Photo via Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images
“What he has done has been historic in nature,” NBA legend Oscar Robertson told a crowd before the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season finale about guard Russell Westbrook. “He’s played with passion and pride and it’s really outstanding what he has done and the way he did it.”
Back in the 1961-62 season, Robertson became the first player to average a triple-double with 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists. Outside of center Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game, Robertson’s season was fabled in basketball lore as the NBA’s most untouchable record.
Flash forward 55 years. Mr. Triple-Double has been reincarnated, now only bigger, faster, and stronger. Get to appreciate Westbrook. He is not only the NBA’s MVP, but he is history writing itself.
One can easily start with his impressive stat line: 31.6 points per game, 10.4 assists per game and 10.7 rebounds per game.
In the modern game of basketball, where the superstars aren’t as elevated from the rest of the league’s players by leaps and bounds, Westbrook did the unimaginable. He made breaking Robertson’s single season triple-double record of 41 look routine.
When another NBA player gets a triple-double, it’s a headline. When Russ does, it is expected.
And don’t forget the backdrop in which Russ is dominating competition night in night out. Given no elite teammates, going against elite defense, and competing in one of the strongest Western Conference seasons in league history, Westbrook gets it done with scary efficiency.
Westbrook is averaging a triple-double while only averaging 35 minutes per night. Back when The Big O did it in ’62, he averaged over 10 more minutes per game. Over the course of an entire season, that’s hundreds of fewer minutes Westbrook needed to put up similar numbers.
Although Westbrook’s true shooting percentage of .555 and field goal percentage of .476 is not great, it is expected when his team relies on him to have the ball in his hands every possession and generate most of their offense.
Despite Russell’s success, analysts have continued to discredit his season as too good to be true. Many present Houston Rocket’s star guard James Harden (29.1 PPG, 11.2 APG, 8.1 RPG) as an alternative MVP.
“It is clearly a very close race between Westbrook and Harden,” said Vassar basketball player Tony Caletti. “I don’t think either of those are a wrong answer but I’d lean towards Harden over Westbrook, even though I think Westbrook will win it. Harden has elevated the level of play of his teammates, beyond just his gaudy assist totals, and has helped rehabilitate the careers of aging journeymen while shattering preseason expectations. These rockets missed the playoffs last year and lost Dwight Howard, replacing him with injury prone players who had never reached their potential.”
Even though Harden’s successful season should not go unnoticed, and in another year he would be a sure-fire MVP, Westbrook has just been that more impressive.
Although Westbrook’s ball dominance has resulted in his teammate’s usage rates decreasing, he has also been able to elevate the play of those around him. Give it the eye test, and you’ll come to appreciate just how great of passer Westbrook really is.
This season he has become a guy who always makes the right reads, always picking the right spots to pull up, drive, or pass it off. Russ has been able to dump the ball off under the basket for big men Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, resulting in wide open dunks and easy finishes. It’s no surprise that Kanter and Adams are both shooting almost 60 percent from the field.
Others knock Westbrook for his team’s record. Oklahoma City finished 47-35 this regular season, only resulting in a six seed in the western conference.
“I thought winning was what this is about,” James Harden said about the MVP race. “I’m not going to get into depths, but I thought winning is the most important thing.”
Arguments like these gravely underestimate the success Oklahoma City has had this season. In the most talented conference in league history, Westbrook has almost single-handily willed the Thunder to a playoff berth with only a handful of wins less than the Rockets.
In addition, Westbrook has done it without Golden State Warriors star forward Kevin Durant, and with arguably less talent around him than Harden is working with. As far as overall value that Westbrook adds to a team, no one else comes close this season.
All this is not bad for the kid from Long Beach, Calif. who not too long ago didn’t even make his high school varsity team until his junior year.
Sounds eerily reminiscent of that guy who used to play for Chicago.