Russell Westbrook's MVP Year: An 82-Game Diss Track That Redefined NBA Culture

Can you imagine anyone BUT Russ on the cover of NBA 2K18? You really think Kendrick is gonna name-check the Beard on his record? Nah.
photo of Dave SchillingDave SchillingWriter-at-LargeApril 13, 2017

The NBA doesn't give out an award for most resilient bromance divorcee, but you just know Russell Westbrook would be a shoo-in. The Kevin Durant vs. Brodie proceedings gave the world—not just NBA heads, or talking heads, but the average fan who's seen that NBATickets.com commercial with the Andersons one too many times—plenty to talk about in the dog days of summer 2016. And—would you look at how far we've come?—we're still talking about their breakup today.

The NBA wants to let fans give out "social media-type" awards for "things like best dunk and best dressed," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told B/R's Howard Beck the other day. And, at the league's first annual awards show two-and-a-half long months from now, Russ will be a contender for those, too, with a curled upper lip and hopefully not that neon orange official photographer vest again.

(B/R Mag)

But all those awards mean nothing compared to the NBA MVP, which is so much more than a sculpture of Jerry West for the mansion mantle. This league's MVP is a shoutout to the culture that you have arrived—that you, in more ways the one, are the league, that maybe you even transcend it.

"NBA MVP, to the hip-hop community, is like winning a Grammy for Album of the Year," rapper YG tells B/R Mag.

And Russell Westbrook, says YG, well: "The homie got that lion heart."

Take the new Kendrick Lamar song, The Heart Part 4—a blistering diss track about someone who may or may not be Drake—on which K.Dot nods to Russ in his evisceration of a helpless target: "Tables turned, lesson learned, my best look / You jumped sides on me, now you 'bout to meet Westbrook."

"Whenever you hear your name in a song, you feel like, I made it," Russ said of the Kendrick name-check, right after posting some ominous fire emojis on Snapchat:

Drake, too, gets into the two-faced business, albeit from the sellout Warriors side of the aisle, citing "ol' triple-double Russ face" on More Life.

Getting a shout from a legit MC does not an MVP make, of course, but it's got to count for something—now more than ever.

"Artists drop names in songs," YG says, "if they f--k with yo' game—when they feel like their rap career or style is similar to how you hoop."

The way Russ plays is hip-hop. It's right now, and it embodies the NBA better than anyone else's game. Hell, if Jerry West really wants the league to get his silhouette off its logo, the NBA couldn't do much better than Westbrook's celebratory scowl—the new symbol of a defiant, exuberant NBA circa April 2017:

(B/R Mag)

I mean, why not, right? Because we have all, in many ways, just been witnesses to an 82-game diss track performed by a man who is way beyond Brodie, whether KD likes it not.

Every NBA regular season is its own sprawling, seven-month narrative. And the MVP award, while it means many things and often different things each year, is always our way—the fans' way—of identifying the protagonist of that tale, moving forward the best league in sports. And nobody tells the story better this year than Russ.

Westbrook's swagger never left, even when KD did last Independence Day, and has remained the driving force inside the lone superstar left in Oklahoma City—on and off the court. He is the one-man exception to the rule in a league obsessed with the idea of a Big Three.

Westbrook's passion, his petulance, his anger, his love and his singular desire to be the greatest player in any given game are the NBA distilled into the body of one man. He is the unquestioned patron saint of great vengeance and furious anger, and he takes great joy in reminding you of that every damn night.

Westbrook dished 10.4 assists a game this year as part of his triple-double season average.
Westbrook dished 10.4 assists a game this year as part of his triple-double season average.(Getty Images)

Westbrook's bursts of ferocity and speed are the chop-it-up-and-remix-it fuel of your Instagram feed. LeBron James and Stephen Curry may have more titles, and KD may have left town to go get his, but Russell Westbrook is the avatar and the trendsetter in one.

Transcendence through spite can be a powerful thing, in sports as in life. If Tupac's Picture Me Rollin' is one long ode to triumph over the haters—a middle finger extended to opposition forces both real and imagined—then an MVP for Westbrook will be the basketball equivalent of Pac in his 500 Benz, an accolade to match the one his ex-teammate already has in his mansion.


On the final play of their game Sunday night against Denver, down two, the Thunder did what they always do in crunch time: Give it to Russ and pray. A heave from way past the three-point line jingle-jangled down the hoop like the action figure a kid tries to flush down the toilet out of boredom:

Game over. Fifty points. Sixteen rebounds. Ten assists. If the MVP race was a tie going into the weekend, Beyond Brodie didn't just break it—he shattered it into a pile, swept it up and dumped it into the incinerator.

The next night, James Harden and the Rockets went to Los Angeles to play a Clippers team scrapping for the fourth seed and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Silver says he's trying to make the NBA Awards more like a "Golden Globes type of presentation" where "people seem to be having fun." But maybe YG's right: The MVP race is more like the Grammys on steroids, where last-second campaigning doesn't make much of a difference—and Harden doesn't seem to be having much fun at all.

