Organized Sports is a recurring sports column named for a seminal DC avant-hardcore song by the equally stupid and brilliant (to me, “equally stupid and brilliant” pretty much just means “brilliant”) band Void. Take from that what you will.
LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. He’s won three MVPs, and he’s about to win his first title, if not tonight than on Sunday; his Heat are up 3-1 and no team has ever come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals. LeBron can do everything; the argument is that he’s not clutch, that he can’t make the big shot in the final seconds, but the truth of the matter is, that doesn’t matter. Or shouldn’t. When he’s the best player for forty-seven-and-a-half minutes of a forty-eight minute game, he really is the best player. You might rather have Durant or Kobe take that final shot, but LeBron’s a better passer and defender than both, and on nights when he imposes his will, just as good a scorer. He’s a freakish athlete, perhaps the most perfect basketball specimen physically since Wilt Chamberlain.
He could never be my favorite player.
There are a number of reasons he probably has a lot fewer people counting him as his favorite player now than he did when he was with the Cavaliers. The Decision was an obvious embarrassment, along with the victory party the Big Three threw themselves after the Decision, with Bron-Bron saying he planned to win “not five, not six, not seven” titles with the newly reconstituted Heat. He whines a lot, he flops more than anyone his size has any right to, and his mix of arrogance and bewilderment as to why anyone would ever criticize him shows just what happens to someone who is the best at any one thing for darn near his whole life. All of these are very viable reasons LeBron might not be someone’s favorite player, despite the fact that when he’s playing at his best, there’s no one better. They’re not my reasons, though.
My reason is that when he’s at his best, he’s just too good.
Compare LeBron’s game on Tuesday, in which the Heat took a 3-1 lead in the series, to that of Russell Westbrook, who just might be my favorite player. LeBron’s team won, and when it mattered, he hit a big three-pointer after returning, limping, after cramping up late in the fourth quarter. Though the game wasn’t quite over at that point, it was a dagger, and the sort of inevitable shot that felt like it could suck the air right out of a team trying to make a comeback. For the game, LeBron had 26 points, 12 assists, and was one rebound shy of completing the triple-double. And for most of the game, it didn’t even look like he had to try—he effortlessly dominated in the block, got his teammates involved whenever he was doubled, and hit his shots when he wasn’t.
Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, may have had the best game of his young career, and it was still perfectly imperfect. From the moment he stepped on the floor, he was hot; you could practically hear the NBA Jam announcer say “He’s heating up!” as he sliced through defenses for wreckless layups that found their way in, pulled up for jumpers that hit nothing but the bottom of the net, and put back offensive boards in a manner befitting his Thunder-ous team name. He wound up with 43 points, 7 rebounds, and 5 assists, and he was the only Thunder player that played like he deserved to win. But because he’s Russell Westbrook, the kind of player who plays like a dog that’s fast enough to catch a car and once he catches it, he doesn’t know what to do with it, he’ll probably be remembered more for the play that effectively ended the game than the thirty or forty plays he made to single-handedly keep his team afloat: with only a few seconds remaining, off of a jump ball, thinking the shot clock had been turned off, he intentionally fouled Mario Chalmers to put him on the line instead of simply defending him, hoping for an off-balance shot, and another trip down the floor to attempt the tie.
It was a mistake, to be sure, and one that LeBron, playing as he is now, would not have made. When LeBron is at his best, he is perfectly in control. Russell Westbrook, to be his best, has to be perfectly out of control. The same energy, drive, anger, whatever it is that fuels those reckless yet productive trips into the lane—that’s what caused that foul. He’s the player who wins you the game, or costs you the game, sometimes both at the same time. But even when he’s screwing up, he’s a far more exciting player than LeBron James, in all of his recent perfection. And that’s why I’d rather watch Russell Westbrook.
I think that’s what makes a favorite player.