Russell Westbrook and Scott Brooks huddled by phone late Sunday. After the Washington Wizards’ eighth consecutive victory, and with the second half of a back-to-back looming Monday night against San Antonio, Westbrook wanted to do some extra strategizing with his coach.
It was only a few months earlier that six consecutive Washington games were postponed because the Wizards had been ravaged by a coronavirus outbreak. Their U-turn has been so dramatic, with Westbrook’s play reminiscent of his Oklahoma City best, that Brooks couldn’t resist interrupting the serious tone by needling his star guard.
“I told him: ‘You’ve got to start rebounding the ball — only five tonight?’” Brooks said. “Just busting his chops.”
Those five rebounds Westbrook managed in Sunday’s victory over Cleveland, to go with 14 points and 11 assists in 36 minutes, were indeed an anomaly. In nine of his previous 10 games, 13 of the previous 15 and 16 of the previous 20, Westbrook reached double figures in points, assists and rebounds.
In his first season as a Wizard, at age 32, Westbrook is averaging 21.8 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists per game — with a league-leading 29 triple-doubles to hike his career total to 175. Denver’s Nikola Jokic, with 15 triple-doubles, is his closest pursuer this season. With seven more triple-doubles, Westbrook will pass Oscar Robertson as the N.B.A.’s career leader.
This is where it’s important to note that Westbrook, who is on a course to average more than 10 rebounds per game for the fourth time in five seasons, stands 6-foot-3.
The official stance of this newsletter is that Westbrook’s forthcoming achievement should be celebrated heartily, at the very least for his relentless rebounding at that size, but it’s hard to say how much fanfare awaits him when he eclipses the Big O. This isn’t even a record that Robertson knew he set at the time, since the term “triple-double” didn’t come into vogue until the 1980s.
Another tricky variable: In my 28 seasons of full-time N.B.A. reporting, Westbrook is right there with Allen Iverson when it comes to the most polarizing players I have covered. Because of Westbrook’s ball-dominant style, fickle jump shot, high turnover rate, occasionally brusque demeanor and, most of all, zero championships, it is often easier to find his critics than his admirers.
As Westbrook closes in on Robertson, there is also a rising tendency to dismiss triple-doubles as empty calories because they happen so frequently in the wide-open modern game. (Example: On March 17, Westbrook was one of six players to record a triple-double that day.) Westbrook’s triple-doubles in particular tend to be discounted in a way that others aren’t, which he brought up in a video session with reporters after Monday’s overtime loss to the Spurs.
“I think it’s very interesting that it’s not useful now that I’m doing it,” Westbrook said.
As covered in a recent piece by my colleague Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press, there were only 18 triple-doubles leaguewide as recently as the 2011-12 regular season. This season’s total has already topped 100, for the fifth season in a row, pointing to the various offensive advantages enjoyed in today’s N.B.A. The faster pace of play creates more possessions, and thus more statistical opportunities, and restrictions on defenders have been designed to promote more freedom of movement on offense. Players are likewise encouraged to shoot 3-pointers at record rates, boosting scoring numbers and leading to more long rebounds. Old schoolers resistant to the 3-point revolution, in response, are prone to scoff at some of the gaudy stuff we see in box scores these days.
Yet this is where I feel compelled to repeat that part about Westbrook standing just 6-3. He is the only player in league history at that size or smaller to average at least 10 rebounds a game over a full season.
“It’s a lot harder at 6-3,” said Lafayette Lever, who went by the nickname Fat and amassed 43 triple-doubles from 1982-83 through 1993-94.
Lever understands Westbrook’s challenge as well as anyone. He was a 6-3, 170-pound guard who rang up a league-leading 16 triple-doubles in 1986-87, ahead of both Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and he didn’t have Westbrook’s explosion.
“Russell is so much more athletic than I was at any point in time,” Lever said in a phone interview, “probably from the day he was born.”
Lever, though, had an exceptional knack for rebounding, which he credited to playing on a high school team with no one taller than 6-3. He still ranks 10th in career triple-doubles. It wasn’t until Johnson joined the Lakers, five seasons after Robertson’s retirement, that triple-doubles were seriously tracked and discussed, but among my N.B.A.-obsessed high school friends in the 1980s, we associated triple-doubles with Lever as much as with Magic or Bird, since he seemed like such an unlikely source for them.
Lever accrued all 43 of his triple-doubles in a six-season span with the Denver Nuggets from 1984-85 to 1989-90 as one of the driving forces on a team that, like Westbrook, wasn’t always appreciated. Detractors at the time took issue with the freewheeling style those Nuggets played under Coach Doug Moe — and the wild scores and stats their games produced.
