The public perception of most every NBA player tends to wax and wane, but the harsher extreme tends to have taken a special liking to one Russell Westbrook. Every mistake the young Thunder star makes winds up as something between a punchline and a disaster, all while the best aspects of Westbrook's play go too easily glossed over.
In the process, every bit of fair, constructive critique is doubled or tripled up by overstatement and misunderstanding. There are certainly conversations to be had over Westbrook's potential and flaws, but instead of tempered analysis, discussions of Westbrook's play so often lean toward outright mockery. He's been made an easy—and unfairly frequent—target.
Playing Outside the Box
Today's NBA is loaded with non-traditional talent, but modern basketball fans nonetheless have a particularly negative reaction to impure point guards. That positional designation tends to mean more than any other.
And as one of the league's most unusual point men, Westbrook inherently opens himself up to all kinds of theoretical objections.
It's not about his passing ability, his vision or even his assist numbers. Many of the core objections to Westbrook's style of play come from the fact that he actively looks to shoot—an apparently undesirable attribute in a point guard, even after so many score-first ball-handlers have found success all around the league. It's easier to make sense of the classic point guard archetype than it is to comprehend Westbrook's unique influence on the game, and thus many fans and analysts default into backlash.
He's not a pass-first point guard, and with so much room for positional flexibility and offensive creativity, that should hardly matter. Yet Westbrook's tendency to color outside the lines puts him at the center of the dartboard of the casual fan, and it makes all of his successes rather easily torn down.
A Sainted Teammate
It's almost impossible to separate any discussion of Westbrook's persona and reputation from that of his teammate, the saintly (and awfully good) Kevin Durant.
Durant hasn't created much polarization at all since the initial debate over where he should be drafted, and in just five years he has risen to MVP levels of production and efficiency. He's the NBA's best player this side of LeBron James, and his effectiveness on the court is matched only by his public esteem.
Durant is the golden boy with the golden touch. Every shot that leaves his fingertips does so with a glimmer, and thus every shot that Westbrook takes instead is something of an abomination. It's that binary that so often comes at the crux of the criticism; every mistake or forced shot comes at the expense of the best scorer in the game getting his own chance with the ball.
Never mind the fact that Durant already averaged 19.7 field-goal attempts per game (second behind only Kobe Bryant) and posted a top-five usage rate. Never mind the fact that no offense can go solely through one player. And surely, never mind the fact that Westbrook himself put up 24 points on just 19 shots a night last season.
All realism is tossed out the window when it comes to the derision of this particular player. Rather than focus on the factors that hold the Thunder back in a greater sense, Westbrook is instead modeled into the form of a convenient scapegoat, guilty of simply not being Durant.