by Tzvi Twersky | @ttwersky

Russell Westbrook photographed by Ahmed Klink | Blake Griffin photographed by Tom Medvedich

Months ago, when we first sat down in the office and began planning SLAM 166, a couple names came to mind as potential cover options. We discussed some of the usual star suspects, and we talked about some unlikely non-star candidates. Ultimately, with the knowledge that SLAM 166 would serve as our annual on-sale-around-All-Star-Weekend issue, we decided on the two guys you see on the covers above and below.

Blake and Russell. Griffin and Westbrook.

Odd cover pairing? Hardly.

Originally, we had the urge to get Griffin and Westbrook together in a room and interview and photograph them together for one cover. The cover line would have been something about them being “flight brothers” or “rising”—literally—“stars.” As time wore on though, aside from realizing the logistical nightmare this idea would pose (even with the help of Jordan Brand, who inked endorsement deals with both guys this past summer), we came to the conclusion that the pairing seemed too forced to be real. After all, highlight hops and Jordan aside, what do Blake Griffin and Russell Westbrook have in common?

As it turns out—though we ultimately shot two separate covers and wrote two separate stories—the answer is a lot.

There is the obvious. Both Blake Griffin, 23, and Russell Westbrook, 24, are, of course, in the 99th percentile of athleticism. When it comes to Griffin, L.A. Clippers guard Eric Bledsoe once told me that playing with the power forward is as easy as, “just throw it up at the rim and he goes and gets it.”

Kendrick Perkins, Westbrook’s OKC Thunder teammate, takes it to the same place when talking about his point guard. “He might be the most athletic player to ever play the point guard position,” Perkins told me. “And I’m not just talking about how high he can jump, I’m talking about how fast he is.”

On a little less of an obvious level, Griffin, who boasts averages of 18.4 ppg and 8.5 rpg, and Westbrook, who holds his own with 22.5 ppg and 8.4 apg, are known around the League as extremely hard workers.

“When nobody is guarding him, he goes through a drill as if two people are guarding him,” Jamal Crawford, lynchpin of the Clips bench, says of  Griffin. “It’s a little unbelievable seeing his drive. He wants to be great. He wants to go down in history as one of the greatest.”

As does Westbrook, of whom Coach Scott Brooks says, “I know why he’s one of the top players in the League: because he has a mindset to want to get better everyday. The greats have it, and they have the talent and the skill set along with that mindset, and that’s what separates the greats from the rest of the players.”

Maybe most importantly, at least to fans of the Clippers and Thunder, Griffin and Westbrook both place winning above everything else.

Griffin told me, when I was writing his first cover story two winters ago, that “I would give up every single one of those [highlight] plays for a win.”

More recently, Westbrook—whom I spent the better part of a day with in OKC; senior writer Nima Zarrabi did the same with Griffin in L.A.—says “winning is all that matters. Until we get some Championships around here, I won’t feel like I’ve done something.”

External ties be damned, because really, if you dive a little deeper, Blake and Russell are similar because they’re different—different from their peers, different from their perceptions, just plain different.

One of the biggest differences is the divide between their on – and off-court personas. For at least 82 games a season, Griffin is a big bully who sneers and jackhammers his way to the basket.

When he’s not wearing a jersey, though, as most people know by now, Griffin frequently flashes a dry sense of humor and is a pleasure to be around. “He enjoys life,” Blake’s father, Coach Tommy, once told me. “Let’s say that: He enjoys it.”

Westbrook, likewise, scowls and stares and does everything in his power to come off, as one person close with him termed it, like a villain while he’s on the court. That’s not really who he is, in case you were wondering.

“When you see him in community events and when he’s visiting hospitals and with the young fanbase, he’s the most charming, friendly, lovable player that you can ever be around,” says Coach Brooks. “But on the court—and I like it—he doesn’t like 29 other point guards. That’s how you compete in this League. You don’t have to disrespect them, but you don’t have to be friendly with them.”

Blake and Russell. Griffin and Westbrook.

For much more on what we learned in our time with them—as always, don’t get confused; this is a cover post and not a cover story—be sure to read both cover stories as they appear in the magazine.

While the issue centers around these two rising All-Stars, there is plenty more good content to go around. From James Harden and Nicolas Batum features, to an Austin Nichols story and Sam Jones Old School, to a Penny Hardaway interview and plenty more, SLAM 166 is worth the read.