“Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough” (at least according to this line in the 1974 film “Chinatown.”) Point guards too. There’s a cycle every important player goes through—that we put them through—but it’s especially acute with 1s, maybe because they tend to dominate the ball or maybe because they seem the most like regular folk, being 6-foot-3, 6-foot-1, maybe even a little shorter than lots of people you know. There’s a fragile humanity about them that’s harder to locate in big fellas, wings with pool noodle limbs. The cycle goes: infatuation, doubt, aggravation, appreciation. You’re young and exciting (i.e. Ja Morant), established and frustrating (Kyrie Irving), and finally old and appreciated (Chris Paul). This is obviously an oversimplification. There are variations, wild exceptions. Kyle Lowry wasn’t ever a hot ingenue and Dame Lillard has remained pretty steadily popular throughout his now-peaking career. John Wall was deeply cool, horizon-wide vision and fast as hell, then he turned 27 and his body started to fall apart. But the basic model holds. It’s the shape of most human relationships. Marriages, friendships, people you work with. Famous strangers you watch on TV and from the mezzanine aren’t any different, except of course they are.
Russell Westbrook’s 32. That’s elder statesman enough. It’s fitting, because he does everything so rapidly and all at once that it’s hard to make sense of it, that his decline should happen unevenly. To the point that you’re unsure if it already came and he kicked it like a cold, or if its onset is intermittent trending toward total. He fell way, way off last year, straight up lousy through the first half of his only season in Houston. Didn’t fit next to his buddy James Harden, launched an unconscionable amount of threes and made less than a quarter of them. And then he simply decided to fix his approach. I’m not a shooter, he said to himself, at last, and went on a tear. The most efficient basketball of his life, six weeks of 33, 9, and 7. A ton of attempts but they were right at the rim, where he’s golden.
He didn’t get to finish that thought. He got hurt, the league paused for a few months, and he wasn’t right when play resumed. And anyway, when the chips were down in the playoffs, a hobbled Russ went back to his old methods, started chucking and missing. You couldn’t expect sobriety to win out, with him. The Rockets exited the postseason and spiritually imploded. He ended up in a slightly sweeter-smelling sewer, in Washington. Nobody was thrilled, and they weren’t surprised when Russ sucked into mid-April. He’s 32, with a game built on superior athleticism. This sort of thing happens. It’s inevitable.
Actually, hold on: maybe he was just banged up. A quad issue that took some extra time to heal. Of late Russ is alive again, all the way alive like a car doing 85 clipped the tips of his loafers. He’s streaking brightly again, though it’s different from last year. The scoring figures are relatively modest; it’s his playmaking and rebounding that have surged. On Monday night against the Pacers, he took eight shots, scored 14. But in the assist column he was Stockton, on the boards he was playoff Shaq: 24 and 21, respectively. It’s an extreme example, but that is more or less what he’s been like, the past few weeks.
The powerful irony of Westbrook’s career is that he has spent much of it chasing numbers while seeming not to understand there are other numbers that tell us how he arrived at his triple-double. Lots of 34 points on 31 shots kind of nights, 14 assists against 7 turnovers. Plus we watch the games; we have seen Steven Adams box out opponents so Russ can scoop up a rebound on the second bounce. Russ has always argued with an uncharismatic strenuousness that he is a Great Player, like an ingratiating dweeb at a party making a nigh-mathematical case that he’s charming you, that you are very impressed with him. The thing is, Russ is a great player—if not with a capital G, or in dark ink. He has the capacity to be great. You just can’t count on it. And you can’t describe it with stats. It’s a phenomenon. Intensity, purpose, dumb luck. The lightning bolt finds a tree, splits the ancient oak in half. Whoa. And then you check in on Russ a little while later and he looks like he’s pressing, he looks terrible. It’s how he is: never any one thing for long.
The Wizards aren’t headed anywhere special. They’ll probably qualify for a play-in slot in the East with Westbrook cooking like he is and Bradley Beal a more reliable bet to keep turning in good performances. At their current level, they’re quite a bit more dangerous than their 30-and-35 record suggests. They might be the best of the bunch, out of the Celtics, Pacers, and Hornets. But that’s where the optimism ends and grim reality takes over. Even if they emerge from the play-in mini-bracket, they can’t make the Nets or Sixers bleed, not unless those squads suffer an injury crisis. The Wiz scream blowout first round exit. That’s fine. Not everybody gets to contend. For now they’re a fun group and for now Westbrook seems like he might finish at the tin and put his fist through the stanchion. Sometimes he gets to be the player he is in his imagination. That he can realize this is about as ridiculous as his belief that he can do it all the time. Well, whatever. He’s won our awe and our ire. We know him. He’s been around, been thoroughly himself, for plenty long enough to earn our respect.