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2014-15 Thunder Player Grades: Russell Westbrook was the best player in the NBA this season

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A scoring title, an All-Star Game MVP, Mountain Dew commercials... It was a breakout year for Russell Westbrook

"Masked, I advance"
"Masked, I advance"
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Full NameRussell Westbrook Jr.

Nickname: RUSS.

Contract Status: Two years left, at which point he will flee to the Lakers because Lakers fans are delusional and can talk themselves into anything.

Westbrook is set to make $16,744,218 this year and $17,769,374 next year. There's a good chance that with the impending cap jump next off-season, he's going to be an absolute bargain in that final year of his contract.

Interesting Factoid: I wrote his grade post last year, and I thought it was so incredibly fitting that he doesn't have a middle name. This year, we also found out that he is actually a robot from another planet who is indestructible but for minor dents.

WestbrookDent

AP Photo/Don Ryan

You should also read this Lee Jenkins' piece from earlier in the year, which includes several interesting tidbits - my favorite of which being that Westbrook handles all his own bills.

Player History

Again, you can check out last year's review to get the basics, but let's add some things to his resume that he accomplished this season.

  • Won 2014-15 scoring title
  • Finished 4th in MVP voting this season
  • Won 2015 All-Star Game MVP after finishing one point shy of Wilt Chamberlain's All-Star Game scoring record of 42 points.
  • Became the 4th player in NBA history to average 28+points, 8+assists, 7+ rebounds in a season.
  • Broke his FACE. Didn't matter. Wears a mask better than anyone. Also, you see his hat?
  • Is a surprisingly terrible dancer.

#LP #Tyga #ChrisBrown #50Cent #RusselWestbrook #OdellBeckhamJr

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Pre-/Early-Season Expectations

Nothing has changed for Westbrook in terms of expectations since the Thunder made the Finals in 2012. Every season begins with championship aspirations.

Of course, this season was a little different in that, just before the season began, Kevin Durant went down with an injury. Suddenly, the expectations shifted for Westbrook. No longer was it about getting his team to a championship, it was about keeping them afloat until his MVP teammate returned.

Then, in another turn of events, Westbrook broke his hand in the 2nd game of the season, and suddenly no one really knew what to expect from anybody anymore. On top of that, Durant never got totally healthy. Westbrook returned to a 4-12 team, and - despite Durant's health - the expectations from then on seemed to be: Get to the playoffs, hope this team somehow gets healthy, and make a run from there.

Regular Season Grade: A+

Now, going on those expectations I just mentioned, how exactly does Westbrook deserve an A+ when he didn't deliver that playoff berth, you ask? The answer, simply, is that playoffs or not, Russell Westbrook was the best player in the NBA in the 2014-15 season. No, he wasn't MVP, nor should he have been, because a lot goes into that award beyond just "dominating the game of basketball on a night by night basis."

But throughout the year, there wasn't a single player that made you question the limits of human athleticism more than Westbrook. There wasn't a single player that scored, rebounded and passed as relentlessly as Westbrook. There wasn't a single player that gave more highlights and willed his team to more victories by sheer heart and determination than Westbrook.

Look, it's impossible to argue that Westbrook, the best player on a team that didn't make the playoffs, was a better MVP candidate than Steph Curry or James Harden. That doesn't mean he wasn't better, though. He averaged more points, assists and rebounds than both, and if the argument for Harden was that he did the most with less, I would suggest you take a look at the roster Westbrook carried to a near-playoff berth. Not only was he without the reigning MVP for two-thirds of the year, but the entire Thunder roster was essentially a rotating cast of guys recovering from injury.

Then you take into account the fact that a major trade at the deadline transformed the weapons Westbrook was used to working with, transforming the entire offense in the process, and how seamlessly he incorporated those new pieces into the offense; it's something we should never take for granted.

I already mentioned the 28/8/7 stat, and though using arbitrary thresholds is always a bit wishy-washy, it's still a nice illustration of just how all-encompassing Westbrook's dominance was this season. In fact, if you want to add another arbitrary threshold and narrow down that list of four even more, there was only one other time in the history of the league that a player averaged 28/8/7 while also averaging 2 steals a game - and that was Michael Jordan in 1988-89. You know, right as he was transforming into the greatest player of all time.

I'm not going so far as to suggest Westbrook is approaching MJ status (though you can bet if he flees to the Lakers they will make that argument for him), especially since those 2 steals a game sort of hide the fact that he wasn't all that great on defense this year. In fact, if there's one complaint on Westbrook's game this season, it was his propensity to gamble on the perimeter for a steal, often resulting in easy penetration and shots at the rim  - which newcomer Enes Kanter was simply not able to defend, especially after Serge Ibaka had surgery in March and was lost for the season.

Still, when you consider just how much energy and effort Westbrook expends on each and every trip down the court, it's hard not to excuse him for trying to take the easy way out on a couple defensive possessions.

