Russell Westbrook Isn't in the MVP Conversation. Why Not?
The MVP race is entering the home stretch. Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are among the frontrunner's for the NBA's top individual award. Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry are somewhere in the mix.
Russell Westbrook is not. In the words of Westbrook: Why not?
On Saturday, Westbrook racked up 21 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists in Oklahoma City's win over Houston. It was the ninth straight triple double for Westbrook—tying him with Wilt Chamberlain for the most consecutive. Barring a collapse, Westbrook will average a triple double for the third straight season.
Let's say that again: Third. Straight. Season.
Three years ago, the idea that a player could average a triple double in a season seemed impossible. Oscar Robertson did it, back in 1961-62. Since then players have flirted with those kind of numbers, but none achieved them. Robertson’s accomplishment looked untouchable. It was Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. Jack Nicklaus’s 18 majors. Chamberlain’s 100-point game. It was a bar no one could jump over.
Then Westbrook did, in 2016-17. And again, the next season. And this season. Make no mistake—Russell Westbrook is going to accomplish something that we may never see again: Three straight seasons averaging a triple double.
On Sunday, I called Billy Donovan, the Thunder coach who has witnessed firsthand every game of Westbrook’s historic run. He watched Westbrook average a triple double in the season after Durant’s defection, when he willed Oklahoma City to 47 wins. He watched him do it the following year, when Westbrook had the responsibility of integrating George and Carmelo Anthony into the mix. And he’s watched him do it this season, as George has emerged as the Thunder’s top MVP candidate.
I asked Donovan—are we taking Westbrook’s staggering numbers for granted?
“Oscar Robertson did it and it took someone  years for someone else to do it,” Donovan told me. “That first year, when Russ did it, everyone wondered if he could do it; coming down the stretch, everyone was watching. Last year, no one even talked about because it had been done.
"It’s going to be a lot like Oscar Robertson. Whenever Russell’s time is done playing, he is going to be the guy who is going to be talked about. Someone might do it for a year, but when they do people will say, ‘Well, Russell Westbrook did it for three straight years.' To me, as the history of the game goes on and there are so few people who have the ability to do stuff like that, I think people will look back on it and say ‘wow’ more than people are saying ‘wow’ in the moment.”
There is a perception that Westbrook is a stat stuffer, and in the waning weeks of the ’16-17 season, that might have been true. But Thunder officials push back hard on it now. They say Westbrook is playing far less frenetically than ever before. They say he is keeping the ball moving in the halfcourt, enabling others to get involved. They say his triple doubles are coming in a more economical way.
“I hear people say stuff like that,” Donovan said. “He is playing to win. I’m with him every single day and I know how important winning is to him. And I think he is playing the game to impact the game. He’s not looking for another rebound or another assist. He does those things because he has the ability to do those things. One of the reasons we have been able to take a big jump offensively is he is generating and getting us into offense and really pushing the ball. The most important thing for Russell is he wants to win.”
What’s remarkable about Westbrook’s triple-double run this season is he’s doing it amidst one of the worst shooting seasons of his career. Westbrook is connecting on just 41.5% of his shots, down nearly four points from last season. He’s making just 24.6% of his threes. His free throw shooting has plummeted to a career-low 64.6%. Name the shot, and chances are Westbrook is missing more of them than ever.
Rhythm has been an issue. In September, Westbrook underwent knee surgery that cost him the preseason. A couple weeks into his return, he suffered a nasty ankle injury that sidelined him for six games in November. His timing has been off, team officials say. Which makes his ability to fill up box scores on a team fighting for a top-three seed in the Western Conference even more impressive.
“Everyone focused on his shooting, that was a theme," Donovan said, "but I have always felt with him that he impacts the game in so many ways that the shooting part of it will come as he gains more and more rhythm.
"Look, I don’t take him for granted or what he does for granted. I’ve been coaching for 30 years, this time of year you come out of the locker room and sometimes you wonder, ‘Jeez I hope our guys are ready to play tonight.’ This guy is never that way. You know he is going to bring everything he has got to the game. But I think the triple-double stuff speaks to how much he puts his fingerprints on the game in so many different ways.”
Indeed. Love him or hate him, Westbrook is making history. And he’s doing it on a winner. Oklahoma City has a top-five defense, two bona fide top-10 players and one of the best sixth men (Dennis Schoder) in the league. They are contenders for the conference title—even if Westbrook isn’t deemed one for MVP.