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Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Russell Westbrook Ties Oscar Robertson's Single Season Triple Double Record

Russell Westbrook produced 12 points, 13 assists and 13 rebounds in just 27 minutes as his Oklahoma City Thunder routed the Milwaukee Bucks 110-79 on Tuesday night. Westbrook has tied Oscar Robertson's single season record with 41 triple doubles and he has five games left to possibly set a new mark. Westbrook got his 10th rebound and 10th assist in a sequence that has become his trademark: he grabbed the defensive rebound, pushed the ball up the court and passed to a teammate (Taj Gibson in this instance) for an easy transition bucket. This is the eighth time in Westbrook's career that he has notched a triple double while playing fewer than 30 minutes (no other player in league history has more than three such triple doubles).

Westbrook has an active streak of seven consecutive triple doubles, tied for second on the all-time list behind Wilt Chamberlain (nine); the only other players who had seven consecutive triple doubles are Robertson, Michael Jordan and Westbrook himself earlier this season. That streak is part of a larger run during which Westbrook has posted a triple double in 11 of his last 13 games; the Thunder are 8-3 in those 11 games and 9-4 overall, solidifying their hold on the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

The Thunder are 32-9 when Westbrook has a triple double and 12-24 in the rest of their games; basically, the Thunder play at the same level as the San Antonio Spurs when Westbrook performs exceptionally but if he is "merely" great then they play at the same level as one of the five worst teams in the league. The direct impact of Westbrook's play on the ability of an otherwise mediocre team to win games is rare in NBA history, particularly for a guard; Pete Maravich with the mid-1970s Jazz and Kobe Bryant with the mid-2000s Lakers are perhaps the only two guards whose dominant play (albeit with a different style than Westbrook's) had a similar effect on the win/loss records of otherwise weak teams.

Westbrook needs just 16 assists in the next five games to average a triple double for the entire season, a feat that has only been accomplished once in pro basketball history; Robertson did it in 1961-62 (30.8 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 11.4 apg) and he also averaged an aggregate triple double overall during the first five seasons of his career. Like Westbrook, Robertson regularly posted "big" triple doubles, namely triple doubles featuring 30 or more points. This is remarkable and sets Robertson and Westbrook apart from the other players who rank in the top five on the career triple double list. Wilt Chamberlain had voluntarily reduced his scoring from 50-plus ppg to around 24 ppg by the time he started racking up triple doubles. Magic Johnson amassed most of his triple doubles when he was averaging less than 20 ppg and Jason Kidd was never a big-time scorer.

It is fitting that Kidd had a front row seat (as Milwaukee's head coach) for Westbrook's 41st triple double of the season; Kidd was the master of the triple double during his era, racking up 107 of them (third on the all-time list) during his 19 season career. During his prime, Kidd was one of the few players who seemed potentially capable of averaging a triple double for a season but the reality is that he never came close to doing so. Kidd averaged more than 10 apg three times in his 19 year career. His single season rebounding career-high was 8.2 rpg, during a season in which he scored 13.0 ppg and averaged 9.2 apg; Kidd actually came closer to averaging a "triple single" in his best rebounding season than he came to averaging a triple double. During his prime, the closest Kidd came to averaging a triple double was 1999-00 (14.3 ppg, 10.1 apg, 7.2 rpg).

The only player other than Robertson and prior to Westbrook who came reasonably close to averaging a triple double was Magic Johnson, who averaged 18.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 9.5 apg in 1981-82. The next season, he averaged 16.8 ppg, 10.5 apg and 8.6 rpg but he never again averaged at least 8 rpg for an entire season.

One other player should be mentioned: Lafayette "Fat" Lever. Listed at 6-3, 170, Lever was a remarkable all-around point guard in the 1980s and early 1990s. During a four year run, he averaged 8.9 rpg, 8.1 rpg, 9.3 rpg and 9.3 rpg with scoring averages fluctuating between 18.3 ppg and 19.8 ppg but he only reached the 8.0 apg mark once in his career.

In short, Westbrook's feat is astonishing on many levels: (1) he is averaging a "big" triple double (30-plus ppg, en route to clinching the second scoring title of his career), (2) he is averaging 10-plus rpg as a 6-3 guard (which would be unprecedented and noteworthy even if he was not a big-time scorer and playmaker) and (3) his triple doubles are essential for the Thunder to be able to compete. If anyone else had averaged 30-10-10 that player would have been a landslide MVP winner; some people like to mention that Robertson finished third in the MVP voting during his triple double season but Robertson was competing against the 50 ppg version of Chamberlain and Bill Russell during the middle of his 11 championships in 13 seasons dynasty. Robertson would have won the MVP in just about any other season in NBA history and indeed he won the MVP two years later with a 31.4 ppg/11.0 apg/9.9 rpg stat line.

