Bayless’ of the world criticize Russ for taking more shots than the hyper-efficient Durant, they don’t understand Russ is facing a mismatch every time he brings the ball down the floor. For people as hyper-competitive as Russ and MJ, when you can score basically at will against any defender, what’s the incentive to pass?
Westbrook is no Jordan. That much is clear even if you discount everything but the first four years of MJ’s career, before a time when MJ was winning titles and became a worldwide name that still is deified today. MJ shot more efficiently and was a better defender through those early years than Westbrook’s been with OKC. But Westbrook’s bull-headed approach, his competitiveness and startling athleticism off the dribble drive, all mimic the young Jordan that hadn’t yet figured it out either.
As Russell Westbrook enters his fifth season on a team that’s favored to come out of the Western Conference, he faces many of the same questions Jordan faced: Can he share the ball? Will he forfeit some offense for the betterment of the team? Like his new label-mate, the only thing Westbrook can do is go out and prove them all wrong. There are few players that better personify the Jordan Brand’s ethos.
What do you think?
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