Monday night in New York City, Russell Westbrook willed himself forward in his crusade for basketball immortality by finally reaching a triple-double average on the season against the lowly Knicks. In doing so, he became the first player since Oscar Robertson in the early 1960s to hold the honor this late into the season.
Russell’s domination across all statistics only increases when considering the slower pace of play in modern-day NBA action, highlighted by the Thunder’s 33-seconds-per-shot average compared to the Robertson-led Bucks’ average of 27 seconds per shot.
On top of it all, Westbrook’s varying performances are miraculously more impressive when considering he is second in the league with 30.9 points per game, behind another one-man demolition squad, the freak athlete Anthony Davis.
Westbrook’s roll only continued with his fifth straight triple-double, while dragging the rest of the mediocre, if not subpar, Thunder squad to an overtime victory against the Wizards on Wednesday night. Yet even with all those distractions about NBA history, Westbrook continues to keep his mentality unshaken each and every night.
“Winning is sustainable. That’s all I know, man, and my job is to make sure we go out and find the best way to win games, and right now we’ve won three straight, and that’s the most important part for me.”
That’s what an exhausted Russ told reporters following his record-setting Monday night deconstruction of the Knicks. Yet despite Westbrook’s team-first mentality, it certainly raises the question: Will the Thunder frontman and Oklahoma icon finally take home the Most Valuable Player award that has long evaded him?
Ultimately, however, regardless of Westbrook’s continual energy and passion on the court that translates into his dominance of all facets of the game, I still fail to see a reality in which Russ finishes this season as the MVP (barring an unprecedented turnaround from the rest of the struggling Thunder roster into a formidable, playoff-caliber team).
NBA fans have to look back almost 20 years to a young 1978-88 Michael Jordan — a.k.a. the best player to ever grace the game — in order to find an NBA MVP outside the top two seeds in the playoffs that year. Even then, Jordan needed to lead the Bulls to the third seed in the East in order to earn that title.
Moses Malone earned the individual title as a fourth seed for the Houston Rockets while having a ridiculous statistical career similar to Westbrook’s season thus far. Malone finished fourth with Houston, yet won the award after averaging a double-double with 24.8 points and 17.6 rebounds per game, in addition to leading the Rockets with a ludicrous 41.8 minutes per game.
Russ’s best hope at taking home the individual glory, and — to be quite honest, any trophy at all this season — rests in becoming another outlier similar to Malone and ultimately changing the way the Most Valuable Player award is perceived by voters and analysts around the association. But even in accomplishing that, Westbrook looks to be damned by the very organization to which he has pledged his loyalty.
The Thunder possess an atrocious plus-minus with Westbrook off the court, nearly doubling the NBA’s worst team: the Philadelphia 76ers. This contrasts with OKC having over a plus-6 points per 100 possessions, near the top of the league, when their iconic point guard is on the floor. The dramatic change only reinforces Thunder’s early-season doubters’ and critics’ conceptions about the team behind their No. 1 guy, and ultimately doesn’t bode well for OKC’s chances at any home-court advantages come April.
That being said, Oklahoma City isn’t in a bad place as of now, despite its lackluster play as a whole so far. According to FiveThirtyEight, which runs data-driven simulations after each game to assess playoff probabilities for each team, Russ’ incredible performances have singlehandedly given the Thunder an 87 percent chance at the franchise’s sixth consecutive postseason appearance.
Ultimately, however, Westbrook contends against fellow MVP candidates like Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard, who can simply point to their teams’ elite records as a part of their MVP resumes. While the Oklahoma season continues to be awe-inspiring, Russ needs to either beat the increasing number of MVP-worthy players on elite teams or convince a large enough group of NBA voters to change the meaning behind the Most Valuable Player, both which seem near impossible.
Thus, while I as much as anyone continue to enjoy the Westbrook show, I simply can’t help but think that Russ’ MVP run unfortunately rests on the shoulders of his teammates to perform up to the standard their point guard sets. If they can’t, Westbrook’s inevitably increasing frustration will pose a greater threat than an MVP award for a once-promising Thunder franchise.
Contact Lorenzo Rosas at enzor9 ‘at’ stanford.edu if you question whether Russell Westbrook would still be willing to accept Lorenzo’s nomination for MVP if he knew it was written while wearing a Lakers jersey. Send a photo of Kobe Bryant for yes and a photo of Shaquille O’Neal for no.