If you seriously believed on the morning of April 1 that Russell Westbrook wouldn’t grab 76 rebounds over the final five games of the 2017-18 season, congratulations: you played yourself. And Russell is happy to have helped embarrass you. If instead of embarrassed you feel entitled, reassuring yourself with something like “triple-doubles are meaningless” or “he’s stat-padding”, Russ doesn’t give a f**k. Why not? He’s officially averaged a triple-double for the second consecutive season.
In 2017, Russell Westbrook joined the most exclusive of NBA clubs when he managed against all odds to average a triple-double–31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists, to be precise–over 81 regular season games. Only Oscar Robertson had achieved such a feat, 55 years prior. In April of that year, Westbrook’s swan song was breaking Robertson’s record for triple-doubles in a single season, 41, with 42 of his own. Endorsed by the Big O himself, a new triple-double royal was born. Fast forward: in March 2018, Westbrook became the fourth player in league history to accumulate 100 career triple-doubles, joining the ranks of Robertson (181), Magic Johnson (138), and Jason Kidd (107). As of April 12, 2018, Westbrook sits at 105. Kidd can kiss his placement on that list goodbye. Magic isn’t safe either. Whether Russ can break yet another unattainable record set by the Big O though, we’ll have to wait and see. If so, the King’s crown is his. For now, we must marvel at the greatness of the Prince.
When partner-in-crime of eight years Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City in free agency in July 2016, Westbrook understood that if he didn’t want the Thunder to fall out of championship contention and into the hell of lottery ping-pong balls, he’d have to change something about his game. No one quite envisioned him dragging a bunch of misfits (literally–see Victor Oladipo today) into the playoffs, and certainly not a soul predicted he’d do it by simultaneously leading the league in scoring, handing out better than 10 assists a night, and averaging more rebounds than most 7-footers. Russ may have desperately needed help, but he’d never have admitted it.
It’s not like Russ was a stranger to triple-doubles: he’d racked up 37 in his first eight seasons, including 18 in his final season with Durant. But becoming the center of OKC’s offense unleashed him. He set an NBA record for usage rate, carrying the scoring burden and becoming a crunch time maestro. At the same time, Russ put trust in his teammates; while he was on the floor, 57.2% of his teammates’ made field goals were directly assisted by him, while the other 42.8% were usually his own. Soliciting rebounds in order to facilitate fast-break offense was just another part of his game–he’ll tell you time and again that he isn’t “stat-padding”. This is just how he plays.
Russell took MVP honors in 2017 despite leading his team to fewer than 50 wins, frustrating traditionalists who didn’t think Westbrook’s statistical anomalies merited the league’s greatest individual honor. Questioning Russell’s value to the Oklahoma City Thunder was a virtually indefensible task–without him, they were a glorified G-League team. But Russell’s value to the NBA itself was ballooning at a time when many had all but relinquished the 2017 Larry O’Brien Trophy to the Golden State Warriors the previous July.
Westbrook’s narrative was on his side, and so was Kevin Durant’s: Durant, betraying Westbrook, also managed to ruin the NBA by joining up with Golden State; Westbrook, scorned ex, decided not just to extract revenge, but to turn the entire league on its head. A perfect foil: Russ was crowned MVP and NBA sweetheart, but was gentlemen-swept out of the first round of the playoffs; KD–branded a snake, a cupcake, a traitor–bounced back from what looked like a derailing knee injury that some grotesquely found karma in, led the Warriors to a 16-1 title run, and was elected Finals MVP. In their first season apart, Westbrook and Durant revamped their games, their identities, and their futures without the other. Each had the best season of his career, affirming Durant’s choice to leave and Westbrook’s choice to not take it lightly.
Russ plays hard. He plays friendless, save for Spalding. He doesn’t give into exhaustion. He doesn’t show pain. He’d play the full 48 minutes if he was allowed to. But let’s be realistic: it isn’t sustainable. If Westbrook is ever going to make a run at an NBA title, he can’t do it surrounded by flaky shooters and with Steven Adams as his co-headliner. So in the 2017 offseason, Thunder GM Sam Presti rewarded Westbrook for his plight by acquiring Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. Help was on its way.
