“Freedom is moving easy in the harness”—Robert Frost
The quotation above comes from a Robert Frost lecture in which he explains the paradoxically liberating role of constraint poetry. Rigid form gives way to graceful style and nuance when an author’s language avoids rattling against the formal constraints. When imposed rules—these words must rhyme, this word must fit in a particular rhythm—feel natural, Frost suggests that writers can more cleverly, subtly and fully create meaning in their poems. It also helps us understand why we brand Derrick Rose inspiring, and Russell Westbrook occasionally frustrating.
Until Derrick Rose elevated himself in the public’s mind this season, most saw the Derrick Rose-Russell Westbrook debate as about neck and neck, with Westbrook’s offensive rebounding and defense perhaps awarding him the edge. I was of that impression, especially at the close of the 2010 season, when Westbrook’s shooting mechanics seemed to be further along than of Rose’s.
Zoom ahead to this post-season, and Westbrook is scoring more efficiently, with a higher true shooting percentage, more rebounds, more assists and until Rose’s hot shooting in Game 5, a higher PER—all in fewer minutes than Rose. But even as Westbrook has produced more effectively, the gap that grew during the regular season between Rose and Westbrook remains. The reason is context, or their respective constraints–Westbrook plays with the best pure scoring wing in basketball and Derrick plays with the Rosettes.
Westbrook has the freedom to be a scorer and a distributor. As John Hollinger points out, this has lead to equal doses of “Good Russ” and “Bad Russ”: “Westbrook scored 30 points, but needed 30 shots to get them – 15 of which were the jump shots that he struggles to convert. Meanwhile, Durant was methodically ripping the Nuggets for 31 on just 18 shots, but was starved of possession at times while Westbrook fired away.”
Westbrook craves the responsibility that comes with being his team’s primary ball handler and creator-in-chief, and fitting Durant, Harden and even Serge Ibaka into that desire has, at times, been problematic.
Meanwhile, Rose labors in a system that almost requires him to force. Some first half moments of Game 5 aside, Coach Tom Thibodeau seems resigned to employing basic baseline screen sets and relying on a heaping helping of Derrick Rose pick and rolls and improvisation. Thibodeau’s strategy allowed the Pacers to key on Rose, and they punished him with hard fouls—the one statistical category in which Rose dominates Westbrook is free throw attempts, Rose has attempted twelve per game to Westbrook’s seven.
Despite the impact of Chicago’s one-dimensional offense, Rose actually has a lower possession usage rate than Westbrook, who plays in a system that back-up Eric Maynor runs with a beautiful mix of aggression and patience. Durant, James Harden and Serge Ibaka are all capable scoring options that Westbrook should seek to optimize within the Thunder’s offense, but his supreme confidence and unbridled aggression often lead him over the edge of responsible point guard play.
And so Rose carries more direct responsibility for Chicago’s offense, but Westbrook’s task is more complex. One senses that, despite the talent around him, Westbrook would love to have the ball in his hands and make plays all game. As Royce Young points out in his Game 4 recap, he doesn’t always have the control to manage this instinct, “He tried to take over a bit. And it’s difficult for Westbrook to turn it on in spurts. That’s the ideal Westbrook. The guy that can sense that moment where his team needs his offensive spark and give it for a few minutes and then turn the game back over to the natural rhythm and flow. But he’s not there yet. He’s just 22 and he’s still figuring all that out.”
Perhaps because Rose is free to play with single-minded focus, he has grown to make better, more nuanced decisions even within the style both players prefer. At the end of games, Rose does an excellent job of controlling tempo and makes very mature pass/shoot decisions. It helps that his go to move is going to the rim, but he’s made a number of nice kick-outs, notably to Kyle Korver, for big, late shots. Part of the reason this works so well is because everyone in the gym, on both teams, knows that Rose wants to penetrate. Korver knows where to be. If Westbrook breaks off a play for Durant because KD gets muscled off his cut, it’s less likely that his Thunder teammates will be perfectly positioned to take advantage of Westbrook’s improvisation.
Rose’s teammates and offensive system impose constraints on his decision process that seem appropriate for his natural proclivities and his brief experience as an NBA point guard. He’s asked to do as much as anyone in the league, but only within the framework of his comfort zone. On the other hand, for Westbrook to play his perfect game, he would need to exhibit more maturity, experience and patience than typically accompany a 22 year old guard with his enormous talents and scrappy disposition.
The gap in pure talent between Rose and Westbrook is negligible. But when Rose moves, he knows he pulls his team with him. He has an intuitive sense of the bounds of his harness, which fits snugly across his broad shoulders and accommodates even his unpredictable bounds about the court. Westbrook still chafes under the ligature of deferring to talented teammates. When he strains in concert with Durant et al, Oklahoma City is a juggernaut, but we shouldn’t be surprised when the young guard occasionally pulls the Thunder afar of their intended destination.