Just How Good Has Russell Westbrook Been This Season?
Russell Westbrook is one of the most divisive players in the NBA. Each individual move he makes on the basketball court can be used by both his lovers and haters to make an argument either for or against him.
His pull-up jumper in transition? His backers see one of the most unstoppable shots in the league, while his detractors feel like it's a wasted possession, make or miss. When he gambles on getting in a passing lane for a steal? If it results in a possession in transition and a signature dunk, all hail Russ! If he misses and the opposing team gets an easy basket on a broken-down defense, he becomes the sole reason the Thunder can't have nice things.
His supporters can't get enough of his raw speed and athleticism, killer attitude, and chaotic playing style. His critics want him to shoot less than Kevin Durant does and be more like Chris Paul (the most current model of what people feel is a "pure" or "pass-first" point guard).
While both sides of the debate are more often at odds than not, this season the discussion has been quiet. Really quiet.
That's because -- love him or hate him -- Westbrook has been flat out ballin' to start 2014-15, and practically, no one can disagree with that.
He's only played 10 of the Thunder's 24 games due to a broken hand he suffered in the second game of the year against the Los Angeles Clippers. Of course, you wouldn't be able to tell he's coming off a broken hand with the way he's absolutely destroying the rim with it since returning.
But it's not only the highlight reel that has put everyone on notice that Westbrook is back and better than ever. He's currently playing the best and most efficient ball of his career, even if it's only in a small, 10-game sample size.
In the eight games since returning from injury, Russ has gone for a minimum of 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists in every contest. He's the only guy not named LeBron James to do that in eight or more games in a row since Grant Hill did in 1997.
He's currently averaging career highs in points (25.8), rebounds (5.8), field goal percentage (48.9%), and three-point percentage (35.7%), while shooting 83.5% from the line and tossing in 6.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Oh, and he's doing it in only 29.4 minutes per contest!
Keep in mind that one of those 10 games was the one in which he broke his hand and played fewer than nine minutes. Prorate his averages to their per-36-minute equivalents, and you're looking at a guy who is averaging 31.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 8.3 assists, and 2.1 steals per-36. Yes, it's very early in the season, and those numbers are going to come back down to Earth eventually, but there has been only one season in the history of the NBA when someone hit 30-7-8-2 as a minimum.
That one occurrence was one Michael Jordan in 1988-89, when he averaged 32.5 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists, and 2.9 steals in 40.2 minutes per game. That's exclusive company for Russ to keep, even in a 10-game sample.
There's bound to be some regression as the season rolls along, but it still shouldn't be ignored that Westbrook is currently posting career highs in rate of win shares per 48 minutes (.298), player efficiency rating (33.1), offensive rating (115), defensive rating (99), true shooting percentage (59.7%), total rebound percentage (10.8%), and assist percentage (52.1%), all while posting the highest usage rate of his career (39.2) and taking the most shots per-36 (21.6) (all aforementioned advanced statistics explained here). He's doing absolutely everything on the floor and doing it all well. To wit, the Thunder have a +10.6 net rating (107.3 offensive, 96.7 defensive) in the 294 minutes he's been on the floor and a -3.1 (96.8 offensive, 99.8 defensive) in the 863 he's been off.
Considering he's missed more than half the season, Russ doesn't show up on the standard leaderboards just yet. If he keeps up this pace, though, he'll be all over them in a few games. Take a look at where he would land in some categories if he qualified up to this point.
That's right, Westbrook would be leading the league in win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48), player efficiency rating (PER), and BPM (box plus/minus) if he qualified to this point. (His BPM would actually be the greatest of all time but, you know, sample size.) He'd be second in scoring while simultaneously leading the league in assist percentage. He's essentially pleasing the crowd that wants him to score at will and the opposing group that wants him to facilitate more at the same time, all while playing his mean and pesky brand of perimeter defense on the other end.
Playing with the league's reigning MVP in Durant will probably keep Westbrook out of MVP talk for 2014-15, even if he keeps up this torrid pace. Regardless, after starting the season 3-12, the Thunder have gone 8-1 in their last nine - eight games of which have been with Westbrook and seven with both Russ and KD. There was talk of it already being too late for the Thunder to push for a playoff spot two weeks ago, yet now they sit only half a game out of eighth place and have a chance to overtake the Pelicans, Suns, and Kings for the spot tonight in one fell swoop (if they take care of Sacramento and the Pelicans lose to the Jazz).
Considering how different the Thunder have looked both with and without their superstar duo this season, we might have to consider Russ and KD co-MVP candidates if they can lead the Thunder back to a position among the NBA's elite as they appear to be doing.
Do you think they can get a shared spot on the ballot?