No one in the current NBA seems to split opinion more than Russell Westbrook. He is marvelled in some corners as the master of the triple double, a feat he has seemingly trivialised, whilst some others view him as nothing but a glorified stat chaser, stealing rebounds from his big men to pad his stats. So which is it? Revolutionary point guard or a selfish glory hunter?
Russell Westbrook initially became the modern day Mr. Triple Double in 2016/17, the first year after Kevin Durant made the switch to Golden State. Hell bent, it seemed, on making up for Durant’s exit all by himself, Westbrook averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists on his way to averaging a triple double for an entire season for the first time since Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62. Westbrook was historic that season in more ways than one, his 41.65% usage rate was the highest in NBA history (usage rate is an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor). However, it all seemed to be for the best as Westbrook dragged OKC into the playoffs despite them never replacing the second best player in basketball; and the team’s second and third highest paid players being Enes Kanter and Taj Gibson respectively. That season saw Westbrook take home the Maurice Podoff trophy for the Most Valuable Player in basketball.
Source: Time Magazine
The advanced stats backed up what the raw totals were telling us as Westbrook finished in the top 5 for win shares (an estimate in the number of wins added by a player); and first in both Box Plus Minus (the estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed over an average player) as well as VORP (value over replacement player). It was a marvel of a season and Westbrook’s almost unofficial theme song, the Lil Uzi Vert hit “Do What I Want” seemed perfectly tailored for this Westbrook, at this time of his life. The crowning moment of what was an unforgettable season came in the waning moments of the regular season. With OKC fighting for a playoff position and down big at Denver, the very best of Russell Westbrook was on show. He fired a pass to Semaj Christon in the corner to break the record for most triple doubles in an NBA season with 42 and then took over. With 2.9 seconds left and down by 2, Westbrook received the ball from Adams after being unable to free himself from the initial coverage. He pulled up from 35ft and what was a defining image from a historic season was captured. 106-105 OKC and Westbrook’s final stat line read, astonishingly, 50 points, 10 assists, 16 rebounds and, most importantly, the win. You can see the looks of despair on the nugget fans at court side.
Source: New York Daily News
But then the playoffs started. OKC were dispatched 4-1 in a first round loss to the Houston rockets and James Harden, Westbrook’s closest rival to the MVP during that season. Westbrook averaged 37.4 points a game across the 5 games but shot 38%, averaging an astonishing 30.4 shots a game. Extrapolated across a full season, this would be 2,492 shots attempted in a season, the third highest after 2 Wilt Chamberlain seasons in which he averaged 50.4 and 44.8 points per game, before the introduction of the 3 point line. After Westbrook, the next highest scorer was Andre Roberson at 11.4 points a game despite being one of the worst shooters for a perimeter player in NBA history.
After that exit, talk began to spread about how efficient Westbrook’s style of play was. Talks only intensified when Sam Presti swung a trade that sent pending free agent Pal George to OKC and Victor Oladipo and Domantos Sabonis the other way to Indiana. Both immediately blossomed as Oladipo was a first time all star and won that years most improved player. Soon the narrative around Westbrook’s season had changed and a lot of fans and media members came out against Westbrook winning the MVP trophy over James Harden. Team success was critical and Westbrook was the lowest seeded MVP to win a trophy in modern history but, with the arrival of Paul George and later Carmelo Anthony, there was an opportunity to change the narrative.
Source: Washington Post
Hanging over the franchises head was also Paul George’s impending free agency. He had made it common knowledge he intended to sign with the Lakers and so OKC trading for him was a gamble as he could leave at the end of the season. That, coupled with the improved play of Oladipo and Sabonis, put a lot of pressure on Westbrook’s shoulders as factions of the media began speculating that perhaps he wasn’t the most fun player to play with. Come the end of the season, the Thunder had finished 4th in the West with a disappointing record of 48-34 despite Westbrook averaging a triple double for the 2nd straight season. However, it had a home playoff series against the Utah Jazz, a team led by rookie sensation Donovan Mitchell. By this point, the entire referendum on Westbrook’s style of play seemed to come to be decided in the playoffs. As good as his rookie season was, it was expected that a playoff series would be too much for Mitchell, and OKC’s trio of George, Westbrook and Melo would be too much to overcome, despite Melo’s season long struggles. What happened was something very different.
The lasting image of the series was a jubilant Jazz team celebrating a win in game 6 on their home court after Paul George had scored 6 points on 3-15 shooting and Westbrook had taken 48 shots to score 40 points. At this point, the jury was well and truly out on Westbrook’s style of play and the consensus seemed to shift from a piece of basketball genius to a results of focused stat chasing.
The 18/19 season has provided some breathing room for Westbrook. Despite shooting 42.3% from the field and 26.8% from 3 point range, OKC have a record of 38-21, on course to win 50+ games for the first time since Kevin Durant left. There is a myriad of reasons for this. OKC has it’s most balances roster post Durant, finally finding a 2 guard that can shoot and defend effectively, options they’ve had to choose between for the last 5 seasons. Steven Adams is blossoming as well as Jerami Grant and the addition of Dennis Schroeder and Nerlens Noel have given the Thunder the best bench it has had in recent history.
The exit of Carmelo Anthony also cannot be downplayed as he never seemed to fit with the roster. But the most important reason for OKC’s success is Paul George’s MVP level of play. Despite fears around the organisation that a first round exit might not be enough to keep George around, he chose to re-up with OKC and not just by signing one year deals to re-enter free agency. He committed for at least 3 years, a big chunk of his prime and has publicly praised Westbrook as being a major reason why. And we can see it in the way he’s played. For the first time since Kevin Durant left, Westbrook is not averaging the most shots a game, conceding 1 more shot to Paul George.
His usage rate has dropped to 30%, the lowest since his second ever season. And yet, despite this, Westbrook is still averaging a triple double for the third straight season, as well as leading the league in assists. Westbrook has identified his poor shooting and has adjusted his game, a skill he was much maligned for seemingly not possessing. He is affecting the game in other ways and this season is perhaps the clearest identification of the success Westbrook can bring to a team, even when he’s not scoring. Averaging his 5th lowest points per game, Westbrook is making up for it by averaging career highs in rebounding and assists and this has led to the best Thunder season since Kevin Durant took his talents to the Bay.
Westbrook is sacrificing his hold on the game whilst still putting up outrageous numbers. This season is all the evidence needed that Russell Westbrook’s triple double average is for the help of the team, but this perhaps should never have been doubted. The thunder have won 82% of games that Westbrook has averaged a triple double, the equivalent of a 67-15 record over a full 82 game season. The advantages are clear including, but not limited to, the ability for Westbrook to allow OKC to get into its fast break offense so much quicker. For a team that struggles in the half court as much as OKC, the extra seconds saved by Westbrook grabbing the rebound himself compared to a center or forward grabbing it and out letting to Westbrook, is crucial.
It has become almost fashionable to scoff at the impressiveness of Westbrook’s triple double escapades and to question how much it is actually helping the team. In an era that will surely be remember by the Warriors and their free flowing brand of basketball, some are jarred by the one man wrecking crew, do it all mentality of Westbrook. But evidence shows it works. For large periods of time OKC needed one man to hoist the team on their shoulders and drag them to the playoffs. Westbrook has been unfairly criticised for his teams lack of performance in the playoffs but perhaps we have all been looking at it the wrong way. Rather than wonder if OKC could’ve gotten further if Westbrook played any differently, surely the question should be, would they have made it that far if he had?
By Kingsley Mayuku