Turbocharged statistical lines are a staple now in a league where 13 teams out of 30, entering Tuesday’s play, were attempting at least 40 percent of their shots from 3-point range. Cries of stat padding became commonplace in Westbrook’s later years with the Thunder, and the hyper-awareness of triple-doubles — and a corresponding urge to chase them — is another perceived advantage for the Westbrook generation. But Lever insisted that achieving the consistency of Westbrook’s board work is far harder than it looks.
“It’s still a big deal,” Lever said, “because not everyone is able to do it.”
Westbrook made similar statements after the Wizards’ winning streak was snapped by the 146-143 loss to the Spurs. Asked about his latest triple-double, which included 22 points, 13 rebounds and 14 assists — albeit on 9-for-26 shooting — Westbrook said: “I honestly believe there is no player like myself. And if people want to take it for granted, sorry for them. But I’m pretty sure if everybody could do it, they would do it.”
It’s difficult to argue with that logic, although many try. In 2016-17, Westbrook became the first player since the 6-5 Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double for an entire season. That feat helped Westbrook, starring for the 47-win Thunder, become the N.B.A.’s first Most Valuable Player Award winner from a sub-50-win team since Moses Malone in 1981-82.
With a boost from his recent surge, Westbrook is on a course to average a triple-double for the fourth time in five seasons, which in theory should position him as an M.VP. candidate. The reality is much colder: Westbrook has seemingly normalized averaging a triple-double and has been traded twice during that run, suggesting to some that triple-doubles aren’t especially valuable. Or, worse, that he is not a player to build around.
Washington acquired him from Houston on Dec. 2 in a swap of disgruntled backcourt stars that sent John Wall to the Rockets. In January and February, Westbrook’s play was alarmingly inefficient and turnover-laden, with noticeably fewer rushes to the rim. Since the All-Star break, Westbrook has consistently played at a top-30 level, and Washington has a net rating of plus-4.4 points per 100 possessions with both Westbrook and Bradley Beal on the floor.
Concern persists over Westbrook’s five turnovers per game, and his curious slippage at the free-throw line to a career-low 62.8 percent from 76.3 percent last season, but the constant thrust Westbrook plays with has made the Wizards hard to guard. His presence has not hindered Beal’s scoring, as some surmised when the trade went down; Beal is locked in an almighty battle with Golden State’s Stephen Curry for the league’s scoring title.
In March and April, Westbrook became the first player to register at least 300 points, 150 assists and 150 rebounds in consecutive calendar months since Wilt Chamberlain in February and March of 1968, according to research from the statistician Justin Kubatko. Westbrook will never be for everybody, especially without a ring, but Brooks couldn’t have lobbied harder for the Wizards to reunite them when the trade opportunity arose. He coached him through nearly all of Westbrook’s first seven seasons in Oklahoma City,
“The rebounding is the most incredible thing,” Brooks said. “He goes and gets them. He just has that knack. It doesn’t matter who’s in front of him; he always has one more step on his ladder. The will, the athleticism the competitive drive — I knew what our team needed.
“Eleven rebounds a game for guy 6-3? We’ll never see a player like him ever again, not in my generation or my kids’ generation.”
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Questions may be condensed or lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: The Knicks have overperformed this season. The front office did not make any splashes at the trade deadline. Jeff Van Gundy recently mentioned on television that the Knicks were “still incredibly limited” talent-wise. Their best player is Julius Randle, but the N.B.A. has been a perimeter-based league for some time. How will Leon Rose address this? — Wallace Leeth (Paterson, N.J.)
Stein: April has been a month for Knicks fans to savor. Genuine optimism and joy are tangible at Madison Square Garden for the first time in years. I suppose it was inevitable that someone would inject a sober dose of pragmatism into the conversation, but it’s also difficult to quibble with the patient approach — so far.
The Knicks are ahead of schedule and well positioned to pursue signings and trades to bolster an offensively challenged roster, with considerable salary-cap space and two first-round picks forthcoming in the off-season. Team officials know they still have plenty of work to do to upgrade the overall talent, but that wasn’t imperative at the trade deadline in March. It’s not like there was a difference-maker they missed out on.
