Russell Westbrook is doing what no one thought would ever be possible this season.
Considering the way the game has evolved since Oscar Robertson laced them up, averaging a triple-double was supposed to be extinct. But despite playing in games consisting of roughly 25 less possessions a night, Westbrook is matching and essentially surpassing what the Big O became most famous for.
The triple-doubles are nice and on the surface level, do well to represent the insane value Westbrook brings to the Thunder. But it doesn’t tell the whole story, and doesn’t include his most valuable asset.
Whether it likes it or not, every NBA team ever, even the very best, are forced to take bad shots every night. And lots of them. Maybe there was a deflection, or a little misread, but with just 24 seconds to work with, it is impossible to guarantee every possession flawlessly works out. Some teams do it better than others more often — like the Spurs over the last decade. But inevitably, an important portion of measuring a team’s greatness comes down to what it can do when things don’t go right.
That’s why the Spurs aren’t always a lock in the postseason. When you play a seven-game series, after a game or two each side pretty well knows what to expect from the other. It comes down to those third and fourth options, or which team is better at making contested shots.
As far as the Thunder have been concerned over their existence, it’s why they’ve typically had a little edge over an opponent like the Spurs when healthy. Sure, San Antonio can look like a well-oiled machine over 82 games, but when that starts to stall out in a series and they had to match the individual talent of the Thunder, they usually couldn’t.
Point is, an important ingredient of any team capable of winning a title is how it can perform when things aren’t going well. Every team is going to have to try tough things. For the Thunder, Russell Westbrook is there to shoulder that burden more than any other player in the league.
There are lots of reasons why Westbrook doesn’t always play the most efficient basketball. Maybe he’s a control freak, maybe it’s really difficult to know that you shouldn’t try to overwhelm an opponent with your superior athleticism just because you can always get by that first defender.
It’s always felt like 90 percent of Westbrook was fantastic but that other 10 percent or so was what was troubling. Those pull-up jumpers in transition when no one is there to rebound, or the reckless heat-check threes when he’s probably not really feeling it. At the end of the day it’s made him look bad in a way that most stars don’t. It’s why he’s placed under the microscope more than other stars, because what he can improve seems so blatant and simple.
Westbrook taking on the burden of shooting every bad shot, or being there to try and create something out of nothing when the offense bogs down, allows his teammates to not worry about that. Literally at all. And that, in itself, is something that has allowed guys like Enes Kanter and Steven Adams to blossom, and even for Kevin Durant to become the efficient scorer he was for so many years in OKC.
Westbrook is trying to do more than any player ever, so his teammates don’t have to. And it doesn’t affect Westbrook, like it might someone else. He came into last night’s game against the Kings hitting two of his last 24 threes. But he’s still able to show up and go 4-of-5 from three to cripple any chances of a Kings win. Not many players in this league would be willing to play that way.
No one is asked to do more than they should for the Thunder than Westbrook. And Westbrook likes it that way, and his teammates appreciate him for it. It’s almost a kind of noble gesture by Russ.
There’s plenty of room to debate whether or not this makes for winning basketball. The Thunder seem to be exceeding most expectations this season with Russ playing this way, and they were always right there in the title hunt the past few seasons. Any team can improve and the Thunder could probably be successful in another way too, but this hasn’t exactly not been working.
So when you watch Westbrook tonight vs. the Clippers or any time in the future, it will be impossible to miss the stat line and the triple-doubles he inevitably continues to rack up. But look beyond those numbers when assessing the value he brings to the team. Look how comfortable every teammate is in his role, no one else trying to do too much. That’s just Russ’ job and there isn’t anyone else in the history of this league who played that role better.