The Oklahoma City Thunder are 57 games into their season and Russell Westbrook is still—still!—averaging a triple-double. After laying 38-12-14 on the Knicks last night, Westbrook is heading into the All-Star break averaging 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists per game. It seems all but guaranteed that he will go on to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for a whole season.
This NBA season has felt like something of a high point; there is an overabundance of interesting storylines, exciting young players coming into their own, established stars reaching new heights, and eye-catching basketball to be enjoyed on a nightly basis. There are a lot of very shiny tiles in the NBA’s mosaic right now, but none of them are as bright as the one Westbrook has crafted.
You’ve been told this before, but you really can’t hear it enough: The fact that Westbrook is averaging a triple-double more than halfway through the season in this particular era of the NBA is completely absurd. When Robertson gilded his lily in the early 60s, he was playing in a league that moved at a breakneck pace, yielding a ridiculous amount of possessions for Robertson to soak up stats with. Typical NBA games contain far fewer possessions now, which means Westbrook has much less room for error on his quest for a 30-10-10 season.
Back in December, our friends at Kyle Wagner’s math blog compared Westbrook’s current season with Robertson’s triple-double season and adjusted for pace. Their model spit out numbers that don’t seem real: Pace-adjusted Westbrook is averaging 43-14-15 per 100 possessions, and pace-adjusted Robertson is at just 26-10-9. There is no doubt that what Robertson did in 1961-62 is impressive; there’s also no denying that Westbrook is essentially pulling off the same feat while on a tightrope.
It’s good to keep this in mind when talking about what kind of player Westbrook is. He’s often talked and written about in the most visceral and primal terms—that’s not a bad thing, really, because the game roars when he’s in it—but Westbrook is as precise as he his punishing. You don’t average a triple-double in today’s NBA through sheer ferociousness, you do it by exerting your will over every grain of the court. On a nightly basis, the Thunder need Westbrook to be their Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, and Lamar Odom all at once, and he meets that challenge gladly.
Take, for example, the finish to last night’s game. The Thunder were up 99-92 with just under six minutes to play, and the Knicks just weren’t going away. On the next two Thunder possessions, Westbrook got the line to make the score 102-94. He missed the fourth free throw of that sequence, but grabbed his own offensive rebound and initiated another play that ended with him hitting a three from the right wing. 105-94.
Westbrook missed a mid-range jumper on the Thunder’s next possession, but hit another three from the wing on the following trip down the court. 108-96. Then he went and blocked Derrick Rose’s layup on the other end, fired down the court on the break, and kicked it out to Jerami Grant for a corner three. The Thunder were up 111-96 with 4:05 to play at that point, and Russell Westbrook had just ended the game. Just for good measure, he capped things off with a steal and a breakaway thunder dunk a few minutes later.
That sequence was Westbrook’s season in a nutshell. Every single night he’s out there scoring from anywhere, grabbing rebounds, pushing the break, and slinging beautiful passes—he does it over and over and over again until the other team simply can’t resist anymore. How could they?