Sadly, some media members remain stubbornly determined to minimize the significance of Westbrook's accomplishments. During a recent radio segment, Jared Greenberg stated that an MVP case for Westbrook based on him averaging a triple double for the entire season is flawed because James Harden is on track to finish the season "only" 160 rebounds away from averaging a triple double. It should be pointed out that with five games to go in the season roughly half of the players in the NBA do not have 160 rebounds for the entire season! Applying Greenberg's flawed logic, I came within 160 rebounds this season of being a better rebounder than about half of the players in the NBA. Give me a break; if you enjoy interviewing Harden more than you enjoy interviewing Westbrook or if you feel compelled to pump up the Daryl Morey "stat guru" method of team construction then just say so directly--but don't insult everyone's intelligence with statements that just flat out make no sense.

Putting aside the fact that Harden is going to fall a "mere" 20% short of matching Westbrook's rebounding total, Harden's overall statistics must be considered in the context of the fact that Coach Mike D'Antoni's system inflates the numbers of his point guards: he turned an average point guard into "Linsanity" and (with the help of some misguided MVP voters) he turned All-Star Steve Nash into a two-time MVP. You could swap out at least 10 other point guards for Harden and the Rockets would still win at least 50 games but if you take Westbrook off of Oklahoma City's roster--or if Westbrook has an "off" night of, say, 28 points, five rebounds and eight assists, as he did against Chicago in a 28 point loss--then the Thunder would be in the Draft Lottery.

Westbrook's 2016-17 regular season is one of the greatest individual seasons in pro basketball history--period, end of discussion.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:13 AM

13 comments

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13 Comments:

At Wednesday, April 05, 2017 12:27:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wilt Chamberlain had voluntarily reduced his scoring from 50-plus ppg to around 24 ppg by the time he started racking up triple doubles.

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A small nitpick -- blocks weren't counted for most of Wilt's career, including his early high-scoring seasons. Had they been counted, he may well have been number one on the all-time triple double list. We'll never know for sure, but as far as I know, people have done the exercise of going through the games for which footage does exist and counting the blocks, and it appears that he was averaging a ridiculous number of blocks that would have resulted in many triple doubles that went unrecorded. And the existing footage is probably biased towards games against top opposition and in the playoffs, i.e. fewer of the games where he would have really feasted in the paint survive.

 
At Wednesday, April 05, 2017 6:03:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

"Westbrook's 2016-17 regular season is one of the greatest individual seasons in pro basketball history--period, end of discussion."

I couldn't have said it better myself. David, how would you rank the top 5-6 players in the NBA? I think I'm leaning towards:

1. LeBron (he's here until someone knocks him off)
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2/3/4. KD/Steph/Westbrook - I'm not sure how to rank these guys. In 2014, this ranking was really easy. However, in 2015, even though he wasn't fully healthy, Russell put up some big numbers and almost got OKC to the playoffs despite both he and Durant missing a lot of games. Steph was voted MVP and had a great year. I remember that season believing that Westbrook was only 2nd to LeBron with Durant injured, though I didn't argue with anyone whom felt Curry was better. Then last season happened and Curry had many believing that he was the best player in the NBA. The playoffs brought Curry back down to earth and KD/Westbrook dominated the Warriors in the first 4 games. Had Klay not brought his A game in game 6, the Warriors may have lost. KD and Westbrook were 1A and 1B last year with Westbrook even garnering more MVP votes. Before Durant got injured this year, he looked like the Warriors's best player. A part of me believes that Kerr's system and the emergence of Klay + Draymond elevates Steph's level of play and causes him to look a tad better than he would look on a worse team. Another part of me knows that regardless, he is the greatest shooter of all-time and an amazing talent. How do you rank these guys?
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5/6. Kawhi/Harden - Though I have a huge disdain for Harden's style of play, I can admit that he is a very talented offensive player. Kawhi is also a great player, but he has yet to strike me as a guy that can put his team on his back and take them to the promise land. He hasn't had an outstanding playoff series yet, but he's easily the league's most consistent 2-way player. I feel as though if anyone ranks either of these two over the 3 listed above then Harden's offense is being overrated or Kawhi's defense is being overrated. With a gun to my head, I would probably take Kawhi though.


Also, do you think that Westbrook has a shot to be in your Pantheon? I've been a long time reader of yours and remember you once considering Wade for a spot given that he had a productive career. Do you hold Westbrook in that same regard? What about Durant/Curry?

