Fifty-five years ago when Oscar Robertson set his record for triple-doubles in season while playing for the Cincinnati Royals, there was no special ceremony or blowout media coverage. The term “triple-double” did not exist at the time and didn’t enter the basketball lexicon until years later, its mainstream emergence aided in 1992 by a Los Angeles-based rapper who happened to notch one on the playground one good and sunny day.
Not only was there not intense coverage of the statistical mark in 1962, Robertson didn’t even know he had achieved anything remarkable or historic at the time. “Not at all,” he told the Cincinnati Enquirer near the 50th anniversary of his feat in 2012. “I didn’t know anything about it forever, to be honest.”
Contrast that to the season-long storyline that has been Russell Westbrook’s pursuit of Robertson’s record for most triple-doubles in a season and his quest to join The Big O as the only other player in NBA history to average a triple-double for an entire campaign. Westbrook accomplished the former on Sunday against the Nuggets, totaling 50 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists (and a buzzer beater to win the game) to give him 42 triple-doubles for the season with two more games still to play. The latter accomplishment is officially clinched, too, that coming two games ago; Westbrook now has enough points, rebounds and assists on the season to average double figures in each even if he puts up zeroes across the board in OKC’s final games of the season on Tuesday and Wednesday night.
Robertson’s marks were once considered to be among sport’s unbreakable records. Westbrook bested both. And while the achievement built all season and seemed inevitable for weeks – unlike a remarkable, one-night outburst to eclipse Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game – that makes Westbrook’s triple-double history no less impressive. In fact, it’s even more notable because it required 82 nights of excellence instead of just one. Even in an age of hyperbole, there is no overstating what Westbrook just accomplished.
“Why not? That’s my motto,” Westbrook said of his mindset last week before officially setting the records. “That’s what I believe. Some people may play with it and laugh with it, but that’s how I really think, what I really believe. I never know what’s possible, or what’s not possible, what people can or can’t do. I don’t limit myself. I just say ‘why not’ and continue to play, and that’s my motto and I stand behind it.”
That sounds a lot like standard athlete cliche. But for this athlete, in this season, we’ll call it enlightening. If there has ever been an athlete who actually figured out how to give 110%, it’s Russell Westbrook.
Kevin Durant’s departure was supposed to be the story of the Thunder’s 2016-2017 season, but it’s been an afterthought thanks to Westbrook’s excellence. He’s not been just squeaking out 10, 10 and 10 every night while running the Thunder’s offense and handling the ball on every possession, he’s leading the NBA in scoring, is sixth in assists and 10th in rebounds. Without the former face of the franchise, the Thunder have locked up the six seed in the West and have a shot at 48-34 wins – not too far off of last year’s mark of 55-27.
Because the NBA is the NBA, a venture that often feels marketed as an individual competition for league MVP disguised as team sport, Westbrook’s performance has thrust him him into the trophy debate. His team-mates don’t see how there can even be a discussion. Thunder center Steven Adams said this week that he thinks it’s “weird” there is even a question about who the award should go to and added that no matter who gets it, Westbrook is the “MVP of our hearts.”
While it’s difficult to see how someone other than the guy who bumped the great Robertson down the record books can be honored, the NBA is fortunate to have great players across the league. Westbrook’s former Oklahoma City team-mate, James Harden, has had a career year with the Rockets, improved his defense, and made Houston into legitimate contenders in the West without Dwight Howard. San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard has averaged over 25 points a game while playing lockdown defense to help the Spurs thrive without longtime franchise cornerstone Tim Duncan. And LeBron James remains LeBron James, maybe the greatest basketball player ever still in his prime, able to take teams of any talent level to a spot in the NBA Finals.
Some of Westbrook’s remaining critics will undoubtedly point out that his rebound totals were partially inflated by Adams and Enes Kanter clearing the way for him to grab boards off of missed free throws. Others will go with the argument that Westbrook “doesn’t make his team-mates better,” an odd claim to make when his team-mates would be long-since eliminated from playoff contention without him.
The point is this: there’s no wrong choice among those four contenders. Someone other than Westbrook could indeed be named league MVP. But he doesn’t need something called the Maurice Podoloff Trophy to validate what he accomplished this season. Averaging a triple-double, breaking the record for triple-doubles in a season, besting the irreproachable Robertson, that’s all bigger than some award, even the league MVP award.
Westbrook, Leonard, Harden, LeBron. It doesn’t much matter. For all the season-long build up each year, the MVP announcement is always quickly swallowed up each May by the playoffs. The details become fuzzy as time passes. Who remembers exactly how many MVPs Tim Duncan or Dirk Nowitzki or Karl Malone won and when? Who cares that Derrick Rose won one just a few years ago? Who talks about how Robertson only won the MVP in 1964, two years after his historic season?
We forget about MVPs. We will never forget what Westbrook accomplished this year. He just put up one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. And he’s got the stats to prove it.