Last week, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was spotted wearing a Slayer shirt on his way to play against the Los Angeles Lakers, and of course, the Internet took notice. This is amusing for several reasons. First, Russell Westbrook makes a lot of daring fashion choices (a couple days earlier he showed up looking like Clint Eastwood), so seeing him dressed like a mall goth is pretty funny.
Second, celebrities wearing metal merchandise is always weird, because it makes you wonder what they actually think of the music. What’s Justin Bieber’s favorite Iron Maiden album? He strikes me as a Piece Of Mind guy. Lady Gaga could probably geek out about some Killers deep cuts if you asked her to. How well do you think Chris Brown’s dance moves would translate to a DRI circle pit? Of course there’s a high probability that image-conscious celebrities might just be adapting metal iconography as a fashion statement, but if Demi Lovato is still riding for Job For A Cowboy, then it isn’t that big of a leap to assume that Westbrook has spun Reign In Blood once or twice.
It helps that Westbrook and Slayer are a perfect fit for one other. Westbrook plays with the same kind of relentlessness and raw speed that made Slayer such an unstoppable force in the 1980s. Slayer never had any use for the acoustic interludes or concessions to melody that the rest of the Big Four incorporated into their material, and Westbrook’s playing is just as no-frills as Slayer’s songwriting. His drives to the rim are a series of straight lines ending in emphatic dunks, just as the best Slayer songs are a torrent of riffs that climax in borderline atonal soloing.
This got me thinking about parallels between other NBA point guards and classic 80s thrash metal bands. For the purposes of this admittedly silly exercise, I’m limiting myself to point guards currently active in the NBA, and thrash bands that released at least one album in the 1980s.
Steph Curry is Metallica
All photos courtesy of the NBA
Let’s just get this out of the way: Curry is the best player alive right now. Metallica were the best metal band on earth during the 80s. We can get cute and hype up personal favorites, but if you’re going to start denying the shadow that Master Of Puppets casts over the genre or quibble over whether or not Curry is “good for the game,” then chances are you are a total buzzkill that is no fun at parties. Of course, neither Curry nor 80s Metallica are flawless. Lars Ulrich’s drumming was never spectacular, and while Curry has improved on defense this year, it’ll never be his strongest attribute.
Reggie Jackson is Megadeth
After being kicked out of Metallica, Dave Mustaine started Megadeth as a way of proving how indispensable he was to his former band. Mustaine is the ultimate “chip on his shoulder” guy in metal. Every move Mustaine made in the 80s felt like an attempt to one-up his former band. Reggie Jackson doesn’t have the same degree of spite in him as Mustaine, but his emergence since being traded to the Detroit Pistons does stem from a similar urge to prove his worth as a starting point guard. Jackson still needs to work on his consistency—right now he’s more Killing Is My Business than Peace Sells...— but he’s skilled and driven enough to become a serious threat in the near future.
Rajon Rondo is Coroner
In the same way that Coroner’s dizzying technicality distorted thrash metal’s conventions, Rondo’s unique court vision is like a funhouse mirror version of the point guard position. Coroner was just as heavy as their contemporaries, but their twisted sense of rhythm confounded any attempts at traditional headbanging. Similarly, on paper, Rondo does everything you want a point guard to do—he sets the pace, feeds his teammates, and, given the opportunity, can score on his own. The thing is, he fulfills those duties by doing shit like this. Rondo makes passes that other floor generals don’t even see, while Coroner helped push thrash to a place no one else could.
Chris Paul is Exodus
Undeniably great, both Chris Paul and Exodus represent the idealized versions of their respective fields, but both are also victims of bad timing and screwy circumstances. Maybe if Kirk Hammett hadn’t bailed and Bonded By Blood had come out in 1983 instead of 1985, Exodus would be sitting on the thrash metal throne instead of Metallica. Maybe if former NBA Commissioner David Stern hadn’t quashed the trade that would have teamed Chris Paul up with Kobe Bryant on the Lakers in 2012, Paul would have made it past the second round in the playoffs by now.
Mike Conley is Overkill
Steady. Consistent. Reliable. Kind of boring if you’re not a real nerd about the nitty-gritty side of things. Determined to do their thing regardless of whether the world notices them or not. Overkill is the rare thrash act that kept powereing along in the years after the genre’s heyday without bending much to trends; even Slayer went nu-metal-ish for a minute there, but Overkill have pretty much sounded like Overkill for their entire career (for better or worse). Mike Conley feels similarly out of step with the times. He’s a pass-first point guard in a score-first league, and his Memphis Grizzlies feel like a relic next to the souped-up pace of the Golden State Warriors.
Kyle Lowry is Voivod
Both Lowry and Voivod got significantly better once they stopped fucking around and got their shit together. Ever since he lost weight before the 2015-2016 season, Lowry looks like a real deal, all-star caliber point guard, taking his game to another level after his potentially great 14-15 season was marred by injuries, Voivod were a godawful punk band until they wised up and started incorporating more prog and jazz influences into their songwriting. Also, Lowry plays for the Raptors, and Voivod are from Quebec, so there’s a loose Canadian connection here as well.
Kyrie Irving is Dark Angel
Playing outrageously fast in order to cram 246 riffs into 67 minutes does not make you a good thrash band if you can’t find a way to make those riffs congele into enjoyable songs. Likewise, being able to cross people into oblivion and score a fuckload of points is pretty damn impressive, but being a ball hog and a total pushover on defense make it hard to call Kyrie Irving a great point guard in the conventional sense. In both cases, the best things about both Dark Angel and Irving work much better in a different context. Dark Angel’s drummer Gene Hoglan went on to play with Chuck Schuldiner in Death and was involved in some of the best death metal ever made. Kyrie’s incredible scoring works much better when someone like LeBron James can takeover the actual ball handling duties.
Wait, does that mean that LeBron is the Schuldiner of the NBA? Christ, let’s not open up that can of worms.