In the end, the Thunder missed the playoffs, and I suppose you could hold Westbrook accountable for that if you really wanted to. But the team was 40-27 with Westbrook in the lineup, which is a 49-win pace, which would have been good enough for a playoff berth. With all the change around him, that's a more than respectable record. It's hard to suggest he should have scored, rebounded or passed more, either because, again, his numbers were already damn-near unprecedented.

His play also elicited praise from two of the most competitive guards in NBA history:

"I'm the biggest Westbrook fan, I think, there is. You know what I mean? Because he reminds me so much of myself as far as his heart and laying it on the line night in and night out. Just a guy that's going to bring it every single night." - Allen Iverson

"I sit here as a former point guard that used to play in the league and I can tell you, out of all the point guards out there playing, (Westbrook) is the one that none of them want to play against. There’s not a point guard at home sitting there saying: ‘I can’t wait to play against Russell, I got Russell coming in here tomorrow.’ No, no, no, no, ain’t nobody saying that. There’s great competition out West, there’s great competition in the East at the point guard position, but I guarantee you no one is asking to play against Russell Westbrook.

[..]

I would have laying in bed the night before saying ‘What am I gonna do with this joker?’ Because when he comes full-throttle, like I said, he’s the Mike Tyson of point guards. He comes with that mentality. Comes with that anger and when you step on that floor you gotta be ready to battle him." - Isiah Thomas

Even his peers think Westbrook is a handful:

Still, the Thunder didn't make the playoffs, and the crime in that is that Westbrook may never get his proper due for the season he had. It was a historically great season and, playoffs or not, Russell Westbrook was the best player in the league in 2014-15.

Most Notable Game/Moment: 49/16/10

Russell Westbrook recorded his 3rd-straight triple double, broke his face, had surgery, and then - 3 DAYS LATER - recorded his 4th-straight triple double. It wasn't just a 4th-straight triple double either, it was a 49 point, 16 rebound, 10 assist, 4 steal evisceration of the 76ers.

Again, you can be "that guy" and play the whole "well it's just the 76ers card," but Westbrook could have put those numbers up against a high school team and they would have been incredible. Again, he broke his face 3 days before.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a game more representative of Westbrook, too. He played fearlessly, despite the mask, lunging after every rebound and attacking the rim without hesitation. On top of that, he had that signature Westbrook swagger in the fourth when he used that unmatched confidence to bury just enough jumpers to keep defenders honest and keep those driving lanes open.

It was an all-time great performance featuring a guy that just wanted to go out and destroy his opponent. Just par for the course for the robot Russell Westbrook.

Future Expectations

This is the interesting thing, because we always wondered how much Westbrook needed Durant, and how much Durant needed Westbrook. The past two seasons, we've gotten a glimpse into both, and it's still kind of murky. Conventional wisdom would suggest that with Durant coming back, the production can only come down for Westbrook.

But are we sure that's the case? Efficiency has never been Westbrook's strong point, but he showed real growth this year in his decision-making. His competitive drive has never been in question, and if Westbrook maintains that attacking style, he can still average the same assist and rebound totals. Despite his on offensive explosion, Westbrook averaged a career-high 8.6 assists for the season (more than Stephen Curry & Jeff Teague, 2 conference finals-bound PG's), and recorded 12 or more assists in 10 times. He helped turn BOTH Enes Kanter and Steven Adams into double-double machines.

Assuming Kanter returns, Westbrook's growth in the pick-and-roll is a legitimate threat to every opponent. Now Westbrook has 3 options to play the two-man game with in Kanter, Ibaka and Durant. The KD/Russ pick-and-roll was always a weapon that it felt like the Thunder never utilized enough, but with a new coach - and with how well Westbrook seemed to run it last season - you have to assume we'll see that more.

If anything, this season proved that Westbrook is more than capable of being the best player on his team, even though we kind of already knew that. Assuming the Thunder can finally enter a season at full health, and remain that way, you'd be hard-pressed to find a team with a more terrifying combo of Westbrook and Durant. Throw in a big-man combo of Kanter and Ibaka, and the offense has a chance to be historically good.

The defense is, of course, the question mark, and I already talked about Westbrook's shortcomings in that area this year. It's possible that having Ibaka - a defensive player of the year candidate - and Durant - also an underrated defender in his own right - could be all the mending the Thunder needs. Still, it'd be nice to see Westbrook find his own on that side of the ball, as well, much as Curry did for the Warriors this year.

If Westbrook can improve his on-ball defense, and the Thunder as a whole find a way to shore up that side of the ball, not only are you looking at a historically great offense, but a dominant all-around team that can absolutely contend for a title.

Durant's return gives the Thunder that championship pedigree, but it certainly helps to have an All-Star MVP and the defending NBA scoring champion right by his side.