Surrounded once again by All-Stars, Westbrook didn’t necessarily need to repeat 2016-17. But as the OK3 continually underperformed, Russ gradually kicked back into gear, emulating the style of his MVP year without completely overshadowing George and Anthony. 26 triple-doubles down the stretch of the season isn’t as marvelous a figure as 42, but on its own, it is a glowing bastion of Westbrook’s evolution.
On April 9, in the Thunder’s penultimate regular season game in Miami, the prospect of Russell finishing a second consecutive season averaging a triple-double looked bleak. While he was leading the NBA in assists and had all but solidified an average of 10+ on the season, the rebounding category remained a question mark. Two nights earlier in Houston, Westbrook had just seven boards. For a point guard like Damian Lillard or Jrue Holiday or literally anyone else, seven rebounds in a game would be a huge achievement. But for Westbrook? Essentially a disappointment. He’d need 34 total over the last two games of the season–games he should probably not even play in, to be honest, in case of an untimely freak injury–in order to secure a season-long average of 10 rebounds. But with about 17 seconds left in the first half in Miami, Westbrook was pulling down his ninth rebound of the game. He was doing it.
Westbrook would finish the Miami game with 18 rebounds. Picture this: the other, taller four members of OKC’s starting lineup finished with a combined total of 15. Looking ahead to game #82, there should have been no question that Russ would go for at least 16 and little doubt that his teammates would help him out. Anything less would have gone entirely against Westbrook’s motto: Why not? And we know Russ is a man of his word.
On April 11, Russell Westbrook pulled no punches when questioned about the validity of his statistics. Not only does Russell notoriously not give a crap about stats–“I just play“–he finds it equal parts hilarious, annoying, and pointless to accuse him of “stat-padding”. Speaking to the media before OKC’s regular-season finale, Westbrook made it clear: “I’m tired of hearing the same old ‘rebound this, stealing rebounds’, all this s**t. I take pride in what I do … I get the ball faster than somebody else gets to it. That’s just what it is. If you don’t want it, I’m gonna get it. Simple as that.” While Russ wouldn’t go as far as to call out those whom his friend Kevin Durant might call “blog boys“, he isn’t here to bend and break to the criticisms of talking heads and NBA Twitter. It’s hard to argue with him when he says, “if people could get 20 rebounds every night, they would. If people could f**king get 15 rebounds, they would”, echoing Pat Riley’s sentiment of “no rebounds, no rings”. By noon, Russ had set the tone for the night ahead.
That night, Chesapeake Energy Arena was almost as ready as Russell himself. Westbrook addressed his home crowd prior to tipoff, thanking them for a season of patient support; he then diverted attention to friend, mentor, and the franchise’s longest-tenured player, Nick Collison, who is expected to retire after a decade and a half of service to the NBA. This would be Russ’s most selfless act all night.
At halftime, Russ had one point and 11 rebounds, having spent the first half hurdling Steven Adams and the entire Grizzlies roster for loose balls. He was a rebound vacuum early in the third quarter, and sure enough, it took just 22 minutes of playing time for Westbrook to swallow the coveted 16th. Assisted by block-outs from henchmen George and Anthony. Russ achieved the previously impossible. Refs stopped play and he was treated to a standing ovation while OKC led Memphis by 21. But Russ wasn’t done, of course: he took down 20 total rebounds, supplanting a previous career-high of 19. He also dished out 19 assists: six went to Paul George, who ended up with a 40-point game that has gone virtually unnoticed despite the relieving importance of his getting over a shooting slump at precisely the right time. Russ came up just shy on what would have been a legendary 20-20 game. He scored six points in the blowout win.
Russell Westbrook is a phenomenon. His playing style is far from beautiful, but it is something to behold. He’s taken the concept of something as momentous and salaciously desired as a triple-double and normalized it. Westbrook is effortlessly above-average in at least three statistical basketball categories in every single game that he plays, and most players would kill for this–some have even killed their own reputations for just a shot at it. The Triple-Double Prince is changing the game, screaming to anyone who listens that it’s pointless to box yourself in so long as you can box someone out for that extra rebound, outlet pass, and assisted fast-break dunk. Westbrook maintains in every interview that he is blessed, and because of him, so are we. Thank you, Russ.