“Just because you’re naked
Doesn’t mean you’re sexy,
Just because you’re cynical
Doesn’t mean you’re cool.
You may tell the greatest lies
And wear a brilliant digsuise
But you can’t escape the eyes
of the one who sees right through you.
In the end what will prevail
Is your passion not your tale.
For love is the Holy Grail,
Even in Cognito.
So better listen to me, sister,
and pay close attention, mister:
It’s very good to play the game,
Amuse the gods, avoid the pain,
But don’t trust fortune, don’t trust fame,
Your real self doesn’t know your name
And in that we’re all the same:
We’re all incognito.”
-Tom Robbins, Villa Incognito
Last night Russell Westbrook took the court for the Thunder, weeks earlier than expected, playing without a restriction on minutes and looking a lot like the Westbrook we all know and (mostly) love. There was no shortage of exuberance and no trace of lingering physical limitation from his rehabilitated knee. In short, it was everything Oklahoma City Thunder fans could have hoped for. But, for me at least, it felt strangely unsatisfying.
In absentia, Westbrook’s legend grew. As the Thunder faded out of last year’s playoffs it became clear how much of the distinction between playoff fodder and championship contender rested on his shoulders and all of his shortcomings were forgiven when the absence of his production proved to be a problem a thousand times worse. But watching him play last night was a subtle reminder that even at his best, Westbrook is still Westbrook.
I don’t mean that as a negative. The criticism directed at deviations between his game and the idealized point guard are incredibly reductive. Idealism doesn’t touch Russell Westbrook, or anything he does on the court. He is stylized to the nth degree, a cubistic uprising against the staid structures of conventional point guard play. But the “Let Westbrook be Westbrook” movement is equally reductive. The idea that style and individuality can somehow be a singlehanded stand-in for results misses the fact that basketball is an athletic competition, not performance art (despite Ricky Davis‘ attempts to convince us otherwise). Westbrook somehow exists in this strange middle-ground, simultaneously better and more impactful than perception implies, but still deeply-flawed and with numerous areas of skill and decision-making to improve upon.
What the Thunder lost last year with Westbrook’s meniscus tear was not just an opportunity to compete for a championship, it was a chance to solve the puzzle of building a richly complex offense around Westbrook and Durant’s talents without relying quite so heavily on just the individual nature of those talents. It was a chance to definitively answer questions about their approach to team building and the real weight of the James Harden trade. It was a chance to continue moving forward and growing, fully inhabiting the brilliant future everyone seems to see for them. What they lost was time, playoff experience and the forced evolution that often comes from those playoff experiences. The Miami Heat are what they are today, in large part, because of the challenges they faced in the playoffs the past three seasons. Regular pairings with elite teams forced them to find a game plan besides overwhelming talent, utilizing creative scheming to spackle the cracks that talent alone couldn’t fill.
Right now the Thunder are still mostly stuck in that place the Heat were in three years ago, where talent defines them more than execution or creativity. Evolution is not an evenly distributed process, it happens in spurts. The playoffs are the perfect primordial soup of raw materials to rapidly accelerate that process, but the Thunder missed the opportunity to re-immerse their most crucial elements and configurations last year. So as wonderful as it was to see Westbrook out there being Westbrook last night, it was also a nagging reminder that while the rest of the league can wrap themselves in the hope (in some cases rapidly dwindling) of new rosters and new systems, the Thunder have been on pause for six months.