I've had the privilege of following the NBA since 1986, so I've amassed over a quarter-century of games logged into my noggin. When you have that many data points, the years tend to blend together, but the overarching themes remain; that is, what defines a given season. For example, I could tell you precious little about 2005 because the outcome was so boring, but I know that it was the year when the possibility of the NBA becoming actually fun again took hold, as Steve Nash was named league MVP and he, combined with a former Euro coach named Mike D'Antoni, reconfigured (or perhaps remembered) what an NBA offense should look like in Phoenix.
These trends shape my memories. And among even the most memorable to me (Jordan’s scorched earth in the ‘93 playoffs, the crumbling of the Lakers dynasty in 2004, the Spurs’ offensive nirvana in 2014), Oscar Robertson's statistical milestone in 1962 doesn’t register because a) it was before my time; and b) it is such an anomaly that I figured if our own generation’s physical anomaly LeBron James couldn’t do it, then nobody could. It was too out there. Even in Jason Kidd's great years in New Jersey, he still wasn't even within shouting distance. At Kidd's best, he sort of resembled a mediocre Magic Johnson where he could grab a rebound, push the floor, and hit fast break outlets in the blink of an eye. Statistically, his closest "triple-double" like season was 2008, when in 51 games he recorded averages of 11-10-8. Pretty good season, but those rebounds are tough to come by for a PG, and that was Kidd's highest average of his career.
Magic Johnson is the other historical touchpoint because he was so atypical for a point guard, a 6'9" power player who loved to crash the boards, run the floor, and fling the ball around like a Frisbee. The closest that Earvin ever came? Pretty darn close - in '81-'82, where rounding basically gets him there at 18.6-9.6-9.5 averages. That team won the title over the 76ers, and featured other guys including McAdoo, Nixon, and of course Kareem. But they weren't really the LAKERS yet, where they picked up James Worthy and Byron Scott and started playing at warp speed. But that is perhaps why Magic came so close that year, and creates the common thread with Kidd and now Westbrook.
The common link - in a sense, these players felt like they had to play that way in order for their team to win. Kidd's Nets teams were defensive-minded but terrible offensively. Without Kidd grabbing rebounds and running the break, they were practically hopeless in the half-court, one of the reasons why they got embarrassed each time they made it to the Finals. Magic of course didn't HAVE to grab 10 rebounds a game in '82, but with nearly the same team as a year before when they were bounced in the 1st round and also much worse as a defensive rebounding team, Magic bridged the gap. Johnson saw that his team had to get better in certain areas to matriculate, took care of it himself, and they won a title.
And so it is with Westbrook. Here's the thing that most naysayers just don't seem to understand when they criticize his, ahem, stat chasing.
THERE IS NO PLAN B.
They NEED for him to score nearly a third of their points. He HAS to generate assists so his young teammates can get easy baskets. This team HAS to rebound well to have a chance at winning on most nights. They can't be bad in this last area, or their dearth of competent shooters will do them in. And with the loss of #35 and Serge Ibaka, their rebounding potential is not as potent as it was a year ago when they did have better shooters at the forward spots.
And perhaps that is the crux of it. Non-championship teams' best players always feel the need that they have to shoulder the weight to deliver wins, but no player since Magic has actually gone into a season with that mindset of, "If I don't do everything, we can't win" and then went out and did exactly what needed to be done on such a season-long statistical level. Without Russ going out and grabbing 10 rebounds per game, OKC is probably hovering in the Orlando/Philly team rebounding territory. Without him looking to get 10-15 assists every game (and which, mind you, the rest of the Thunder only gets another 10 combined) OKC is league-worst in that stat, and by a long shot. In short, without Westbrook attempting to do this kind of insane statistical production every single night, OKC is likely in the pole position for a lottery pick. That's really it; not since Magic has a player felt the need to dominate in every single statistical category every single night, and then possess the talent, will, and resolve to actually go out and do it without breaking down physically or psychologically. (Here's a fun rhetorical question - remember when Russ was described as emotionally unstable?)
There's a movie clip I like quite a bit.
I think about that line from Stelios all the time: "Then we will fight in the shade." In the movie scene, the Greek Spartan soldiers under Leonidas are facing certain death at Thermopylae. Their mission is simply to slow down the Persian invasion until help comes. At this juncture, defeat is certain; the Persians know it, the Spartans know it. The Persian emissary says as such; Sparta has no hope, they are so drastically outnumbered. You have lost. Accept it. And...you kind of deserve it.