Where does Westbrook rank in terms of all-time great point guards? At least at his peak, does anyone truly feel that any point guard other than Magic or Oscar is comparable to this version of Westbrook as an individual player? He of course still needs to finish his career and hopefully get a ring or two to be considered that high by most. What about Curry?

It's amazing how modern all-time great players help us put things in perspective. You've mentioned it before, but LeBron has shown to be somewhat of a modern day Wilt Chamberlain in a few ways - especially in how his stats sometimes doesn't show his level of engagement in important games. Does Westbrook's season bring any thoughts to you regarding Oscar's placement in history?

 
At Thursday, April 06, 2017 12:33:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Speaking of MVPs, this cracked me up and feels a little relevant:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M6MglF7cv5k


Vote no on D'antoni juicing.

 
At Friday, April 07, 2017 1:52:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

Good point. I was thinking of the "traditional" points/rebounds/assists triple double--which Chamberlain did not start accumulating in abundance until later in his career when he voluntarily reduced his scoring--but of course it is likely that Chamberlain (and Russell) had many points/rebounds/blocked shots triple doubles.

 
At Friday, April 07, 2017 1:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle:

I think that we all (or most of us) understand that LeBron is the best player--but Westbrook has had the better season and that is what should matter in the MVP race.

I would take Westbrook over Durant and Curry. It is fair now to ask if perhaps the problem in OKC was that Durant was not willing to defer to Westbrook, who has proven this season to be a better clutch player than Durant is or ever was. Durant has been Golden State's best player this season and they struggled initially when he got hurt, though now they have righted the ship to some extent.

Leonard is difficult to rank against these other players, each of whom has either led a team to a title (LeBron, Curry) or else posted gaudier individual numbers. I agree that Leonard has yet to have a great, defining playoff series even though he already has won a Finals MVP.

By virtue of his gaudy numbers, Harden has to be placed somewhere in the top 10 but to me his stats always have overstated his true value in terms of winning at the highest level. If I were putting a team together I would not want him as my number one guy, because I don't think that my team would ever win a title that way. I'd rather either have one of the other guys as my top player or else build a team with a cast of several very good players a la 2004 Detroit or 1979 Seattle.

 
At Friday, April 07, 2017 2:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Nick:

That is a funny video.

 
At Friday, April 07, 2017 9:59:00 AM, Blogger beep said...

I sound a bit salty lately and I well may be. I noticed media are full of ridiculous stories about why Westbrook is actually fake and shouldn't get MVP and how Harden is so close by some "mere" numbers that it shouldn't count. It's a disgrace to basketball and professional writing.

 
At Friday, April 07, 2017 12:59:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

David:

Wow I didn't realize that you consider Westbrook to be the 2nd best player in the league. Like I said, I had that opinion as far back as the 2015 season with the acknowledgement that Durant and Curry were debatably better. This year it's kind of solidified in my mind, but it's still close. I'm taking Westbrook every day of the week though to play for my life.

What about my question regarding Westbrook having a shot to be in your Pantheon? I know it's hard comparing retired players to current players especially in their prime, but do you think that it's too early to say something like Westbrook has peaked as a top 3 point guard of all-time? I think he's clearly on pace to go down as a top 10 guard. Gun to my head, my top 10 guards would include:

1. Michael Jordan
---
2. Magic Johnson (either order, but I tend to go with Magic by a hair)
3. Kobe Bryant
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4. Oscar Robertson (most guys from that error rank them like this so I will too)
5. Jerry West
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From here you make a convincing argument to have 5 of either Bob Cousy, Walt Frazier, George Gervin, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, & Dwyane Wade to finish the list.

Barring injury and OKC keeping a not so great team around him, I find it to hard believe that every single guy in that large group would be considered better than Westbrook. To be completely honest, I think as an individual player, he's already better than all of them.

 
At Friday, April 07, 2017 3:14:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

Kyle-

I'd take your top five as well as Thomas, Stockton, Wade, Kidd, and Frazier over RWB today. He'd be pretty close with Gervin. But RWB is probably the worst defender on that list (maybe Cousy? I've seen less of him), and while his offensive numbers are eye-popping, that's ultimately a pretty big wart when you're comparing him to perennial All-D guys like Frazier or West.

Let's also not lose our heads over one season. Everybody else you're talking about put together a decade or so of top-level play; RWB's got a year or two as a tippy top guy, but it remains to be seen if its remotely sustainable.

 
At Saturday, April 08, 2017 10:32:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Nick:

That's fair. Westbrook is only 28 so I wouldn't fully compare his career to retired players yet. I was referring more to his peak which is arguably better than any players under that top 5. We'll see how his career pans out as being the best player on his team.

