The NBA season almost played out without hardly any noticing Washington’s Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double for the fourth time in five seasons.
Westbrook had made a rare statistical achievement seem banal, accomplishing it for a team with a losing record.
It conjures a variation of an old philosophical question: If Westbrook gets a triple-double with the Washington Wizards, does anyone really know that it happened?
The Wizards’ season was plodding along with them currently outside of the playoff picture.
And then Westbrook made sure everybody knew about his season with the NBA’s first 35-point, 20-assist triple-double and with help from loquacious ESPN personality Stephen A. Smith.
“Oscar Robertson was the last guy to average a triple-double,” Wizards coach Scott Brook said. “He (Westbrook) has done it three years in a row and he’s doing it again this year. What Russell does for us goes beyond the stat sheet and he fills the stat sheet like nobody in the history of this game. He’s going to go down as one of the best point guards of all time. His IQ is through the top. His preparation is through the top.”
Smith isn’t impressed.
“You’ve played with some great, great players over the years, some talent. And not a single title to show for it,” Smith said. “The numbers are the numbers. That’s Russell Westbrook. He can do that to anybody. But I’m at a point in time in his career where it ain’t about that no more. It’s about whether or not you can get to another level to win the chip.”
Rings culture became the focal point, and Westbrook dismissed the criticism in a lengthy answer.
“Like I said before, a championship doesn’t change my life,” Westbrook said. “I’m happy. I was a champion once I made it to the NBA. I grew up in the streets. I’m a champion. I don’t have to be an NBA champion. I know many people that got NBA championships that’s miserable, haven’t done nothing for their community, haven’t done nothing for the people in our world.”
Westbrook is unapologetic about who he is and how he plays. And it’s been that way it has been for the past 10-plus seasons.
Few people know that better than Brooks, who coached Westbrook from his rookie season in 2008-09 through 2014-15 and now this season with Washington. Brooks may be Westbrook’s staunchest supporter and defender.
“I’m going to say this another million times in my life when I’m done dealing with you guys – off record, on record, with my wife, with my son, with my daughter, with my friends – I tell everybody the same thing: the guy’s a winner and he’s fun to coach because he competes every night and he wants it every night,” Brooks said.
Regardless of what one may think about Westbrook’s game, there is an importance to being Russell Westbrook. He is a future Hall of Famer, a player who changed perceptions of what a 6-3 point guard can do and inspired others, young Memphis star Ja Morant among them.
Among Westbrook’s qualities, none are as noticeable as his effort. Westbrook goes all out, all the time. It’s why he has averaged at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in four of the past five seasons.
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“The one thing I always cherish and enjoy about this game is that you get to go out and compete and play every level,” Westbrook said. “That’s one thing I always pride myself on is making sure I leave it on the floor every single night, and I’ve been blessed and given an opportunity to be able to do that and I don’t it for granted.”
In what amounts to a half a season of games, Westbrook already has more triple-doubles (18) than any player in Wizards history. Not a single-season record. A franchise career record.
Westbrook has 164 career triple-doubles, No. 2 all-time behind only Oscar Robertson (181). It probably won’t happen this season, but Westbrook should pass Robertson next season.
“Different records and different things may happen,” Westbrook said. “But one thing I always do is stay humble, stay true to myself and always continue to give everything I have and pride myself on creating some consistency for my teammates.”
There is humility and confidence.
In one breath, Westbrook said. “I don’t deserve the credit honestly. For me, I always give credit to the man above for blessing me with abilities to play. Along those lines, I’ve had so many great coaches and teammates that have made my job easy and helped me out.”
In another breath, he said, “I always felt like I’m able to things no one else can do on the floor. I just believe that when I step on the floor every night. … I put a lot of pressure on myself to do everything. I know that. Not many people in this league do that, and I do that consistently by putting a shit-ton of pressure on myself – win, lose – to do every single thing on the floor.”
Of course, Westbrook’s style is polarizing. The frenetic pace in which he plays sometimes leads to turnovers, ill-advised shots and questionable decisions. There is inefficiency to his game, and he doesn’t fit the mold of a guard in an analytics-centric league.
Even Brooks acknowledged, “He’s not perfect. He’s frustrated he’s turned the ball over 4.9 times a game. It eats him. He cares about it. I’m surprised he doesn’t have an ulcer because it eats at him so much. But he cares. I tell him, ‘Russell, we have to cut down your turnovers,’ and he agrees. ‘Russell, you’ve got two, three quick shots every game.’ He understands.”
Westbrook doesn’t think he should be immune to criticism. But it matters to Westbrook from whom the criticism comes.
There is no mystery to Westbrook’s game with career averages of 23.2 points, 8.4 assists, 7.2 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 4.1 turnovers while shooting 43.7% from the field and 30.5% on 3-pointers.
There is an admirable defiance to Westbrook’s stance. He knows who he is, prioritizes what is important to him and his family and finds happiness with or without a championship.
When he talks about his legacy, he’s not talking basketball.
Westbrook started his Why Not Foundation to “inspire the lives of young people, teach them to always ask themselves, “Why Not?” and help them to build the resilience to never give up.”
In the past year, he has donated computers to families when classes became virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic and partnered with the L.A Promise Fund to create Why Not Academy for sixth through 12th graders to help develop academic achievers, athletes and social activists, among other philanthropic efforts to help underserved communities.
“My legacy,” Westbrook said, “is what I do off the floor, how many people I’m able to impact and inspire along my journey.”