Russell Westbrook won't change, but he's at the forefront of the change.
Sports in general are adapting rapidly to the ever-changing society they belong to. In football, teams are spreading the field and relying on speed rather than strength. In baseball, no matter how desperately old school types try to avoid it, two of the biggest stars - Mike Trout and Yasiel Puig - rely on athleticism and speed. Hockey, also fighting its old school tendencies, is played at a faster pace than ever before.
A lot of this is due to rule changes, obviously, which have been implemented to ensure a faster game and, in turn, a more watchable product. A lot more of it is due to science and technology advancing at a rate that allows athletes more tools than ever before to get faster, jump higher, recover more quickly, and maximize their natural abilities.
It's been a gradual change over decades, but just as technology continues to evolve at an exponentially faster rate than ever before, so too do athletes.
The NBA has always been at the forefront of change as a whole. It started early with Michael Jordan turning sports into a launching pad for superstardom, basically paving the way for lucrative sponsorships that are commonplace among today's athletes. It continued into the Internet age, with the NBA the first to embrace the YouTube phenomenon and allowing its highlight-friendly material to be consumed by literally anyone in the world.
It continues now, with a newfound acceptance of advanced metrics, as well as unprecedented access to countless blogs (like this one!) to utilize all of these tools and, again, share them with as many people as possible.
For the most part, it's made the league what it is today: A nightly show full of highlights that anyone can see with a simple Google search or Twitter account. Check Twitter on any given night and see how much of the conversation is centered on the dunk of the night, triple-double of the night, whatever. It's the most interactive sport around.
Yet it's a sport that, just like any other, still has its old school fanbase. Advanced metrics are a complicated thing that just about everyone sees some value in, and this is not a piece meant to persuade the stragglers on the merits of PER, WS48, any of that.
Beyond numbers, however, there remains a large faction of that "old school" mentality that feels there is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to go about winning basketball games. Words like "class" continue to be thrown around, as if certain teams that aren't classified as such are less worthy of a championship. This piece from Pounding the Rock is the most recent, pertinent example, but check Twitter mentions of any popular basketblogger and you'll see that mentality is far from an outlier.
Staring down that entire line of thinking is Russell Westbrook. Westbrook's style of play, his entire makeup, is offensive to that old school way of thinking. In many ways, his struts, his snarls, his glares, have become the overarching theme of this entire Western Conference Finals. Westbrook, more than his MVP counterpart Kevin Durant - who is far from old school, but also far more reserved than the in-your-face Westbrook - is taking his new school mentality and leaving it out there for the entire old school Spurs (the team and fans) to see.
With the return of Serge Ibaka, Westbrook has that one safety valve that keeps him from flying completely off the rails. But if Game 4 was any indication, he's still putting the pedal to the metal, consequences be damned. It's how you get those pull-up-in-transition jumpers when he's 1-on-5. It's how you get those out-of-control but somehow-still-in-control drives to the rim that seem impossible to finish. It's how you get those cross-court passes that don't even seem possible, let alone like a "smart" basketball play. It's how you get those daring, sometimes-stupid gambles for steals.
Put together, Westbrook is an uncontainable wildfire, only extinguishable by his own loss of oxygen. The problem with that is, as he rounds back into full health, it's becoming more and more unlikely for him to slow down at all, much less run out of breath. Sometimes he burns a little out of control, but more often than not, when it comes time for him to focus in on an endgame, there he is with just the right balance of fury and constraint.
That's when you see Westbrook, no matter how many shots he's taken or how hot he may be, willingly deferring to Durant. While some feel he should defer on every possession, his ability to know when to do so, and when to attack on his own, is what continues to make him such a valuable member of a perennial championship contender.
In fairness, Westbrook is far from the first player to treat the game this way. Allen Iverson had a certain IDGAF attitude that sort of shaped an entire generation of players to follow. Lebron James may be the best athlete alive. Heck, even Derrick Rose mastered the shoot-happy point guard position before Westbrook did.
None are as upfront about it as Westbrook. None take as much heat for it as Westbrook. Maybe it's because Durant, with his old school efficiency, stands in stark contrast. It become easy to root for more Durant shots when that's the way basketball has been played for so long. But again, Westbrook has come too far, and been too successful, playing his way.
In some ways, it's Rose whose back-to-back injuries have left Westbrook more alone on his island. He's out there on his own now, trying to prove that his style of play is not only effective, but the new way of doing things.
The old school line of thinking sees both Rose and Westbrook, and their respective injuries, as more proof that the style of play is simply unsustainable. They also dwell on things like shooting percentages, refusing to acknowledge that Westbrook has found a way to be one of the league's most efficient players in spite of poor shooting performances.
That may be the oldest line of thinking, too, that a player can simply become a better shooter over a time. You don't need to look past Ray Allen to see what a maniacal dedication to practicing a jumpshot can do to your percentages. But that diminishes all else that goes into making a basketball player. It's not just a matter of guys practicing something to a point where they become better than everyone else. Everyone has limits. There's a chance that Westbrook just isn't a great shooter, and there's a chance he knows that.
But it's also clear that, just as in everything else, he just doesn't care about that. Westbrook has the natural gifts, and he has the motor, to overcome any shortcomings he may have as a shooter. More than anything, he has the confidence. That's why you get the struts, that's why you get the snarls, not because he's trying to show anybody up or prove anything to you, but because he needs the reassurance of his greatness even more than you do.
Westbrook wasn't always this athletic freak. He didn't even dunk until his senior year of high school. It all sort of just happened, and now that he has those skills, he needs to remind himself just how fortunate he is to have them.
It will always clash with the old school line of thinking, which makes this series the perfect contrast for him. The Spurs, with their mechanical precision and masterful preparation, have managed to come as close to perfecting "basketball" as we have always understood it.
The problem is, they're going against a team that doesn't see much value in that brand of "basketball." Just as the world of sports is changing as a whole, the Thunder is changing with it. Sports as a whole are faster, and the Thunder believe they can run their way to a championship.
Standing in its way is that old school thought, the one that has provided so many championships in the past to teams like these Spurs. But that way is fading fast, and dominant as the Spurs have been, they have just as many Finals appearances in the past four years as Westbrook's Thunder. So just like its fearless point guard, the Thunder sees no need to change.
And really, change isn't the right word, because it implies forward progress, which would be the exact opposite of what they would be doing if they succumbed to that old way of basketball. Instead, Westbrook stands at the forefront, showing off his new way for all to see. Like it or not, he's not changing, and the Thunder team is coming with him. Outrunning, outjumping, and yes, somethimes outsnarling, anyone that stands in their way.
With two more wins, Russell Westbrook may just start a revolution.