For me, this post is a treat because I get to write about my favorite sports subject, Russell Westbrook. I have been a sports fan all of my life and as I watched Russell recording his fourth triple-double of the season and giving a clinic on the proper way to get your teammates involved against the Minnesota Timberwolves Friday night, I realized that I have never enjoyed watching a professional athlete play the game more than Russ.
Almost lost among the hoopla of another Westbrook triple-double was, in my opinion, an even higher achievement when Russell cracked the 4,000 career assist barrier in the first quarter of Friday night's game against the Timberwolves.
Four thousand assists is a major milestone. In fact, only 106 NBA players have ever reached that lofty plateau and this post would not be complete without honoring that occasion with a replay of his number 4,000:
In the past 50 years, there have been 3,071 players enter the NBA and Russell's current 4,009 career assists leaves 2,965 of those players choking in his dust. As a matter of fact, his career 7.32 assists/gm ranks him 5th among active NBA players and #22 ALL TIME.
This season's average of 9.5 assists/gm is fourth in the league and his 390 total ranks 2nd. What I find most intriguing is that I still don't think he has peaked.
At this point in his career, it is easy to forget that Westbrook did NOT play point guard in college. He has been learning, and sometimes redefining, the position on the fly. Billy Donovan's system is opening up assist options Westbrook has never enjoyed before... and he likes it.... a lot! And the best part is we are only at the half way point of his first season in Donovan's ball movement focused offense. He has only just arrived at the jumping off point.
As Westbrook and his teammates become more and more accustomed with the new toys Donovan has given them to play with, we can only guess how far Russell will raise his assist ceiling in the very near future. However, because this is Russell's 4,000th assist celebration, I will take a crack at it.
In the last 10 games Russell is averaging 9.9 assists/gm. Adjust for the time lost as a result of the ejection after the J.J. Barea hacking and Charlie Villanueva attempted strangling incident against Dallas, and that number could be as high as 10.8. That is better than John Stockton's career 10.51 mark and the rest of the team is just beginning to realize that the old no option but the 2 man ISO game is in fact dead.
Russell wants his teammates involved, he needs them involved, and he is passing even in crunch time to keep them involved.
Andre Roberson and Steven Adams have responded by combining for an additional 6 pts/gm in the last 10 games and Russ told Leslie McCasslin after the game on Friday that the team is really beginning to have some fun.
This lob to Robes is so sick it deserves more than just a gif on the banner!
And I expect to see more and more of these kind of highlights in the second half of the season! His teammates trust him and Russell is becoming so comfortable in Donovan's system he is even drawing up plays on the palm of his hand.
Here is how NewsOK's Anthony Slater described the scene during the Minnesota game at Chesapeake Energy Arena:
Moments before the second half Friday night, Russell Westbrook gathered around OKC's other four starters. The meeting was held at mid-court. But on the heels of college football season, it felt like midfield.
Westbrook was at the front of the huddle, the quarterback. Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, Andre Roberson and Steven Adams surrounded him, like receivers awaiting instructions. Without a whiteboard, Westbrook held out the palm of his left hand and starting diagramming plays on it with his right index finger, backyard football style.
And in the Thunder's 113-93 throttling of the Timberwolves, whatever button OKC's quarterback pushed worked.
The Thunder's first hoop of the second half came right after the huddle. It was a well-executed pin-down screen for a Durant catch-and-shoot jumper, set up by Westbrook.
Just a few minutes later:
Coach Billy Donovan has talked recently about wanting to get Adams and Enes Kanter more minutes together. He subbed Kanter in for Ibaka early in the third quarter for that reason. But in that lineup, Kanter is out of position, playing power forward instead of center. So he doesn't know where to be at all times.
During a timeout midway through the third quarter, Westbrook went to Donovan suggesting the backdoor cut, one of OKC's favorite pet plays. Following some misdirection, Durant hits Westbrook cutting toward the baseline.
But for it to work, the power forward — typically Ibaka, but this time Kanter — needs to spread on the far wing, leaving the lane open. He did. The play was open. Westbrook dunked. The lead was up to 25.
"I told him, you have to go over there and explain to Enes," Donovan said. "I give him a lot of credit from a leadership standpoint to walk over to Enes and get him in the right spot and get him to do the right thing. That points to Russell's intelligence. He knows all five positions."
