by Spencer Suk
While the top athletes in their respective sports garner the most fame, popularity, and wealth, they must also deal with the most criticism and scrutiny from the media. Superstars are held to the highest of expectations, making it essentially impossible to satisfy the masses. A prime example of this is LeBron James, one of the most consistent and dominant basketball players ever. In his first stint in Cleveland, James, who was then 25-years old, won back-to-back MVPs and led the Cavaliers to the best record in both seasons. Yet, he was criticized for failing to overcome the Celtics’ Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen despite carrying a weak supporting cast. LeBron was quickly labeled as “unclutch” and mocked for failing to deliver on the big stage.
Then, when James decided to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, he was criticized for taking the easy route to a championship and abandoning his hometown (as well as the poorly planned manner in which he did it). As Allen Iverson predicted, LeBron was bound to feel the heat of the media and nation at one point or another. That’s just what comes with the territory of being one of the best. It’s a heavy burden, and an unfair one at that, but as they say: uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
Which brings me to the question I’ve been asking myself for the past couple of years: how has the reigning MVP Kevin Durant avoided all of the negative attention that other superstars like LeBron and Kobe constantly face?
It didn’t take long for Durant to shine in the NBA. He led the league in scoring in his third year and has repeated this feat three more times in the past four seasons. Long considered the second best player in the world, Durant is quickly closing in on James for the top spot. And still, despite repeatedly falling short of winning that elusive championship, Durant has hardly faced any of the blame or criticism. Rather, KD’s image is so clean and innocent that his marketing team thought it would be a good idea to show his tough and “bad” side. So what makes Durant’s case different from LeBron’s or Kobe’s?
Simply put, Russell Westbrook. Everytime the Thunder struggle or get eliminated in the playoffs, the fingerpointing is directed at the star point guard instead of Durant: “He shoots too much.” “He’s out of control.” “Why is he taking more shots than Durant?” “He’s not a true point guard.” Blah, blah, blah.
Everybody knows Russell Westbrook is one of the top players in the league today. However, what makes Westbrook such an easy target for the media and press is that he refuses to acquiesce to what outsiders want him to be. Critics constantly call for Westbrook to be the traditional point guard who defers to the best player on his team, KD. However, Russ is anything but your traditional point guard; he’s a 6’3” physical specimen whose athleticism and skill is matched only by his fiery, competitive nature. Winning, and not the media’s expectations, is the only thing on Westbrook’s mind.
What’s funny is that when Westbrook plays while Durant is injured, which is almost never, all of the criticism disappears. During games, commentators will stop calling for Russ to pass more; analysts put their “selfish” and “not a true point guard” comments aside for once. Why? Because when Durant isn’t on the court, Westbrook is finally appreciated for being the unstoppable player that he is. He’s allowed to play freely and aggressively without criticism since there is no MVP to “hold back.” It also helps that Westbrook is averaging 35 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds in the two games he played without Durant this year (excluding the game against the Clippers, in which he got hurt in the first half).
Look. I’m not trying to say Westbrook is better off without Durant. I’m also not trying to say the duo is a perfect fit, as they’re both elite perimeter scorers that need the ball. What I am trying to say is that Westbrook and Durant need each other.
On the court, they give each other the best chance of winning a championship. Having two of the top ten players in the league on the same team is definitely a key element of a championship team.
Off the court, Westbrook and Durant’s polar opposite personas blend perfectly, especially as it pertains to the media. While Durant is always polite and coming up with the right responses, Westbrook is brutally honest and short-tempered. Russ speaks his mind with no regards as to what the media, or anyone for that matter, thinks.
A little added criticism won’t do anything to Westbrook; rather, he is able to use it as fuel, which is why he is the perfect scapegoat for Durant. It doesn’t matter what the critics throw at Russ. He will always remain unfazed because he knows Durant has always had his back. KD understands how important Westbrook is to the Thunder’s success, and that’s all that matters to either of them.