Russell Westbrook really did it again. 25.4 points per game, 10.1 rebounds per game, 10.3 assists per game. Since the NBA was founded on June 6, 1946, not a single player of the estimated 5,000 to put on a jersey has ever averaged 10 or more points, rebounds, and assists in consecutive seasons. Except for the Brodie. That’s insane.
Yet somehow, in this upside-down dystopian reality that we all live in but only exists inside our phones and computers, the fact above has been turned into a bad thing. “Westbrook is a stat-chaser!” “He’s a stat-padder!” “Triple-doubles are arbitrary!” “This is exactly why the Thunder won the same number of gamest this year as last year!”
My feelings on triple doubles have always been this: Sure, triple-doubles are arbitrary, but they’re not meaningless. The distinction of 10 isn’t special on its own but it also does mean more than nine. Would anyone argue averaging 10 of any statistic is worse than averaging nine of that same statistic? Of course not. Substitute “10” for “more” if you’d like. Westbrook averaged “more” rebounds and assists than anyone else in NBA history in two consecutive seasons.
And they record those stats for a reason. I’m not such a traditionalist to ignore the fact that counting stats can be messy and analytics can be helpful for painting a clearer picture. I’m just confused as to when points, rebounds, and assists became a bad thing? Generally the team that grabs more rebounds than their opponent wins the game. Same goes for the team that shares the ball and records more assists, too. The team that scores more points than the other team wins still, right? Or has some new advanced metric replaced that as well.
So yeah, what Westbrook achieved does mean something.
But despite what friend of the site Jon Hamm might be saying, it also doesn’t ensure his legacy. Oscar Robertson might be known as “Mr. Triple-Double,” but his name rarely, if ever, comes up in a “best basketball players of all time” conversation. That’s because players are remembered and ranked by championships, plain and simple.
Over a four-year span in the late 80’s, Michael Jordan averaged 34.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists. He was the greatest basketball player on earth. And yet the narrative surrounding him was that he was selfish, that he made his teammates worse and he could never win a championship. Where have we heard that before? Lebron James went through the same thing, dominating the sport but being labeled a choker. Had MJ retired in 1990 or Lebron before winning a championship in 2012, it wouldn’t change their skill level or dominance one bit, yet neither would be considered among the top players of all time. After nine combined championships, they’re No. 1 and No. 2 all-time on every list you can find.
Crazy enough, Robertson actually won one! But that brings me to the next crucial element of legacy-building: History dictates that it must be “your” championship in order for you to get credit for it.
It’s a tricky proposition. The credit isn’t exclusively given to one person. For example, both Shaq and Kobe are given credit for the Lakers’ three-peat in the early oughts, despite the fact that Kobe hadn’t come close to the peak of his powers during the run. Yet just a few years later, when Shaq moved over to Miami and contributed in a super-sidekick role similar to the one Kobe filled for the Lakers (many people forget Shaq put up 20 & nine that season), the 2006 championship was not deemed to be “his,” it was Dwyane Wade’s. When Oscar Robertson won a championship in 1971 with the Milwaukee Bucks, it was Kareem’s championship. Tough luck, Mr. Triple-Double.
If Russell Westbrook were to retire today, basketball fans in 50 years would probably hold his triple-double seasons against him. Similar to MJ in 1990, they’d say “Here’s a player who chased the stats but made his teammates worse and could never win a championship.”
Those of us with two functioning eyeballs know that isn’t true. Westbrook is incredible and helps the team in a million different ways. But nuance gets lost through history. I really doubt our hypothetical futuristic basketball fans are going to cue up a random Tuesday night game in January on their brain chip projectors to get a wholistic picture of what all Westbrook did to help his teams. Hell, NBA fans in 2018 don’t even watch the games! (#blogboys)
To really create a positive and enduring legacy for himself, Westbrook needs to win a championship. Not just that, but he needs to win “his” championship. He needs to do it while he’s still playing at the elite level, before the effects of his hyper-physical style of play catch up to his body or some brave scientist eventually cracks him open to discover that, as we suspected, there are gears where muscles are supposed to be and jet fuel instead of blood.
May I make a suggestion, Mr. Westbrook?
How about going ahead and winning one this year?
Just a thought.