Critics of Russell Westbrook just don’t get it

There’s certainly been a backlash to Russell Westbrook, and the year he’s having. We’re now past the halfway point of the NBA season and one major theme has been Westbrook’s pursuit of averaging a triple-double and just how remarkable that is.

From that pursuit and the attention it has received another view has absolutely come into the fold, though: What Westbrook is doing isn’t that exceptional because he’s, in essence, a ball hog and involved in virtually every Oklahoma City play.

Comical. Trying to take anything away from Westbrook and this historic season, to me, is ridiculous. The guy has been phenomenal, maybe even the best player in the NBA right now, though James Harden can certainly make a case.

The last time anyone in the NBA averaged a triple-double was back in 1961-62, when Oscar Robertson averaged  30.0 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game for the Cincinnati Royals. For a long time that feat was considered untouchable by NBA observers. I was a huge Larry Bird fan, but he never even flirted with averaging that as his high for assists in a season was 7.5 per game. Michael Jordan never came close, nor Kobe Bryant, nor Tim Duncan, etc., etc., etc.

This is one-of-a-kind stuff. But the numbers alone are not what make Westbrook’s season among the greatest of all time.

The most important numbers are these: 31-23.

That’s the Thunder’s record, which means Westbrook has put up these numbers and played this way on a team that’s WINNING. When the Thunder lost Kevin Durant this summer, the running joke among Westbrook-skeptics was that he was going to take all the shots he wanted, put up all the numbers he could cram into the boxscore and lose all the while doing it.

That OKC is 31-23, in the Western Conference, with their roster, is a credit and testament to Westbrook and how well he’s playing. Fair to say the Thunder are doing better than most thought. There were plenty of predictions that had them missing the postseason.

In 2000-01, Philadelphia’s Allen Iverson was the MVP. He averaged 31.1 points, 4.6 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game. He shot 42 percent from the field and 32 percent from the 3-point line. Philly finished 56-26 that year — in a conference that we can all agree was not as good as the Western Conference is this year.

Westbrook is dwarfing Iverson’s assist and rebound numbers … and he’s shooting 42 percent from the field and 34 percent from the 3-point line. He does average 5.4 turnovers, but, yes, he is involved in tons and tons of offensive plays. Still, Westbrook is taking 24 shots per game this year; Iverson took 25.5 in his MVP season.

Have you ever watched Oklahoma City play? They need Westbrook to take 24 shots per game. Not only that, his teammates know they need Westbrook to lead them like he leads them because they’re at their best that way. They don’t begrudge him his ball dominance; if they were 22-32, maybe they would. But they’re not.

By the way, Iverson missed 11 games during that MVP season; Westbrook has played all 54 games so far this year.

The point is not to make a case for Westbrook as the league MVP; Harden has just as much right to it. The point is this: Westbrook should be getting more praise and less criticism for the magnificent season he’s having.

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About Steinmetz

Matt Steinmetz is a veteran San Francisco Bay Area sports journalist. He covered the Golden State Warriors for Bay Area News Group for more than a decade before becoming a television analyst with Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. Steinmetz currently co-hosts the "Warriors WrapUp" show and "NBA This Week" on 95.7-FM The Game, the franchise's flagship station, in San Francisco. He also co-hosts the Sal and Steiny podcast.
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