In terms of individual achievements, Westbrook has already begun to match said players. Take a look at the total All-NBA teams (I don't usually include All-NBA Third teams because it's not fair to players with seasons before 1989) and All-Star selections:

Bob Cousy - 12 All-NBA, 13 All-Star
John Stockton - 8 All-NBA, 10 All-Star
George Gervin - 7 All-NBA, 9 All-Star
Allen Iverson - 6 All-NBA, 11 All-Star
Jason Kidd - 6 All-NBA, 10 All-Star
Walt Frazier - 6 All-NBA, 7 All-Star
Russell Westbrook - 6 All-NBA, 6 All-Star
Dwyane Wade - 5 All-NBA, 12 All-Star
Isaih Thomas - 5 All-NBA, 12 All-Star

Let's take a look at MVPs:

Cousy - 1 MVP (1957), 3 other top 5
Iverson - 1 MVP (2001), 2 other top 5
Westbrook - 1 MVP (2017), 2 other top 5
Gervin - 2nd in 1978 & 1979, 2 other top 5
Kidd - 2nd in 2002, 1 other top 5
Wade - 1 top 5 finish
Frazier - 1 top 5 finish
Isiah - 1 top 5 finish
Stockton - Never finished higher than 7th

It seems like a lot of the media is leaning towards Westbrook now, but I'll revisit this list and change it if he in fact doesn't win.

Now as far as skill-set is concerned, I've always felt like fans/analyst of the game tend to overrate some skills of players when those skills don't impact winning games. For example, comparing the defense of Bill Russell or Hakeem Olajuwon to that of *insert center here* is not the same in comparing *insert point guard here*'s defense to that of Magic Johnson's? Why? Because pretty much no point guard's defense has led to winning games and championships, while the defense of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Ben Wallace, etc... directly led to a ring(s).

With that said, I fully acknowledge that Frazier's defense played an important role in those Knicks championships and Kidd's defense on the 2011 Mavs was also important. While Westbrook has never made an All-Defensive team and probably never will, neither has Cousy (wouldn't have in his time), Gervin, Isiah, or Iverson. Stockton could only guard 1 position and his defense was never the reason for Utah's success.

All of these guys were great, but Westbrook is already in their class in some aspects.

 
At Sunday, April 09, 2017 12:21:00 AM, Blogger Nick F said...

Peak is a more interesting debate. I'm not sure how I feel about it; defense matters less in the regular season, but he's likely to be exposed in the playoffs (and it remains to be seen if he can put up the same kind of video-game numbers against more sophisticated playoff D).

I would agree that he's had a better single regular season than just almost any guard, though.

 
At Sunday, April 09, 2017 11:54:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle/Nick:

Everyone in my Pantheon played at an elite level for at least a decade, so Westbrook would not make the cut yet based on that standard. In terms of peak performance, his level of play this season is right up there with the best seasons authored by Oscar, West, Magic, MJ and Kobe.

Westbrook's only weakness is efficiency; his shooting percentages are not as good as the other Pantheon guards and his turnover rate is high. I rate Westbrook's defense as neutral (not great but not a negative) and that is my primary (perhaps only) disagreement with Nick about Westbrook. I would argue that Westbrook's efficiency weakness is overcome by his rebounding (better than any other guard except, arguably, Oscar) and the fact that he is the best dual scoring/playmaking threat in history along with peak Oscar and one season of Nate Archibald (West never combined 30 ppg scoring with 9 apg passing in the same season).

I also think that this season Westbrook has had more of a direct impact on winning for an otherwise terrible to mediocre squad than any guard, on par with '77 Maravich and mid-2000s Kobe. When Westbrook gets a triple double the Thunder win at a rate comparable to the Spurs but when he doesn't get a triple double the Thunder are equivalent to the league's worst teams.

 
At Sunday, April 09, 2017 1:44:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

David-

I agree that that's more or less the only thing we disagree about re: RWB. I similarly agree his efficiency is an issue, but one outweighed by his insane production, and feel the same way about his TOs. He'd be a better player if he shot fewer 3s/out-of-control layups with no chance of going in, and he'd be a better player if he had half as many TOs, but any other guard would kill to have those be the biggest criticisms of their offensive game/put up his numbers. For the record, his assist numbers actually undersell how good of a passer he is; guys shoot way above their normal percentages off passes from him.

It will be interesting to see how his defense is in the playoffs. I know he's capable of playing good D when focused, but he didn't in last year's playoffs, and he's obviously spending more energy on O now, so I'm not optimistic.

 

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