Russell Westbrook: In appreciation of pre-triple-double Russ

Houston Rockets Russell Westbrook and James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Russell Westbrook and James Harden (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

Let’s appreciate pre-triple-double Russell Westbrook. 

Basketball-Reference visitors in 20 years will stare dumbfounded at Russell Westbrook’s stats, wondering why no one is arguing his candidacy as a top 20 all-time player. Having watched his entire career, I remember seeing great value in him even when he averaged mid-single-digit assists and rebounds per game, and achieved greater playoff success as top two offensive options than he would the rest of his career.

Is the Russ of the past six years (during which time he averaged 25.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 10.0 assists with 4.7 turnovers) much better than the Russ of 2008-15, (during which time he averaged “only” 21.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 7.1 assists on 3.6 turnovers) on comparable efficiency? Maybe.

But he wasn’t twice as good a rebounder or a nearly 50 percent improved passer. Westbrook made four All-NBA Second Teams in his first seven years for a reason.

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Early in his career, Westbrook’s critics, namely the obnoxious, unwatchable Skip Bayless, picked on his decisions making at every juncture and criticized every game where he’d post a pedestrian assist total, balking at how a point guard alongside Kevin Durant could average so few.

His decision-making was not great as a young player, but it hasn’t been great as a veteran, either. In his early years, he averaged fewer assists per game largely because he was less ball-dominant, and played offense like a team player as evidenced by his percentage of assisted buckets. His usage rates tell a similar story.

The 2015-16 season was Westbrook’s first averaging even a double-double (points and assists) and during the post-Durant years, his stats only further misrepresented his player value.

Much has been written about Westbrook’s plummeting free throw percentage. Early career Russ was an elite free throw shooter and his free-throw line pull-up jumper made him a more useful off-ball player, as explained in this fantastic article, which cites Grantland, shot doctor Kirk Goldsberry, and utilizes GIFs to perfection. In Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals, arguably one of the best games of his career, he scored 43 points on mostly midrange and deep 2-point jumpers. That he posted “only” seven rebounds and five assists didn’t matter.

Westbrook appears poised to average a triple-double for the fourth time in five years, though his team appears poised to miss the playoffs for the first time that stretch. Simultaneously, his fantasy basketball appeal outranks, and distorts his rightful place in the 2021 power rankings, as has been the case since his 2017 MVP season.

None of this is to say Russell Westbrook has been a worse player in the second half or the “triple-double phase” of his career. He has definitely improved a little bit as a passer – though not as a ballhandler – and his rebound hunting is typically to his team’s benefit.

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It is merely to say the first half of his career was Hall of Fame-worthy in and of itself, and his statistical “improvements” since should not be the basis of arguments against early career Russ.