The Clippers' fans were relentless, from Harden's first free-throw attempt to his last: "RUSS-ell WEST-brook! RUSS-ell WEST-brook!" L.A. superfan Clipper Darrell even launched into the classic "ugly" chant—U-G-L-Y, you ugly, Harden!—to which Harden responded with a finger to the lips and a terse shush.

James Harden got no love from the fans during Sunday's game against the Clippers.
James Harden got no love from the fans during Sunday's game against the Clippers.(Getty Images)

Where Westbrook is unrestrained and impulsive, Harden is nonchalant and, at times, downright methodical. It should be said that Harden deserves some kind of award for surviving a coaching change, Dwight Howard and the Lil B cooking-dance curse. At least once per game, however, fans will be treated to an 18-second-long James Harden Dribbling Exhibition, which is like a boxer surgically jabbing his opponent, hoping to find a weak spot, only much less exciting. And while both he and Westbrook have taken to rope-a-doping the media's "who you got?" questions, Harden will look right through you if you ask him whether he or his former teammate should be putting that trophy on his mantle.

"We're really good friends," Harden told the assembled journalists in the locker room after the Clippers game. "I don't know what you want me to say. He's playing extremely well. I'm playing well. That's it."

But that's not it, Mr. Beard. Or at least not all of it.

Most people see the MVP battle as a two-man race between the former teammates.
Most people see the MVP battle as a two-man race between the former teammates.(Getty Images)

From afar and face-to-face, Westbrook and Harden are more than qualified to accept an honor that is as close to a punched ticket to the Hall of Fame as you can get. But that's the thing about the NBA's MVP award: It kind of is like Hollywood's award season, now complete with the pageantry. There will be a red carpet this year, and flashbulbs popping, and celebrities pouting for the cameras—except the players themselves are the stars. While a whole lot of people are still Googling "Who won the NFL MVP award this year?" this NBA superlative can make a great player a famous player...and a famous player a legend.

You'd think there'd be some kind of consistent logic for how to choose a winner by now, but there are no rules for the NBA MVP—no official job description. There are metrics, and there is popularity, but certainly the best player on the best team doesn't always win: Michael Jordan, for example, didn't take the MVP in 1997, even though the Bulls won 69 games. Karl Malone won it that year, even though he didn't lead the league in scoring, or rebounds, or assists, or blocks, or steals.

You could chalk it up to the old "We can't give it to MJ every year" theory, but for a brief moment in time, Malone's uncanny connection to John Stockton was all NBA heads and average Joes alike could talk about. The year after Malone won his first MVP, even a dude based in the Salt Lake City market was doing mainstream commercials while dabbling in pro wrestling and everything else a famous person can do once he makes the leap from fan favorite to cultural mainstay.

Karl Malone is restrained by Diamond Dallas Page as Hulk Hogan pushes him following a press conference to announce that Malone will meet Dennis Rodman (aka Rodzilla) at the "Bash At The Beach" in July 1998.
Karl Malone is restrained by Diamond Dallas Page as Hulk Hogan pushes him following a press conference to announce that Malone will meet Dennis Rodman (aka Rodzilla) at the "Bash At The Beach" in July 1998.(Getty Images)

No one since Charles Barkley has captivated and confounded NBA fans like Westbrook. The same year Barkley averaged 25 and 12, won the MVP and went to the NBA Finals, he also lent his name and likeness to the video game Barkley: Shut Up and Jam. Can you imagine anyone but Russ on the cover of NBA 2K18? You really think Kendrick is gonna name-check the Beard or Kawhi when the rest of his record drops Friday? Not enough words rhyme with "Harden" or "Leonard" anyway.

The old adage is that ball don't lie, but here's another one for you: Numbers don't tell the whole story of a season. And the next generation of potential MVPs wants fans to look beyond the box score.

Malone's successor in SLC, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, isn't thinking about callouts in rap songs or video game covers. He's supporting Leonard, but not for the splashy stat lines, or even the retweets: "[Kawhi] does things to help his team win games and sometimes—he's not gonna get 10 rebounds, but he's gonna do way more than that, and you're not gonna see it on the stats," Gobert tells B/R Mag. "You're gonna look at the stats and say, 'This guy averaged this, this, this and should get the MVP.' To me, it's more impact and helping your team."

For the media, the narrative of the 2016-17 NBA season would have a better closing chapter if the coded language and sly nods of the Durant/Westbrook divorce had extended all the way to the MVP debate. Instead, it's become more of a debate that the league and the media are having with themselves: Which iconoclastic solo artist do you prefer?

The Rockets and the Thunder and their respective superstars have a chance to settle things on the court in a first-round playoff matchup starting this weekend, maybe the most intriguing early-round series in years. The man who wins the series faces the buzzsaw in Golden State, but the man who wins the MVP can claim a bit of history. Russell Westbrook already has that history—the KD divorce, like Hillary and Donald beef, is best left in 2016—but he can also claim to define the future of the NBA.

 

Dave Schilling is a Writer-at-Large for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts the Roundball Rock podcast, a comedic look at the NBA. Prior to joining B/R, Dave wrote for Grantland, The Guardian and VICE. Follow him on Twitter: @dave_schilling.

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