Russell Westbrook is Proving that He is the NBA's Best GuardThere have not been many players who, by consensus, reigned as the NBA's best all-around guard. Oscar Robertson and Jerry West fought for the crown in the 1960s and early 1970s. Magic Johnson controlled the top spot for most of the 1980s. Michael Jordan at the very least challenged Johnson in the late 1980s and then Jordan took over in the 1990s. After Jordan retired, several players (including Jason Kidd and Tracy McGrady) vied for the title before Kobe Bryant emerged as the standard bearer. Bryant's career is winding down and during each of the past two seasons injuries have kept him off of the court for substantial periods of time and reduced his dominance when he was healthy enough to play.
Late last season, I suggested that Russell Westbrook is "poised" to inherit Bryant's spot. It is becoming increasingly evident that Westbrook is in fact the new Kobe Bryant, in mind and spirit if not quite in body, and that Westbrook is the proper heir to Bryant as the NBA's best all-around guard. Westbrook will likely never surpass Bryant's peak value because size matters in the NBA but Westbrook's attacking mindset and his ability to overcome both doubters and physical ailments show that he is very much built from the same mold as Bryant.
Westbrook has already earned four All-Star selections and three All-NBA Second Team nods but in the second half of this season he has taken his game to a new, almost unprecedented level. Westbrook averaged 31.2 ppg, 10.3 apg and 9.1 rpg in February, joining Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average 30 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in a calendar month (minimum 10 games). During a five game span starting February 24, Westbrook ranked in the top five in the league in scoring (38.2 ppg, first), assists (9.8 apg, third) and rebounding (12.4 rpg, ninth).
He also became just the fourth player in NBA history to have at least three straight 40 point--five rebound--five assist games. Elgin Baylor did this for four straight games in 1960-61, while Michael Jordan (1988-89) and Wilt Chamberlain (1963-64) did it for three straight games each. Baylor also did it for three straight games during the 1962-63 season.
Westbrook has performed at a high level throughout the season and he is the only player in the league who ranks in the top five in scoring (27.3 ppg, first), assists (8.3 apg, fourth) and steals (2.1 spg, third).
Westbrook's critics say that he shoots too much, that he is selfish and that he does not play a winning style of basketball but the Thunder's record states otherwise. The Thunder are 30-19 with Westbrook this season (.612 winning percentage), including 12-5 since February 1 as the team began making a late playoff push despite being without the services of 2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant for much of that time (the Thunder are 6-4 in the most recent 10 game stretch that Durant has missed). The Thunder are just 5-10 (.333 winning percentage) without Westbrook (that record includes some early season games that both Durant and Westbrook missed).
The reality is that no matter what individual numbers Westbrook puts up or how many championships he wins, he will never satisfy all of the naysayers; after all, Bryant's five championships and numerous individual records/accomplishments have far from silenced his vocal critics. Those who understand basketball, though, appreciate how Bryant prepared for and played the game and that same respect should be extended to Westbrook as well.
posted by David Friedman @ 5:22 PM