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Saturday, December 03, 2016

Triple Threat Russell Westbrook Redefines Modern Basketball Versatility

Oscar Robertson has long been the exemplar of basketball versatility. He is the only player to average a triple double over the course of an entire NBA season (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg in 1961-62, his second year in the league) and he is also the only player to average an aggregate triple double for the first five seasons of his NBA career. Robertson averaged at least 28.3 ppg, at least 9.9 rpg and at least 9.5 apg in each of his first four seasons. The only other player in pro basketball history to score in double figures while averaging at least 9 rpg and 9 apg for an entire season is Magic Johnson in 1981-82 (18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 9.5 apg).

Russell Westbrook has emerged as the 21st century Oscar Robertson. Westbrook averaged 31.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg and 11.3 apg in the first 20 games of the 2016-17 season. This is the latest in a season that anyone other than Robertson has maintained a triple double average (Robertson did this for 67 games in 1963-64 in addition to his full season 79 game effort in 1961-62). It is important to emphasize that 20 games is not a small sample size for this statistic, because this list consists of Robertson (79 games in 1961-62), Robertson (first 67 games in 1963-64), Westbrook (first 20 games in 2016-17) and then Magic Johnson (first eight games in 1981-82) and Robertson (first six games in 1960-61). Thus, Westbrook's season-opening sustained triple double level performance is more than twice as long as that of any player in NBA history other than Robertson! Say what you want about pace or anything else but when in the course of more than seven decades of professional basketball only two players have produced at such a high level for a significant amount of games that is special.

Westbrook is on pace to set career highs in scoring, rebounds and assists while also shooting a career-best .336 from three point range but Westbrook is assuredly not the kind of player that TNT's Kenny Smith calls "a looter in a riot," Smith's colorful phrase for someone who puts up big numbers for a bad team. Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder are currently 12-8, tied for fifth place in the Western Conference and on pace to win nearly 50 games despite losing future Hall of Famer Kevin Durant to Golden State last summer in free agency.

There have been eight 30-point triple doubles this season and Westbrook has logged seven of them, including point-rebound-assist lines of 51-13-10 and 41-12-16. Westbrook has racked up nine of the NBA's 20 triple doubles this season. The Thunder posted a 5-2 record in Westbrook's 30-point triple double games and a 7-2 record overall when he had a triple double. In the past 30 years, only LeBron James has more 30-point triple doubles than Westbrook.

From November 13-25, Westbrook scored at least 30 points in eight straight games, the longest such streak of his career. The Thunder only went 3-5 during that stretch--including a pair of losses in back to back games, three of which were played on the road--but Westbrook had a positive plus/minus number in five of those eight contests.

The Thunder are riding a four game winning streak after that 3-5 slump and Westbrook's point-rebound-assist lines in those games are eye-popping: 36-11-17, 17-13-15, 27-18-14, 35-14-11. Those four "Ws" mean a lot more to Westbrook than the four triple doubles. Asked about whether he can sustain his personal numbers, Westbrook replied, "Winning is sustainable. My job is to go out and find the best way to win games."

Westbrook has the same competitive mindset as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, who both have publicly expressed their respect for him. Jordan recently made a special trip to Oklahoma to present Westbrook for induction into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame. During the ceremony, Jordan declared, "When I watch him play, I see a lot of resemblance in his passion for the game of basketball, the way I played the game of basketball."

The Thunder are not running a gimmicky system that artificially inflates Westbrook's numbers. He scores because he attacks the hoop relentlessly. He rebounds because he pursues the ball relentlessly. He accumulates assists because he relentlessly makes the right basketball play. Westbrook does not hold on to the ball just to make sure that he gets an assist; he breaks down the defense and then either scores or passes to a teammate who is open precisely because Westbrook attracted one or more help defenders.

Because Westbrook is playing, as Larry Brown would put it, the right way, the Thunder are almost unbeatable when Westbrook posts a triple double, posting victories in 25 of the last 27 games during which Westbrook had a triple double. The team needs for him to play at a high level and is almost unbeatable when he does so.

Westbrook and Robertson will likely be forever linked because of their triple double exploits. Most NBA fans and commentators are too young to remember Robertson's career. "Stat gurus" and fans who believe that nothing of significance happened in the NBA before Michael Jordan (or possibly even LeBron James) tend to dismiss Robertson as a player who put up big numbers against supposedly weak competition in an era when the game was played at a fast pace with many more possessions than occur in today's game. This is what William Goldman termed "the battle to the death" in Wait Till Next Year, the classic book that he co-authored with Mike Lupica: Goldman declared that every athlete--with perhaps the exception of Wilt Chamberlain--faces a "battle to the death" in the sense that, no matter how great he was in his era, in subsequent eras people forget or devalue what he accomplished.

During Robertson's era, he was widely considered the best all-around player in the league, while Wilt Chamberlain was labeled the most dominant player and Bill Russell was the greatest champion. On the surface, though, it may seem like Robertson's versatility and impressive individual numbers did not correlate with team success. He played 10 seasons with the Cincinnati Royals and made it to the Eastern Division Finals twice but never advanced to the NBA Finals until he joined forces with young Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and helped the Milwaukee Bucks win the 1971 NBA title.

If Robertson was truly great then why did his Royals not have more success?

The answer to that question can only be found by placing Robertson's career in proper historical context. The Royals posted back to back 19 win seasons prior to Robertson joining the team. Largely because of Robertson, that number jumped by 14 in his rookie year and 10 more in his second season. In two years, the Royals improved from 19-56 to 43-37 (yes, the NBA season increased in length by five games during that time). In Robertson's third season, the Royals lost 4-3 in the Eastern Division Finals to Russell's Celtics, a perennial championship team that was stacked with Hall of Famers. The next season, the Royals went 55-25--the second best record in a nine team league--but lost 4-1 in the Eastern Division Finals to the 59-21 Celtics, who won their sixth straight championship en route to an unprecedented eight consecutive NBA titles.

The NBA in the 1960s had a small number of teams, so talent was highly concentrated. Rarely if ever did you see a team like the recent editions of the Philadelphia 76ers, who were built to lose and had many players on the roster who did not even belong in the league. When Robertson averaged a triple double in 1961-62, the worst team in a nine team league was the 18-62 first year expansion Chicago Packers, led by future Hall of Famer Walt Bellamy (31.6 ppg, 19.0 rpg that season). The two next worst teams each went 29-51: the St. Louis Hawks were led by Hall of Famers Bob Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette--a formidable "Big Three"--and the New York Knicks had Hall of Famer Richie Guerin. During that era, a team could have three great players and not even post a .500 record, so Robertson's individual feats--including being the only non-center to win the NBA MVP between 1958 and 1980--are not diminished by the Royals' failure to win an NBA title. During subsequent eras when the talent became more dispersed throughout the league, every Pantheon-level player won at least one championship while playing at an All-NBA First Team level. Elgin Baylor, who also played the bulk of his career in the talent-stacked 1960s NBA, is the only member of my pro basketball Pantheon who did not win an NBA title. Robertson made the All-NBA Second Team as a member of Milwaukee's 1971 championship squad.

The point of this brief history lesson is that we should celebrate Westbrook's historic 2016-17 season while at the same time appreciating the significance of what Robertson accomplished.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:33 PM

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