Westbrook breaks triple-double record to cement case for MVP
In a season filled with otherworldly performances, two former teammates rose atop the pack in the NBA. James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder were statistical anomalies, defying expectations of what can be done in the modern era of basketball.
While Harden, under new coach Mike D’Antoni, was the maestro of one of the most devastating offenses of all time, Westbrook ravaged the league with Tasmanian Devil-like ferocity, keeping his team afloat after losing an MVP-caliber player and rewriting the history books.
When Kevin Durant missed 55 games in 2014-15, the world got a glimpse of Westbrook’s triple-double prowess, averaging 31.4 points, 9.9 assists and 8.6 rebounds per game after the All-Star break. The moment Durant announced his decision to join the Golden State Warriors, NBA fans salivated over the prospects of an unhinged, scornful Westbrook. It is unfair to simply call him an amazing athlete—his acceleration, dexterity, durability and intensity make him more cyborg than human. Westbrook plays at full throttle no matter the opponent, even after undergoing three knee surgeries in 2013. His effort, plus the drama that ensued following Durant’s departure, made his storyline even more enticing for fans. Westbrook rewarded viewers with jaw-dropping box scores on a nightly basis.
Westbrook averaged 31.6 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds, becoming the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson’s 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds in 1961-62. He recorded 42 triple-doubles this season, breaking the “Big O’s” record by one. What makes Westbrook’s feat more impressive is that he has played nearly 10 minutes fewer per game than Robertson. Westbrook conjured such a ridiculous comeback on the road against the Orlando Magic—57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists—that the opposing fans showered him with MVP chants. His record-breaking 41.8 percent usage rate is indicative of how dependent the team is on its dynamic point guard to finish possessions.
Westbrook’s supporting cast needed every bit of his production. The Oklahoma City Thunder are worst in the NBA at a 3-point efficiency. Though none of his teammates are multi-faceted stars, each directly contribute to his prolific output. Steven Adams and trade-deadline acquisition Taj Gibson box out defenders to clear room for Westbrook to pogostick for rebounds in the painted area. The Thunder did not just cater to Westbrook’s perceived stat-padding, the team tactically designed its offense around Westbrook’s unique skillset. He is a one-man wrecking crew who throws down dunks as if the rim disrespected his family. Starting the possession with the ball in Westbrook’s hands allows his cybernetic brain to process dozens of scenarios and choose the optimal decision, all while galloping 80 feet in three seconds. The triple-doubles are remarkable, but Westbrook’s infinite motor and sheer volume of production is what makes him a heavy favorite for the league’s MVP.
Those who advocate for a Harden MVP over Westbrook reference the Rockets’ 55-win total to the Thunder’s 47, along with his greater efficiency during more minutes and still similar mind-boggling averages—Harden’s 29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds per game and 22 triple-doubles also invoked Big O comparisons.
Still, one glaring difference is the dismal shooting of the Thunder in stark contrast to the Rockets’ proficiency from beyond the arc. Harden’s teammates shot 38.3 percent on wide-open 3-point attempts while Westbrook’s shot 30.9 percent, nearly five percentage points below league average. The Rockets’ Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley are proven defensive stalwarts, and adding Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon in the offseason bolstered the Rockets’ already indomitable 3-point barrage.
Prior to last year’s lethargic 41-win season, the Rockets won 56 games and competed in the Western Conference Finals in 2015. Though expectations were lowered entering this season, the Rockets merely returned to their previous excellence. Similarly, the Thunder maintained a competitive edge while losing one the five best players in the NBA all thanks to Westbrook.
If win totals and overall team success was the be-all and end-all of the MVP discussion, then Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard would be the top contenders. Adding Durant to a 73-win team and Curry’s regression from his celestial heights of 2016 stunted any chance of a three-peat. Leonard will once again contend for Defensive Player of the Year, as he carried an aging roster to 61 wins, but he is perceived to be a cog in coach Gregg Popovich’s system. Leonard’s subdued attitude and ordinary production relative to Harden and Westbrook does not make him an appealing candidate to voters.
In the 2016 Finals, James’ total dominance across the final three games of the series was a defiant reminder to the league of his greatness. Westbrook replicated that dominance for an entire season as the only All-Star on his roster. He was an unstoppable vortex that kept defenders constantly on edge.