Over the last several years, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s dynamic duo of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant has endured its fair share of criticism. People have questioned whether or not they can coexist, given both players’ apparent need to have the ball.
Grantland.com’s Bill Simmons has famously compared the supposed tension between the two to that of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell from HBO’s famous drama “The Wire.” There is some value to the analogy, but it’s not entirely correct.
Avon and Stringer’s issues come from the arguments over the hierarchical structure within their drug gang. Stringer is smarter and better at organizing their runners, but Avon is the emotional leader who everyone rallies behind.
That would make Durant Avon and Westbrook Stringer. However, this is where the link dissolves. While Stringer is the more talented businessman, Durant is the more talented basketball player. In “The Wire,” Stringer deserved to be the leader, but Durant, as one of the most dominant players in the world, should be the one to take over when the Thunder need it.
We saw Westbrook assert himself in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals and put on a great performance, with 43 points on 20-32 shooting. That game was typical Westbrook, though. Several times, he dribbled down the court and rose up for difficult, contested jump shots. The only difference between that game and others he has been lambasted for was that he made the shots that he sometimes misses.
He does not play the point guard position the way we’ve become accustomed to seeing it played. That’s not always a bad thing, but he has had issues getting the rest of the offense involved at times.
Avon and Stringer disagreed over the leadership of their gang in the same way Durant and Westbrook struggle to figure out who will take over games. This phenomena, in and of itself, is not unique to the two of them, though.
It’s less common in sports like baseball and football where each battle is one-on-one and there’s less give-and-take in on-field relationships. But in basketball and soccer, we see many examples of strained leadership dynamics.
The 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers could be such an example. We obviously haven’t seen them play yet, but Steve Nash, Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are all at their best playing a pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop game, while the Lakers’ alpha dog is Kobe Bryant, who tends to be a bit of a ball-stopper. If Bryant can figure out how to get his shots within the framework of an offense that works for everyone, the Lakers will be great. If he can’t, the situation has the potential to blow up.
We already saw that dynamic in New York this past season, where Jeremy Lin and Carmelo Anthony clashed styles. During Anthony’s absence, Lin took over as the primary ball-handler and scorer, which is a role that suits his style of play. But when Anthony came back, he wanted to regain his mantle as the Knicks’ best scorer. Lin got hurt soon after, so we never saw the conclusion of that drama until the offseason, when the Knicks let Lin go for nothing.
Across the pond in Manchester, we were being set up for a similar storyline with Robin van Persie joining Wayne Rooney as Manchester United’s premier strikers. Both play as a deep-lying forward and if they were to play together, one of them would have to adjust and play either alone up top or on a wing. Rooney, though, suffered a horrific leg injury on August 25, so we will have to wait to see how that situation plays out.
This summer, the Dutch Euro team showed what can happen when there are too many huge egos on the field at once. Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar could not coexist. Each is used to being the primary attacker on his club team, and they could not put their egos aside and work together for their country. They ended up putting on a horrifying display that got them bounced from Euro 2012 with zero points.
Perhaps no example is as apt as the early 2000s Los Angeles Lakers. Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were the top duo in the NBA. There was no equal for them, and if they had been able to stay together and manage their egos, they would have been capable of an unprecedented level of dominance.
But Shaq became increasingly uncomfortable with Kobe’s growing fame, and, as Bryant developed into the premier scorer in the world, Shaq turned against him and forced his way out of Los Angeles. They were unable to handle the alpha-dog competition and ended up destroying their partnership, much the same way Avon ended his partnership with Stringer in Season 3 of “The Wire.”