Untethered from, and unfettered with the burden of accommodating Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook is soaring to unprecedented heights this season. A queer blend of supreme athleticism, sheer force of will and a shorthanded supporting cast has Westbrook on pace for one of the NBA’s ‘untouchable seasons’.
Every year, just before the NBA season commences, the focus turns to a handful of teams expected to be at the fore of their conferences, challenging for high playoff spots and maybe even the championship. The Oklahoma City Thunder were one of such perennial contenders. Loaded with two of the game’s most understated talents, you would easily have penned them in for a top 3 spot in the West and a run to the Conference semis, plus a handful of delightful basketball along the way. That was all before the 4th of July last year, when a certain Thunder superstar decided fittingly on the day, to get some independence for himself.
All of a sudden, everything we knew about the Thunder was up in the air and coming into the season, it was hard to say with certainty how their season might unfurl. Since the franchise moved to Oklahoma, the Thunder have only missed the playoffs twice. The first time was the first year in Oklahoma when Kevin and Russell (both 21 year olds in their rookie and sophomore seasons respectively) were trying to steer the newly relocated franchise in the right direction and could only muster a measly 23 wins. The second time would matter much more. With Kevin out with a foot injury and eventually limited to playing 27 games all season, Russell finally had a chance to lead the Thunder all by himself even if it was considered temporary at the time. Westbrook himself was absent for the start of the season with an injury and without their two stars, the Thunder quickly sunk into a hole losing 11 of the 15 games he missed. He was up against it right from his return to lineup and what a formative year it would prove to be for Russ.
Despite missing out narrowly on the playoffs thanks to an Anthony Davis buzzer beating three, some very important lessons had been learnt from the experience and the whole world had been shown a glimpse of the havoc wreaking superstar that is an unleashed Russell Westbrook; a planetary force, unrestrained by the gravity of a co-star. He led the league in scoring with 28.1 points, scored 50+ once, 40+ nine times and 30+ nineteen times but his imprint was all over the box score. He led the Thunder in assists, dishing a sublime 8.6 per game (4th in the league) and even managed to snag 7.3 rebounds (4th on the Thunder). It seemed like we’d witnessed the last of such but oh how wrong we were.
Even with less than a third of the games left to play, Westbrook is still defying the odds to average a triple double – 30.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 10.2 assists. The assists numbers become considerably more impressive when you consider the limited offensive prowess of most of his teammates. He is not only scoring much needed buckets, he’s finding teammates in their sweet spots. His usage rate is up to a historic 41.6% and is turning the ball over a career high 5.5 times per game – only second to fellow MVP candidate and ex thunder teammate, James Harden. It would seem the price for a truly special season is a certain drop in efficiency. He’s shooting .420 from the field (his third lowest field goal percentage since he got in the league) but he can take some consolation in his 3PFG% which at .336 is a career high all in a stunning 35 minutes.
There are the stats that tell the story of Westbrook’s gargantuan effort night in, night out to keep his team in the conversation and in the running for a top-8 position in the West. There is a marked difference when he’s off the floor epitomised by the Thunder’s offensive rating which is 100.9 points per possession from 110.2 whenever he sits. With Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder are a top-5 offense. Without him, they slump to a lowly 28th place. When watching Okc games, it is easy to notice every possession go through him whenever he’s on the floor. He’s calling the shots, taking the shots and setting up the shots. He maybe dominating the ball to an alarming degree but that’s exactly what the Thunder need him to do if they’re going to keep up their playoff push. He has already had some pretty impressive games this season including a 20+ points-20+ assists game and a 17+ points 17+ rebounds/17+ assists game. He’s scored 50+ once, 40+ eight times, 30+ twenty-two times and leads the league in scoring. What’s more impressive than his scoring is everything else. He’s grabbed 15+ boards a whopping nine times and has dished out 15 or more assists eight times.
There are some seasons in the NBA we consider “untouchable”; Wilt averaging 50 points a game, Wilt leading the league in assists from the center position, Tiny leading the league in scoring and assists, The Big O’s triple double season to name a few. Two of those seasons were thought to be firmly out of reach… until now. James Harden is vying to lead the league in assists and points and of course Westbrook has an even better chance of recreating something once thought to be the exclusive of Oscar Robertson.
Westbrook is checking all the boxes for what should be an unforgettable campaign and although he’s got pretty stiff competition in Harden, this season is one that will be fondly remembered by basketball fans worldwide. Albeit, it surely would be much more memorable for Russell with an MVP award in tow. As the season draws to a close, having often felt stifled by a co-star but now being the sun around which the thunder revolve, a Maurice Podoloff award would be welcome recognition for Westbrook’s efforts.