I really can’t believe what I’m about to do. I am likely about to commit one of the gravest crimes for a Daily Trojan columnist. I’m going to commit a cardinal (and gold) sin: praising a UCLA alumnus.
Yes, I’m speaking of superstar Oklahoma City Thunder guard and — regrettably — UCLA product Russell Westbrook. On Sunday afternoon, Westbrook kept his video-game-esque season going with a heart-stopping performance against the Denver Nuggets on the road. Westbrook dropped 50 points, reeled in 16 rebounds and dished out 10 assists in the Thunder’s victory over the Nuggets.
Westbrook’s 3-point field goal at the final buzzer silenced the Denver crowd and lifted Oklahoma City to a thrilling 106-105 win.
By notching triple-double No. 42 of the season on Sunday, Westbrook was officially crowned the NBA’s triple-double king. Westbrook broke Oscar Robertson’s 55-year record for most triple-doubles in a single season (41) with his effort against the Nuggets. Westbrook also became the first player in NBA history to average a triple-double over the course of a campaign since Robertson did so in 1962, averaging 31.9 points, 10.4 assists and 10.7 rebounds per game so far this season.
The six-time All-Star is also currently in line to come away with the NBA’s scoring title. Westbrook has done it all for the Thunder this season, and he has been able to retain a league-best 30.9 player efficiency rating throughout.
Considering the mind-boggling numbers mentioned above, shouldn’t adding an MVP award to Westbrook’s mantle be inevitable? Shouldn’t crushing a 55-year-old record in professional sports be an almost instant clincher of MVP hardware? Robertson’s triple-double record was considered untouchable and unbreakable by many, especially in this era of basketball.
When former baseball slugger Barry Bonds swatted 73 home runs — besting the former record of 70 — in 2001, there was no debate about who would come away with the National League MVP award. When New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady tossed 50 touchdown scores in 2007, an NFL record, he received 49 of 50 possible MVP votes. Even in the basketball arena, when Golden State’s Stephen Curry hit an NBA-record 402 3-point field goals last season — demolishing his own record of 286 — he became the first unanimous MVP in league history.
My point? Crushing a so-called un-crushable record in professional sports is usually followed by an MVP award.
By topping Robertson as the model of triple-double consistency, Westbrook has officially put an end to all MVP-race debate between him and the Houston Rockets’ James Harden. When Westbrook hit that 36-foot game-winning dagger against the Nuggets on Sunday, he clinched his defining moment as the league’s most valuable assassin this season.
For the vast majority of this regular season, it’s been a highly followed race for the MVP trophy between Harden and Westbrook. Harden has no doubt had a standout 2016-2017 season of his own. Averaging 29.3 points, 11.2 assists and 8.1 rebounds per game this season, Harden has been an offensive juggernaut for the Rockets. In fact, Harden leads the NBA with 63 double-doubles recorded this season (Westbrook is second with 62).
I’d go as far as saying that if Harden were having the season he’s currently enjoying during any year other than this one, he’d be considered the runaway candidate for Most Valuable Player.
But it really does blow my mind to see fans and media pundits alike blow off the significance of Westbrook’s historic season. Good grief: I mean, put aside the Robertson comparisons and consider that Michael Jordan — the GOAT — only recorded 28
triple-doubles over the course of his entire 15-year NBA career.
Another historical note: Westbrook’s 50-16-10 effort in Denver on Sunday was his third 50-point triple-double of the season. Westbrook is now the only player in NBA history with three 50-point triple-doubles, and he got them all in a single regular season.
It’s a real shame that many have opted to shame Westbrook, falsely accusing him of stat-padding this season to top Robertson’s record. It’s evident that Westbrook’s valiant efforts have benefited his team. It’s necessary to note that the Thunder are 33-9 this season when Westbrook records a triple-double: They are 13-25 when he does not.
So when Harden comes out like he did on Sunday, saying the MVP Award is predominantly about winning, he really isn’t making a better case for himself. Look, I will fully admit that Harden has been the leading force for a Rockets team that currently finds itself third in a hyper-competitive Western Conference.
But is anyone really going to tell me that Westbrook has not been the most valuable player possible for this Oklahoma City team, which has locked up the sixth seed in the West? Remember, this is in fact the same Thunder franchise that many left for dead back in July when Kevin Durant announced he was taking his talents to Golden State over the offseason.
It would have taken a herculean effort from Westbrook to make the Thunder postseason relevant this year, and he has given them just that and beyond this season.
Following Durant’s departure, everyone projected that Westbrook was primed to go berserk this season statistics-wise. But could anyone have ever predicted this historic of a campaign?
So, what’s next for Westbrook and company? A first-round tango with Harden and the No. 3-seed Rockets begins in Houston this weekend.
My thoughts on this impending Harden-Westbrook duel? Get your popcorn ready, folks.
Angel Viscarra is a sophomore studying broadcast and digital journalism. His column, Viscarra’s Vice, runs on Tuesdays.