There were many exciting storylines leading into this season. Would the new look Warriors, with Kevin Durant aboard, become the best offensive team ever? What would James Harden’s stats look like playing point guard under Mike D’Antoni? Can the Cavaliers save the NBA from the apparent reign of terror of the superteam in Golden State? And lastly, with KD leaving, can Russell Westbrook average a triple double for the season? A feat that hasn’t been completed since the 1961-62 season by Oscar Robertson. The Warriors so far do appear to be on pace to have the best OffRtg in at least two decades, currently posting an OffRtg of 114.6, and over 119 during their current 12 game winning streak. And yet this was reasonably expected. What has been the better storyline thus far is the incredible play of Oklahoma City Thunder star guard Russell Westbrook. Coming into his game Wednesday against Washington, he is averaging 30.9 points, 11.3 assists, and 10. 3 rebounds.
While the Golden State Warriors may be the “Hamilton” of the NBA, sporting a season ticket waiting list of over 20,000 people and sky-high ticket prices, Russell Westbrook has been like a fantastic new Cirque du Soleil show. He’s acrobatic, always in motion, jaw-dropping, and making the usual routine plays otherworldly. Sure some of his plays are boneheaded or chaotic, but it’s shown early in the season that every one of his choices is for the betterment of OKC. 19 games into the season he has eight triple doubles, tied LeBron James for 6th most triple doubles in a career, and has the Thunder sitting at 11-8, good for 6th in the Western Conference. There will continue to be debates about whether Westbrook can sustain this level of play, or even wants to, but the fact that the performances are leading to wins only backs up the belief that Westbrook should play at this level as long as possible.
While it can be easy to dismiss a 6’3″ guard averaging over 10 rebounds as him chasing stats, watching highlights can quickly change your mindset. In the clip below, Westbrook comes from out of bounds to sky above Derrick Rose and Willy Hernangomez, a 6’11” rookie from Spain, who is averaging 11.6 rebounds per 36 minutes. Westbrook not only steals an easy rebound from the Knicks, but he also passed the ball to a teammate, which eventually led to 2 second chance points from Steven Adams.
There’s a difference between helping your team in these three facets of the game towards a win, and chasing triple doubles to the detriment of your team and the sanctity of the game as Javale McGee, Ricky Davis, and Andray Blatche (worst offender) can attest.
People have long postured that Westbrook can’t average a triple double for a season, because of the toll it will take on his body, and more generally the fact that it hasn’t been done since the 1961-62 season, when Oscar Robertson led a Cincinnati Royals team that averaged 124.9 possessions per game. Compare that to this year’s Thunder team that averages 98.7 possessions per game and it’s easy to see the extreme production that he’s producing on the floor. The most ridiculous stat is that Westbrook is posting a usage rate of 40.7%. Kobe Bryant has the highest usage rate ever for a qualifying player at 38.7% in 2005-2006. If the early narratives continue, the MVP race will be one of the most exciting and closely contested in recent memory. Westbrook’s old running mate, KD, is shooting 57% from the field, and 44% from three on the team with the best record in the league. LeBron is almost averaging a triple double himself. Meanwhile, Chris Paul has led his team to a hot start, and James Harden is looking to join Westbrook as the only players since Karl Malone to average 30 points and 10 assists or rebounds per game.
In the end, Westbrook and his teammates could care less about the triple doubles. Westbrook loves the team’s record in games he has a triple double, now 39-6, and head coach Billy Donovan has specifically game planned to help Westbrook rack up rebounds by having the bigs box out and allow Westbrook to scoop up “uncontested” rebounds. With Westbrook rebounding, he can then quickly lead the fastbreak, routinely leading to two points or an assist for him. Currently, OKC is third in the league in fastbreak points per game (17.5), while Russ leads all players in that statistic, 0.5 points ahead of John Wall.
Tonight, Wall and the Wizards visit Westbrook and the Thunder in Oklahoma City, in a matchup of two of the fastest and most athletic guards in the league, but also the return of Wizards’ coach Scott Brooks. Brooks is returning to OKC for the first time since his firing on April 22, 2015 after the only season the team didn’t make the playoffs in his seven full seasons as head coach. Oklahoma City is vastly different from the team he coached two seasons ago, with the departures of KD, Serge Ibaka, Dion Waiters, Kendrick Perkins, and Jerry Lamb among others. Still, Brooks knows his number one goal will be to keep the ball out of Westbrook’s hands and make him and the whole offense as uncomfortable as possible. OKC has scored 132, 106, and 112 in its last three games, all wins, and all triple doubles from Westbrook. The Wizards rank below average in rebounding, and start a power forward averaging less than six rebounds per game, so expect Westbrook to put up gaudy stats again, coming off an 18 rebound game in New York on Monday.
The season is almost 25% over and his numbers and team wins are rising steadily. Until Golden State reaches the halfway mark of this season at a better or similar record as last year’s team, and we debate the chances of 74 wins, the best debate will be if Westbrook can do the seemingly impossible and average a triple double for the season, while still getting his Thunder team to the playoffs. In the end, we can debate all we want, but if Westbrook wants to average a triple double for the season, he can, because as he said, “Now I Do What I Want.”