Westbrook knows his teammates and is really just beginning to understand what his coach wants to see happening on the floor and how that will tap into this team's potential. When you match the smartest and most athletic guy on the basketball court with this guy (who isn't too bad himself)....
.... the sky is the limit.
As stated earlier, in forty-one games this season, Westbrook has recorded 390 assists. That is 28 more than he amassed in the 66-game strike shortened 2011-12 season, the only year the Thunder made it to the NBA Finals, and he currently sits at #106 on the all time assist leader board. If he maintains his current pace and then out of nowhere decided at the end of this season he had had enough and called it quits, Russell would finish his career ahead of Ray Allen at #80. Average just 700 assists per year and in just 3 years he would pass Tiny Archibald at #22. Maintain that average through just one more contract and Russell Westbrook could be a top 10 all time assist man before he is ready to sign another deal.
Does 700 sound too high? Keep in mind he is on pace for 780 this season, and is anyone going to argue that the first half of this season was not at times a big hot mess? Most coaches and teams don't come close to hitting their eventual stride until the second season. Look no further than the two teams from the latest NBA Finals to back that up, so if anything, 700 may be short changing Russell's potential a bit, maybe even a lot.
For the sake of argument, let's say I'm full of beans. I'm not, but to be fair, let's say that 7.3 assists/gm is the best Westbrook has and there are only 400 games left in the tank. That would total 2920 more assists and he's done. Now let's add the 4009 already in the books and we get 6929 career assists. That would put Russell at #17 and....
...and snuggle him right behind a guy named Cousy, Bob Cousy. Now where have I heard that name? Nah, Russ can do better than 7000.
Recently ESPN.com published a list of the top ten point guards in NBA history. Listed among the Magic Johnson's, the Oscar Robertson's, and the Bob Cousy's was Steph Curry at number 4. SI.com's Carlos Murillo researched the numbers and agreed with ESPN assessment of the Golden State shooting phenom and I am not going to dispute their overall conclusions.
What I will do however is use the numbers that Murillo used to back up his sentiments and put Westbrook's numbers up against Curry's along with a few of my own.
regular season career average:
- Curry - 21.6 (21.7 according to basketballreference.com)
- Westbrook - 21.4
Murillo points out that regular season scoring is virtually meaningless if you can't do it in the playoffs and points out that Curry joins only Oscar Robertson (22.2) and Isiah Thomas (20.9) on the 20+ career playoff list
- Curry - 25.9
- and Westbrook - 24.1 (hmmmm, higher than both Robertson and Thomas as well)
Curry takes the TS% and 3 point shooting, but then Russell isn't the team's best shooter to begin with. That honor would go to Kevin Durant, so let's move on to....
- Curry - 6.9
- Westbrook - 7.32(!)
But now wait a second, Murillo points out that the "traditional" numbers don't tell the best story and that you have to look at the Per 100 possession adjustments, let's take a peek:
- Curry - 9.7 (impressive)
- Westbrook - 11 (oops)
Hold on, there's more. The true genius of Curry can be found in his "hockey assist" totals, something Murillo says is "a direct indication of his quick-thinking passing as a result of teams blitzing him with several bodies." Forgive me if I miss the mark here, but the last time I looked, teams basically were throwing every body they had on the floor attempting to keep Russell away from their rim but let's compare and see if Murillo's final adjustment makes up the difference:
- Curry - 2.5 (tops in the league)
- Westbrook - 1.4 (a mere 12th)
- Curry - 12.2
- Westbrook - 12.4 (sorry Steph, Russ has gotcha on this one)
- Curry - 4.2
- Westbrook - 5.4
- Curry - 4.4
- Westbrook - 6.0
- Curry - 2 (including a 3-Point Shootout win)
- Westbrook - 4 (including an MVP award)
- Curry - 2 (1 first team)
- Westbrook - 4
Both made their All Rookie teams but Russell was 1st team.
Last year Curry won the league MVP award and Westbrook won the scoring title.
Again, I'm not disputing ESPN or Carlos Murillo about Curry's place among the all time great point guards in NBA history, I'm just curious why Russell Westbrook didn't get an honorable mention.... that's all.
Congratulation to my favorite "pro" athlete of all time for his 4000th career assist and here's hoping to see you pass the Big O when you hit 10,000 sometime in 2024!