Celebrating Russell Westbrook

Sometimes you don’t know how good a star player is until he comes to a team you follow. That’s certainly true if you’re only a casual fan of his sport, as I am these days when it comes to the NBA. But it can even be true if you follow a sport closely, as I did when Robbie Alomar came to the Baltimore Orioles and blew me away with his all-around excellence.

Back to the NBA, let’s consider the case of Russell Westbrook, who yesterday broke Oscar Robertson’s record for career triple-doubles (double digit points, rebounds, and assists in a game). When the Wizards acquired Westbrook this past off-season, I knew he was a star. However, I largely subscribed to the standard critique of his game — inefficient shooter (too many misses per shot), too many turnovers (among the 50 players with the most turnovers in NBA history, all of them stars to be sure, Westbrook ranks first in turnovers per game), too much hogging of the ball.

The criticism that his teams haven’t won a championship, and often have been eliminated quickly in the playoffs, didn’t resonate much with me. Plenty of great players have been unable to coax their teams to great playoff success. Besides, the Wizards weren’t gunning for a championship. Getting to the playoffs would constitute success for them.

It did seem to me, however, that Westbrook’s flaws had come to the fore in several big playoff games I watched over the years. I suppose that’s natural when you’re playing against great teams late in the playoffs, but the game’s very best players deliver most of the time in these circumstances.

So, although I looked forward to seeing Westbrook play on television, I expected to see a flawed star whose triple-doubles wouldn’t translate into much success for the team.

And that’s how it played out for much of the season. Westbrook’s limitations were plain for all to see, and Wizards were terrible.

Even so, I couldn’t help but be impressed with the raw intensity of Westbrook’s play. I also noticed that, contrary to my expectations, he was a consummate team player. Furthermore, off the court, he seemed like a genuinely good guy.

Then, suddenly, the Wizards took off with Westbrook at the helm. Their record since April 12 is 13-2. And their three losses have been by a combined five points, with one of them coming in overtime.

Westbrook has led the Wizards in assists in all 15 games. He has led them in rebounds in all but one, despite standing only 6-3. And despite playing alongside Bradley Beal, the league’s second leading scorer, Westbrook has led the Wizards in points four times in these games (though Beal was absent in one the four). Westbrook posted 36 points in an overtime win over New Orleans, 37 in a rout of Oklahoma City, and 42 in a one point loss to Dallas.

What’s impressed me the most, however, is the quality of his assists. Some are Magic Johnsonesque — pinpoint, defense-splitting passes to players making moves off the ball that most guards wouldn’t spot or couldn’t reward with the assist. It seems obvious that, as the season has gone on, Westbrook’s young teammates have learned to think with him. The results have been stunning.

Yesterday, as I said, Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles. Let’s stipulate that Westbrook is nowhere near as good as the “Big O” was. Let’s agree that triple-doubles are somewhat overrated.

This is still a monumental accomplishment. As Magic Johnson says of Westbrook:

He gets all these triple-doubles, but you don’t see him on the highlights. We’re seeing guys who get 50 or 60 [points], or 45, or who had eight 3-pointers. But we didn’t appreciate and show him getting … I mean, the other night, you get, I think it was 20 boards? People have played 13 years, 15 years, and never get 20 rebounds.

Same with assists. I know I got 24 a lot, but for him to get 24, there’s guards who’s played who would never get even 20. The things he’s been able to do, hopefully, we will say, ‘Give him his love, give him his respect.’ This is really big. This is something I couldn’t even do. I know how big it is.

The performance that put Westbrook over the top as all-time triple-doubles king came in a one point loss. Playing without Beal, the Wizards fell way behind against the division leading Atlanta Hawks on the road. Westbrook led a furious comeback, and the ball was in his hands with time running out and Washington trailing by only a point.

I was hoping he would find a teammate for his 22nd assist of the night. But the Wizards were in transition and no one seemed to be in a better position to shoot than Westbrook.

Westbrook took the shot, a makeable one, and missed pretty badly.

Afterwards, Westbrook claimed the game ball in honor of his record. To his critics, this act confirms their view that he’s a stats-first player.

A year ago, I might have agreed. But no one who watches Westbrook night-in-and-night-out is likely to see Westbrook in that light.

Robertson’s record was nearly a half a century old. Westbrook would have been foolish not to be proud of breaking it, as disappointed as he surely was about losing to Atlanta.

As he has in every Wizards game I’ve watched this year, Westbrook left it all on the floor last night. And, as he has in every game I’ve watched, when it was over he quickly transformed himself from absolute warrior to normal human being.

I’m happy to admit that I was wrong about Russell Westbrook.