Russell Westbrook’s Historic Production Shouldn’t Be Taken for Granted
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press

Few players from this era of NBA basketball have been as polarizing as Russell Westbrook. And the Washington Wizards’ 120-91 loss to the Detroit Pistons on Thursday is a good illustration of why.

Westbrook had 16 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds, and his Wizards were steamrolled by 29 points. And that came courtesy of a 14-34 team.

Washington’s point guard leads the league in triple-doubles, and the team is now 8-10 in those games.

The scoring efficiency (or lack thereof) is the easiest culprit to find. His effective field-goal percentage is almost seven points shy of the league average. On Thursday, he needed 16 shots to get his 16 points, and he went 1-of-6 from the free-throw line.

To overcome that many misses, Westbrook has to be surrounded by loads of shooting. This season, he hasn’t been. Wizards not named Russ have combined for an effective field-goal percentage within a tenth of a point of the league average.

That’s not to blame Washington’s struggles on everyone else, of course. Westbrook hitting a few more shots would certainly help. But over the last two seasons, conversation surrounding the 2016-17 MVP has started to sound eerily similar to what has followed Ben Simmons throughout his career.

More and more, we hear about everything that’s wrong or missing with his game, while all the things he does well are pretty much ignored.

It may not be fair to single out ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith. He’s far from the only one to point out Westbrook’s flaws, and he’s paid to share his opinions, but his comments following an unprecedented 35-point, 21-assist, 14-rebound performance from Westbrook sparked controversy:

Stephen A Smith @stephenasmith

Utmost respect to Russell Westbrook, but last night’s numbers mean absolutely nothing to me. https://t.co/FRaanNyHpn

Westbrook responded later that day.

“…but one thing I won’t allow to happen anymore is to let people create narratives and constantly just talking s–t for no reason about me, because I lay it on the line every night,” he told reporters. “There’s no other player that kinda takes the heat that I take constantly.”

Fred Katz @FredKatz

Russell Westbrook gave a 2-and-a-half minute answer in response to a question about @stephenasmith’s comments on First Take: “A championship don’t change my life. I’m happy. I was a champion once I made it to the NBA. I grew up in the streets. I’m a champion.”

Full quote here: https://t.co/wcceIzqQlg

Following Thursday’s triple-double, he’s averaging 21.7 points, 10.7 assists and 10.3 rebounds. He’s 32 years old and on track to average a triple-double for the fourth time in five years. Can you imagine traveling back in time 10 years and telling an NBA fan that would happen?

Once upon a (pretty recent) time, Oscar Robertson’s triple-double season was one of those historical sports benchmarks that would never be touched. Like John Stockton’s assist record or Cal Ripken Jr.’s consecutive games streak, the thought of anyone averaging a triple-double for an entire season seemed ludicrous.

Then suddenly, Westbrook did it. Then he did it again. And again. And now he’s doing it for the fourth time.

And to act as though he’s always hunted numbers at the expense of team success isn’t a fair (or accurate) representation. Over the three straight triple-double seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, his team was plus-5.1 points per 100 possessions when Westbrook played and minus-5.2 when he didn’t.

In the MVP season alone, Westbrook swung his team’s net rating 13.4 points, a mark that ranked in the 97th percentile leaguewide.

Plenty will point to catastrophic shooting performances in the playoffs, or the fact that his teams have been better with him off the floor in each of the last two seasons. This isn’t an effort to litigate what people are and aren’t allowed to say about professional athletes. And when certain points are repeatedly made by countless people, it’s often because they’re abundantly obvious.

But Westbrook isn’t the first all-time great to age. If he finishes his career without a championship, he won’t be the first all-time great without that team accomplishment. But there should be no question that he is indeed an all-time great.

He’s currently 27th in NBA history in career box plus/minus (that rank may slide as he ages). Hakeem Olajuwon is 28th, Kobe Bryant is 30th and Jason Kidd is 38th. No one’s making their definitive all-time list based solely on one catch-all metric, but it’s at least something to note.

The cumulative version of that stat (think points rather than points per game) is value over replacement player. Westbrook’s 31st there, with plenty of time to move up. He’s already passed Patrick Ewing, Allen Iverson and Steve Nash, just to name a few Hall of Famers.

Again, that isn’t to say Westbrook has had a greater career than any of those players. Just file it away under “something to consider.”

Whether he wins a championship or not, Westbrook’s on-court legacy may go down as one of the most difficult to analyze, but it’s hard to argue with his self-assessment on a number of fronts.

Good luck finding a game in which it looks like Westbrook is loafing. Night in and night out, possession after possession, he gives what appears to be his all. Would you rather have that and the resulting mistakes, or a star who doesn’t care?

“I’m happy,” he said. “I was a champion once I made it to the NBA. I grew up in the streets. I’m a champion.”

Westbrook won’t allow himself to be defined by our assessments, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t include the entire stat-stuffed picture.

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