Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks did Russell Westbrook a disservice.
"I used to always say he's going to probably go down as the third-best point guard ever, but I think he's passed one and he's going to go down as probably the second-best," Brooks told reporters last week, ranking the point guard he has coached for eight seasons behind only Magic Johnson, according to NBC Sports' Chase Hughes. "What he does, there's no point guard that has ever done it. Nobody. Nobody."
That exaggeration belies Westbrook's greatness, painting a growing legend as a caricature. Westbrook is not even the second-best point guard of his generation, so the topic becomes another distraction from a Hall of Fame career, just as debating the relevance of triple-doubles overshadows the record he just set.
Everything in the public discourse about Westbrook's career comes with a but.
He has more triple-doubles than anyone, but ... triple-doubles are arbitrary statistics.
He has two scoring titles, but ... he can't shoot.
He is working on a third assist crown, but ... he is about to lead the league in turnovers for a fourth time.
He has more rebounds than any point guard ever not named Jason Kidd, but ... he's a stat-hunter.
He has never missed the playoffs, but ... he also hasn't won a title.
He tries his ass off, but ... he plays out of control.
And the biggest but of them all: He was the 2016-17 MVP, but ... James Harden should've won. Or Kawhi Leonard. Or LeBron James. Anyone but Westbrook. To which I say you are not seeing him in the right light. Basketball is an art form, Westbrook paints with broad strokes, and 2016-17 was a virtuoso's masterpiece.
Absent from most analyses of Westbrook's game is the fact he plays harder than anyone, an immeasurable characteristic that is every bit as impactful as his extremely measurable triple-double statistics, if not more.
Westbrook's work ethic wears off on his teammates, and, yes, sometimes it wears on them, but raising the level of effort on a team is no small contribution. It saved the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016. History has been unkind to small markets that lose a player of Kevin Durant's caliber to a trade or free agency. It is far too easy to throw in the towel when a superstar's exit lowers a team's ceiling below bona fide contender.
Go back and look at that roster. Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Jerami Grant were nowhere near the players they became. Oladipo was a disappointment at the time who credited his later success to a bodytransformation in the summer of 2017 and a relentlessness he learned from Westbrook. Sabonis was then a rookie and Grant a 22-year-old project. They averaged a combined 11.3 points per game that year.
Billy Donovan was the coach. He played Andre Roberson, Anthony Morrow, Alex Abrines and Semaj Christon more than 5,000 minutes on the wing. Roberson played 30 minutes a night and shot 24.5% from distance. Morrow and Christon never played in the NBA again. Abrines made it another season and a half.
Donovan was so desperate to fill minutes around Westbrook he played Steven Adams and Enes Kanter together in 63 of their 82 games — the sort of spaceless dual-big lineup that no longer exists four years later. A February deal for Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott was considered a godsend for a wayward roster.
It is no wonder the Thunder were outscored by 9.5 points per 100 possessions whenever Westbrook rested in 2016-17 (roughly the equivalent of this year's tanking Oklahoma City team). With him on the floor, they outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions (akin to this year's Brooklyn Nets). Westbrook's on/off rating of +13.4 that season was more than twice that of Leonard (+3.3) and Harden (+2.8) combined.
It is comparable to reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo's +13.5 on/off rating for the Milwaukee Bucks last season. The Denver Nuggets are 4.7 points per 100 possessions better with MVP favorite Nikola Jokic on the floor this season. They are operating at a 53-win pace with a wealth more talent around Jokic.
Nobody scored more points in the clutch (within five points in the final five minutes) than Westbrook's 247 in 2016-17, and only four players had more assists. OKC was 25-15 in those games. No other player has scored more than 200 clutch points in a season since James' 208 for the 61-win Cleveland Cavaliers in 2009-10. This is the long way of saying that the Thunder had no business winning 47 games in the West.
None of that captures what Westbrook meant to that season. He was the hero who cast Durant the villain, a model of loyalty in opposition to the worst of the player movement era. Westbrook channeled the anger of an entire city, and his triple-double chase was a revelation, capped by a 50-point, 16-rebound, 10-assist outing in which he drilled a game-winning 3-pointer to eliminate the Denver Nuggets from the playoffs.
The list of players who have done more with less is not long and mostly includes MVPs. Yet, there are multiple prominent NBA voices who believe history has proven right their picks against Westbrook in 2017.
It is not unlike the campaign to devalue triple-doubles. I get it. Achieving double figures in three statistical categories may be no more impactful than a higher-scoring night that falls one rebound shy of 10. Except, Westbrook led the league in scoring the first year he averaged a triple-double. If teammates gifted him a few extra rebounds, so be it. What difference does it make if you consider 10 an arbitrary number anyway?
Triple-doubles are normalized because Westbrook normalized them. They are not normal. Averaging a triple-double for a season is not normal. Oscar Robertson was not normal. If Dallas Mavericks sensation Luka Doncic ever averages a triple-double while winning a scoring title, it sure as hell will not be normal.
Westbrook may not be the second-best point guard ever. He may not even be in the top 10, but he is one of a kind. Only other legends stand between him and Magic, and none of them has done what he just did.
Westbrook is up to 11.6 rebounds and 11.6 assists per game. He has room to spare. These are not empty statistics. This is outworking everyone and being freaking awesome at basketball. His effort over the past three months has salvaged the season for a Wizards team that would have caved long ago without him.
As Westbrook said in April, when he broke Wilt Chamberlain's record for triple-doubles in a month, "I don’t care what anybody thinks of this whatever they want to call it ‘stat-padding’ or ‘not useful.’ I think it’s very interesting that it’s not useful when I’m doing it. It wasn’t useful when Magic and Oscar and those guys were doing it. Now that I do it and it looks easy, this s— ain’t easy, though. I’ll tell you that. It ain’t easy."
That Westbrook is defined by an effort to rationalize his statistics is kind of perfect, because nobody has played so irrationally outside the box as Westbrook, and the result is nothing short of a legendary career.
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