Image via Flickr
Image via Flickr
In an NBA season defined by its instability, fans and the media have fawned over Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, two point guards who have been able to command and structure their teams amid costly injuries and an unforgiving schedule. Rule changes and shifts in styles of play have made point guards more valuable as of late, but this year we’ve needed point guards more than ever.
We expect our point guards to play a certain way, to exert agency over an offense. The point guard’s ability to mold a team’s offensive identity is embedded in the grammar of the position. While stylistically disparate, Paul and Rondo both have an aura of calm, belying the intensity of their play. They are at once stabilizing agents and agents of change. Both players can be seen routinely ambling down court, creating a seam and then snapping into a pass that slips behind the defender. It is both amazing and expected.
In an NBA season pieced together with duct tape, spotlighting point guards who exemplify structural logic was a better PR decision than focusing in on Russell Westbrook. Westbrook doesn’t possess the traits of a traditional point guard. During last year’s playoffs, he threatened to derail the entire team’s working order. It wasn’t just the fact that he was shooting more and passing less, but he was shooting more than (and not passing to) Kevin Durant. He wasn’t just testing his offensive limits, he was taking opportunities away from the team’s best player. A juicy subplot emerged solely because Westbrook wasn’t doing what we expect point guards to do. This year, his assist numbers have plummeted and he’s far more shot-happy than he’s ever been in his career. But the universe is still intact. The team is still thriving. They’ve made it to the Western Conference Finals for the second consecutive year because of, and not despite, Westbrook.
What we wanted him to be wasn’t what the team needed him to be. James Harden, by serving as a stabilizing counterpoint, has allowed Westbrook to find his role as a point guard outside of traditional notions. Westbrook has made it quite clear that he isn’t CP3 or Rondo, but does that matter? Point guards make the game easier by earning the trust of their teammates. That trust continually builds as a good pass leads to another good pass, which reinforces the logic of the offensive system. We expect point guards to instill in teammates a joy of playing within the framework, to bring the game back to an instinctual call-and-response. This season, Steve Nash was able to operate his offensive machine with barely functional parts. What keeps a structure in place is the trust that it will continue to work. A point guard’s role isn’t necessarily to maintain a literal structure of patterns on the floor, but to maintain the belief in his teammates that what he’s doing will work.
Westbrook, with no discernible system in place in Oklahoma City, makes his teammates better by streamlining his duties on the floor. A traditional point guard is entrusted with the duty to create and reset plays. For the Thunder, that trust is dispersed three ways. On any given possession, Westbrook, Durant, or Harden are handed the reins to the offense. With three different styles of attack, there is no one identity to fall back on. Westbrook, by ceding some control to other playmakers, reinforces his structure of trust. It’s the closest Westbrook comes to molding the offense in his image. Tradition dictates the importance of maintaining control. For Westbrook, success relies on letting go.
Yet, the thought of “accepting” a one-assist outing from Westbrook doesn’t settle well traditional notions. We like it when our point guards pass. We like it because it makes sense, and what is a point guard if not a player who makes sense of his surroundings? We want our point guards to temper the chaos so that things are simpler on the court and easier on our eyes. When a point guard breaks down a defense, it’s an affirmation of how simple the game can be, of how triumph can be broken down into a set of formulas. Follow the established rules and victory awaits. Point guards are thus brokers of tradition and order, guarding the faint belief that traditional roles themselves provide a blueprint for victory. It’s never that easy.
Chaos can be coaxed, but it’s a long game. Point guards find success in navigating through chaos, but it’s not the only way. For a player like Westbrook, who will never be a traditional, romanticized point guard, the key has been to embrace the chaos; to be the chaos opposing teams are so desperate to control.After his 37-point, five-assist performance (and a scary moment right before halftime) in Game 4, Westbrook said, “My job as a point guard is to come out and keep competing.” Ultimately, we champion a poetic understanding of the point guard because we believe it’s the most effective route to success. But what we want from our point guards isn’t always what we need.