It’s true that this front office will ultimately be judged on its ability to sign or trade for at least one certifiable star to pair with Randle, which means persuading an established player to embrace the challenge of playing in New York as heartily as Randle did. Rose and his management team also have to brace for ongoing second-guessing about their first draft pick if the rookie guard Tyrese Haliburton continues to blossom in Sacramento, since they could have drafted Haliburton at No. 8 rather than Obi Toppin.
The Rose regime, though, has done many good things in its first year. The Knicks appear to have hired the right coach in Tom Thibodeau, helped usher Randle to All-Star status and can point to promising development from RJ Barrett and the rookie Immanuel Quickley to offset the injuries that have derailed Mitchell Robinson’s third season.
There have been whispers for weeks that the Knicks’ flirtation with the East’s No. 4 seed has helped restore their reputation to the point that star players are finally prepared to consider them a destination franchise again. If that proves true, they will have multiple pathways to address the concerns you raised, whether it’s by trying to sign a savvy former All-Star like Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan on a short-term deal as a bridge to free-agent classes more star-laden than this summer’s, or by using future draft picks (perhaps packaged with Toppin) to construct a meaningful trade.
Things could always go askew if the Knicks rush into the wrong deal, as they have been known to do over the years, or if the team’s owner, James L. Dolan, decides he needs to get involved after abiding by the organization’s plan to let Thibodeau and on-court results do all the talking. But I would say that the Knicks have certainly earned a grace period through the end of this surprising season. This is a time for Knicks fans, surely, to revel in what’s going right.
Q: Do they really get the Oscar itself? Kobe Bryant was very involved in co-creating his film, which is why he was given an Oscar. Executive producers frequently provide financing and aren’t involved as hands-on producers. In any case, good for them. — @FromMeadows from Twitter
Stein: In my exuberance Sunday night, I tweeted that Kevin Durant, Mike Conley Jr. and Rich Kleiman, Durant’s business manager, joined Bryant as Oscar winners from the N.B.A. because they were listed as executive producers for “Two Distant Strangers,” which won the best live action short film category at Sunday’s Academy Awards. That’s incorrect.
They were part of an Oscar-winning film, but did not get awards themselves. Kobe took home an Oscar trophy in 2018 for the animated short film “Dear Basketball,” which was based on a poem Bryant wrote in 2015 to announce his retirement at the end of the 2015-16 season.
Q: I’ve never seen so many tweets and stories about a team signing a guy to a 10-day contract. We’ve seen posts about Mike James about 50 times over the past week. — @MrWright1218 from Twitter
Stein: There are some good reasons for that.
It’s partially a function of where we are on the regular-season calendar. There just aren’t as many roster moves happening this close to the postseason, especially involving title contenders, so the ones that do happen generate extra coverage.
Yet it’s also a byproduct of the circumstances. James was one of the most prominent Americans playing abroad, with a high-profile European club (CSKA Moscow), and he had a complicated contractual situation to negotiate — as well as six days’ worth of health and safety protocols to complete — before he could actually join the Nets on Friday. The fluidity of James’s status led to more frequent updates.
Recording 50 wins in an 82-game season is a traditional marker for N.B.A. excellence. Winning 50 games in a 72-game season is obviously harder, but six teams still have a chance to do so with 19 days remaining in the regular season: Utah (44-17), Phoenix (43-18), the Los Angeles Clippers (43-20), the Nets (42-20), Philadelphia (40-21) and Denver (40-21). Of those six, only the Jazz (52) and the Suns (51) are currently on a pace to do so.
Nikola Jokic’s M.V.P. case will undoubtedly be bolstered by his durability in this pandemic season. Jokic has played in all 61 of Denver’s games and has led the Nuggets to a 6-1 record since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury on April 12. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, widely regarded as Jokic’s closest pursuer in the M.V.P. race, has played in 42 of the 76ers’ 61 games.
Monday’s home loss to the Suns, the No. 2 seed in the West, brought a halt to the Knicks’ nine-game winning streak. The Knicks have had only one longer unbeaten run in the 21st century, winning 13 consecutive games late in the 2012-13 season, which featured the club’s last playoff berth.
The Knicks’ Julius Randle leads the league at 37.5 minutes per game. Coach Tom Thibodeau has faced criticism for years about overplaying his best players; Thibodeau most likely would counter that Randle, at 26, is young enough to handle the workload.
This is Seattle’s 13th season without an N.B.A. team. The W.N.B.A.’s Seattle Storm have won three championships in that time, but the wait for a new franchise to replace the SuperSonics will soon take on a new dynamic when the Seattle Kraken join the N.H.L. next season. We’re less than three months away from the Kraken’s expansion draft on July 21.
Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].
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