(Editor’s Note: I have been writing this for nearly two months, adding and revising tidbits each time I thought about Russell Westbrook’s 2016-17 season. I hope you enjoy.)
32 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists; achieved in what amounts to less than three quarters of game time.
This NBA season has been filled with immaculate individual performances. The game’s brightest stars illuminated with even more intensity and formed a constellation of productive greatness.
But only one player averaged 32 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists.
While LeBron James is the Association’s Polaris, Russell Westbrook is a star in The Big Dipper that rebelled against formation and chose to be a comet moving in fast forward, parading as a nightly spectacle. He forced his way into changing a lot of the perception about him. If LeBron is The Hero We Don’t Deserve, Russ is The Hero We Can’t Define; therefore some of us have labeled him a metahuman who stubbornly refuses to harness his gifts.
This time last season, Westbrook was the player purists despised. Pitted next to such a pure, quiet basketball savant like Kevin Durant, Westbrook is unstable at best and destructive at worst. The ball, the object which everything is centered, needed to be taken out of his hands more – because Westbrook is incapable of properly using it. It has reached the extent that some pundits clamored he must be a shooting guard, and Oklahoma City needs to put a “pure” point guard next to him in the backcourt.
Then, Durant departed from the Thunder for sunnier days by The Bay. Russ now has more open arms waiting to embrace him and his broken heart. We expected him to react with the scorned fervor of a jilted lover, taking his anger out – at least, for a portion of the season – on the rim and opposing defenders. I can recall scores of tweets flirting with the idea of Westbrook averaging a triple-double. So we believed this was jokingly possible, though improbable.
And it happened. Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double for an entire season. It was not, no disrespect, composed in the key of Jason Kidd. 32 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, while playing less than three quarters. In the name of all that is roundball, that is something we did not believe could be sustained. Even I doubted if he could amass enough rebounds.
Westbrook’s season statistics make up an amazing tale. His lore grows even more mystifying when you factor in how much energy he expended this season. Take into account the turnovers, the reckless forays to the basket, the myriad of shooting attempts with a form that includes him leaping nearly a foot into the air to shoot. Add in the scrambles for loose balls, going baseline to baseline in five dribbles and nuclear explosion to the rim. Combine all that I’ve just stated with the fact he averaged 32 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists per game in less than three quarters. Russell Westbrook, in 2016-17, had so much energy that he could be spectacular, terrible and spectacularly terrible – and play in every game except one.
Let’s go even further into that energy. Russell Westbrook is surly, particularly with the media. He has no time for people or questions that are mired in tomfoolery. Let’s juxtapose Russ’s overt annoyance with pretty much anything with the fact that he never screamed on his teammates, even as it grew more apparent they cannot be a winning function without him.
The most overlooked part of Russ’s season is that he is the oldest player in OKC’s main rotation. Nick Collison does not play often, but only he is older than Westbrook. That is why he did not verbally berate his teammates. And that is why they are lovingly loyal to him – save for that moment with Zaza Pachulia – and allow him to be Russ. They know he must figure it out for them, and he knows he must be their sword and shield.
Russell Westbrook is not basketball blasphemy. He is not a stubborn heretic whose turnovers are the result of inefficient sinning. Russell Westbrook is the purest form of Scripture. He is the unfiltered doctrine that would never beg to be accepted. He is amazingly flawed and invaluable, even as he is named Most Valuable.
Most Valuable. These are the two words which make the award distinguishable from other awards and distinguishes the player from his peers. They are also the two words whose definition in every hoop lover’s inner dictionary varies like snowflakes. For some, a great individual season must coincide with vaulting one’s team into serious title contention as the previous 30-plus winners of MVP have been on teams in the top three of their respective conference. For others, there must be a great individual season by a player whose team far exceeds projected win percentage. Most Valuable is simple formula of these two ideals, with different numbers plugged in each year.
On the surface, Westbrook had tons of individual success despite his team never being a championship contender. Deeper, even deeper than the fact 34 of his 43 triple-doubles occurred in a Thunder win, lies the fact that a perceived team’s chance of winning the title is not as big a factor as much as people believe. If title contention mattered more, LeBron James would have never stopped winning the award. So if we dwindle the portion in which title contention matters, who had the greatest individual season?
Purists will say Russ shoots too much. They will say he hunts stats to further highlight how alone he truly is. Purists will say he hurts his team more than supporters are willing to admit. But here’s the thing purists refuse to admit: their scope of that game is so narrow that they cannot accept that greatness exists outside of tropes. If haters will say “it’s Photoshop”, they will say Russ isn’t that special.
Reminder: that would be said about a man whose sheer will to win resulted in 32 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists per game in less than 3 quarters for a 47-win team.
Poemer. 8-time Hug Champion. Pick&Roll Enthusiast. Guardian of Logic and Tact. Apocalypse’s good Brother. Collector of muted souls for Mt. Filtermanjaro.