By Jason Keidel
So we say that this NBA season is a referendum on Russell Westbrook’s greatness. The pyrotechnic point guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder is taking an eraser to the record books, or at least adding some historical strokes of his own. He is the first NBA player — and only other NBA player — to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson.
When your only company is the Big O, that blasts you into the orbit of basketball royalty.
When we talk about Westbrook’s singular dominance, we forget that his team had three of the five best players on the planet a few years ago. Together, on the same roster, was a roll call of MVP votes. Westbrook is, evidently, neck-and-neck with former teammate James Harden for league MVP this season. His other former Thunder-mate, Kevin Durant, who is riding the Splash Brothers wave in Oakland, will return to action this weekend.
Westbrook is a whale in a lake. He’s a big deal, an attraction, a tourist destination, a living exhibition, and all on an incredibly average basketball club. The Thunder have the sixth-best record in the Western Conference. If the Thunder split their final four games, they will finish the season 47-35. They went 55-27 last year. All this revives one of the oldest sports debates. Is it better to be a beast on a mediocre club or a fine player on a great team?
Some rather misguided pundits are saying Westbrook’s epic production is a repudiation of Durant. Now, out from under Durant’s biblical wingspan, Westbrook is soaring, stacking numbers never possible with the gifted big man on his squad.
Westbrook is barely in the playoffs in a league that all but hands out seeds. Meanwhile, Durant is on a club that will come close to 70 wins and is the overwhelming favorite to reach the NBA Finals, and the odds-on choice to bag the whole thing.
Sure, leaving your nest to play for the team that so agonizingly edged you in the Western Conference finals left a foul taste in many mouths. When you blow a 3-1 lead, one win from the NBA Finals, you’d think the goal would be to get that one game next year. But Durant had other ideas. And while Durant was vaporized for a form of professional cowardice, perhaps it’s not that simple.
Is it a coincidence that Harden and Durant left Westbrook? Was it a matter of finance? Was it impossible to keep three max-contract players on one club? Or is Westbrook that toxic?
Westbrook is the last man standing, the single star on a team in the most carnivorous conference in team sports. And while he stuffs the stat sheet, Harden’s Rockets are eight games ahead of Westbrook’s Thunder in the standings. Despite missing several weeks from a bum knee, Durant is grinning from the throne, his Warriors a cool 19.5 games ahead of Oklahoma City.
Russell Westbrook may indeed be the most thoroughly gifted player not named LeBron. He may be the most exciting player, of any name, age or wage. If you have to watch a single player play a single game, you may well watch Mr. Westbrook play 48 minutes over anyone.
As kids we’re spellbound by the flashy, the spectacular, the SportsCenter highlight on eternal loop. As a boy I marveled at George Gervin and Charles Barkley while Larry Bird and Magic Johnson gobbled up NBA championships. As we age, we’d like to think we become more tethered to the real goal of any competition — to win. And while Russell Westbrook is an athletic anomaly, almost bionic in terms of talent and energy, his career arc has dipped well below the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Even in a sport that so heavily relies on teamwork, NBA players need to know their role. No matter the corporation, room, or gaggle of guys, there still must be an Alpha, a top to the totem pole. And perhaps three guys as gifted as Westbrook, Harden and Durant couldn’t share the OKC crown. A shame. Imagine those three studs against San Antonio, Golden State, and perhaps the King himself, in Cleveland.
Or maybe Russell Westbrook so singularly needs to be the boss that the current Thunder roster is perfectly contoured for his skill and will. Try naming the top three team scorers after Westbrook. Try naming OKC’s starting five. Westbrook has so profoundly dominated the team and, to some extent, the sport, that this season has become the Russell Westbrook show.
A shame it will end long before the NBA Finals.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.
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