Call it hopeless optimism, grim determination, or something else, but Stelios' rejoinder is as unequivocal as it is inspirational: In Umbra, Igitur, Pugnabimus. I don't care. Or, in more contemporary colloquialisms: F*** You. It is the right of a free man, not in principle, but in fact, to be able to choose how his fate is decided.
And I think that's what we're witnessing, and how it will be remembered. Not simply by breaking arbitrary statistical thresholds (funny how nobody called them arbitrary up until the 2016-17 season), but because Westbrook decided that in order to guide his team past one of the most crippling stretches that an NBA team has ever faced - losing, and then LOSING - he resolved that he had a choice to resign to the situation and leave OKC, or to embrace the moment as the Spartans did and let it define him forever. Remember when, in #35's return to the 'Peake, Russ & #35 got into their shouting match?
Russell Westbrook tells Kevin Durant "I'm Coming" pic.twitter.com/Bm5qPFIiUz— gifdsports (@gifdsports) February 12, 2017
"You're gonna lose."
"I'm coming! I'm coming!"
The terms winning and losing, in this context, between these two players, are both the same and miles apart. One man means it in terms of a scoreboard. The other means it in terms of the very vitality in which he lives his life. The only way Russ could lose to THAT team, and THAT player, in THIS season, is to give up. And Russ never gives up. He does what he wants. He fights in the shade.
What do we like to remember most about the 2001 Finals? Is it the fact that the superior Lakers squad dominated the 76ers 4-1, or the fact that in game 1, Allen Iverson dropped 48 and took down mighty LA, with his defiant step over the Cavs' current head coach as the final punctuation on the best that Allen could possibly offer? That stomp is what most of us remember more than anything else, because even though the Sixers had no shot, the diminutive Iverson was emboldened enough to fight anyway.
One of my favorite Gregg Popovich quotes of all time came out of the aftermath of game 3 of the 2014 NBA Finals. His Spurs had split the first pair of games, but their most important player, Kawhi Leonard, the man tasked with both shouldering the offensive load while slowing down LeBron James, had not played well, and the Heat had momentum. Likely in less eloquent words, Pop conveyed to Kawhi before game 3 that his mediocre wasn't going to be good enough:
“He’s got to one of our better players on the court or we’re not good enough. That’s the way it is,” Popovich said. “He’s got the talent where –you know, it’s the NBA Finals. You can’t just be mediocre out there if you want to win a game, and everybody’s got to play well, and he did that. “
I love that line - Pop told his best player, "You can't just be mediocre if you want to win. You have to be great." And I think that's what we've witnessed from Westbrook through these 70-odd games so far this season, where he knows that his mediocre effort, on a majority of nights, will not be good enough to lead his team to wins. Think about that kind of pressure, where you know that if you don't bring your A-game, your team will probably lose, and then to actually have the courage combined with the talent to bring about a positive outcome on more nights than not. It is MJ-in-1986 level insanity how much mental pressure that must be on Russ. And he accepts it, embraces it, knowing that his very approach, and how it manifests nightly, will provide all of the arrows that every one of his naysayers require to keep firing away.
So give the MVP to Harden. His season has been MVP-worthy, without question. It wouldn’t really bother me at all one way or the other. If anything, feeling like Russ needs an MVP award to validate what he’s done diminishes the effort, at least in my mind. Somebody else will win it next year anyway, and I can guarantee you they won’t have recorded a triple-double average, either.
Here is all I am left with. As EiC of this fine site, this has been one of the most miserable seasons to have to cover, beginning with July 4th, 2016. So many things have been taken away from where we thought they would be, so many games have gone up in flames, and I know, from a purely objective standpoint, it probably isn’t going to end well. But this is what Russ did on his ‘revenge tour.’ He made me smile again. Because I just witnessed something that has never been seen before, and I did it with my eyes wide open, and once or twice every single week from the end of October until today, Westbrook convinced me that the ride is worth it.
Oh my, how the ride has been worth it.
How will this season be remembered? That Russ fought in the shade and, not as a culmination of his effort, but as a byproduct of it, recorded a statistical season that will resonate throughout the history of all pro sports.