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Sounds of Thunder: Why Russell Westbrook is not starting in the 2017 NBA All-Star Game

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© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

(post updated with Westbrook’s reaction)

We should have seen it coming for about a month now, but now it’s official. The second player in NBA history to still be averaging a triple-double after the mid-season point is not starting in the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

At this juncture, Russell Westbrook has amassed 21 triple-doubles. He is currently averaging 30.6 pts, 10.4 assts, and 10.4 rebounds. Only Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain have EVER accumulated more in a single season, and at his current pace of triple-doubles, Westbrook will probably finish the season at 39, only 2 shy of Robertson’s record setting 1961/62 season.

Some perspective here. Thirty-nine would be the most triple-doubles recorded in 55 years. I dare say that 90% or more of those reading this post weren’t so much as a glint in their father’s eye 55 years ago, and for many, even their own father wasn’t alive.

When Oscar Robertson, the “Big O,” set the record, John F. Kennedy was the POTUS. The Apollo Space Program that wouldn’t put a man on the moon for another 8 years was less than a year old, and the extent of an American’s families’ contact with the outside world was a black and white TV and a morning newspaper.

Is it even conceivable that a player that was turning a league standard into his personal plaything would not start in the All-Star game? Not in 1962, but this ridiculous notion is not only conceivable in 2017, it’s a sad reality.

In defense of two players, the starting guards Stephen Curry and James Harden are great players. Curry is averaging 24.6 pts, 6.1 assts, and 4.2 rebounds this season, and Harden is having an MVP-quality great year at 28.9 pts, 11.6 assts, and 8.3 rebounds per game. But there is no denying it. Westbrook’s triple-double average is not merely a great season, it is a historically significant season. It is one that may not be duplicated for another 50 years, and yet when the All-Star game tips off on February 19th, the player with the historic resume (and reigning back-to-back All-Star MVPs, lest we forget), will be sitting on the bench.

Why?

Because he lost the popularity contest. The media and players voted Westbrook as the top starter. They recognize the significance of what we are seeing, how insanely difficult it is, but the fans voted Westbrook 3rd:

The ironic thing about the voting results is how much the fan perception of Westbrook, which is dictated largely by the way the media portrays him, differs from the media’s actual perspective. In fact, the fans’ selection order is the exact mirror opposite of the media’s, and an indication that the media is doing a poor job of properly informing their readers.

Without doubt, Westbrook is a difficult interview, especially right after a game, so he bares some of the responsibility in how he is perceived. But that is no excuse for not telling the entire story, especially when there is evidence available to balance the story. That responsibility falls to the telling.

Take this January 19th post from SBNation’s Mark Sandritter, which followed the Thunder’s loss to the Warriors (and incidentally pitted head to head Westbrook and the player who likely replaced him, Curry). Through this account, a reader is told that as Westbrook is leaving the floor, he demands that one of his teammates not “greet” some “unknown” member of the Golden State Warriors:

The reader comes away thinking Westbrook is a petty and sore loser who not only refuses to shake hands, but actually forbids his teammates from congratulating the victors. However, same scene taken from a different angle, and just as available as the first, tells a completely different story:

Westbrook, Anthony Morrow, Victor Oladipo, and Enes Kanter are leaving the floor together. Ahead of them is Kevin Durant, who is about to be interviewed. You can see both Morrow and Westbrook glaring in that direction before the Westbrook comment. (Again, there is no mystery about the bad blood here) A big deal was made out of an encounter between Enes Kanter and Durant in their Nov. 3rd game and Westbrook was preventing an ugly sequel from happening in the wake of the loss. You can even clearly see Kanter nodding his agreement. Westbrook wasn’t being a poor sport; in fact, just the opposite.

Perhaps Westbrook’s verbal label for Durant wasn’t the most flattering, even though it could be argued we have all heard worse in the aftermath of Durant’s summer departure from the Thunder. Russell has made his feelings very clear on that subject, but that does not justify misrepresenting Westbrook’s intention as he was leaving the court.

Again, this is not meant as a personal attack on Mark Sandritter, but as a condemnation of an unfair narrative that has plagued Westbrook throughout his career.

He is an honest, hard-working, tough-minded kid that plays the game with his heart exposed, and he needs time to regain his composure after competition, win or lose. Yet even in this moment, after getting blown out by the team that ended OKC’s title chances and then took away their MVP player, Westbrook still had the wherewithal to usher his young teammates back to the locker room where they could vent behind closed doors, instead of making a spectacle with TV cameras recording everything.

Twenty, thirty, forty years from now, history will look back at this snub and scoff. A great player having a historic season not starting in the All-Star game because at the end of the day, he was a bad post game interview. Pity.

UPDATE:

When contacted by ESPN for his reaction, Westbrook gave this response:

"It is what it is," Westbrook said, per ESPN.com. "That's the nature of the business, the game. I just play. I don't play for All-Star bids. I play to win championships and every night I compete at a high level, and it'll work out. I just continue doing what I'm doing and play the game the right way, and everything else will work out."

Class.... pure class. It’s way past time to give this young man a break and start the hard work of re-writing the narrative.