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Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook is threatening to become the first NBA player to average a triple-double since Cincinnati Royals Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson achieved the double-figure points, assists and rebounds mark during the 1961-62 NBA season. A lot has changed in the league since then, which is why Westbrook’s current averages of 30.9 points, 10.5 assists and 10.5 rebounds would make such a feat a remarkable achievement in line with some of the greatest individual seasons in NBA history. If not the greatest individual season in NBA history.
As Westbrook takes on each new opponent while the OKC season drawls on, we’ll be updating his chances at matching the Big O’s feat.
The NBA has never seen anything like this.
There have been two-pronged MVP races. Three-pronged, even, and we might in the midst of that yet again this year as LeBron James clamors for the attention his defending champion Cavaliers so richly deserve. None of those prongs features the push that Russell Westbrook and James Harden have given us so far in 2016-17, with each player in the running for an MVP award that will almost certainly head to a player in the wake of what will be a legendary season.
For Westbrook, the award would mean validation after leading his Kevin Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder to the postseason while averaging a triple-double.
For Harden, it means cashing in on all the stuff he’s supposed to do, while winning games and taking advantage of every waking second this basketball genius draws in air while on a basketball court.
They’ll meet again on Thursday night. Hopefully they’ll entertain.
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That was hardly the case in the first two meetings between the two. Because Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson and (in the case of the second time Houston and Oklahoma City tussled) Houston’s Patrick Beverley (back on Thursday after missing two games with a bum wrist) pair so well off against the stars in question, both have struggled in the relative sense against each other in two previous 2016-17 contests.
Westbrook averages 28.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 9.5 assists against the Rox (with Beverley playing once) this season, but he’s shot 37.8 percent from the floor (17-45) along the way. Harden has been worse with Roberson around for both games (which the teams have split), missing 20 of 39 shots for a 25.6 percent clip from the field, averaging 17 points, eight rebounds, and 12.5 assists alongside 15 turnovers in two contests.
This, for such obvious MVP candidates, is rare. Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley didn’t exactly turn into Doug West and Grant Long every time they had to play each other.
Harden doesn’t boast Russell Westbrook’s triple-double cachet, but he isn’t far off and leads the NBA with 11.9 assists per game – the highest mark in nearly a quarter century, since the days that saw John Stockton routinely drop over 12 per game. John Stockton didn’t average 28.4 points per game, as Harden does, nor those 8.2 rebounds a contest. The Hall of Famer also didn’t contribute 5.7 turnovers a contest, as Harden coughs up mostly as a result of Houston coach Mike D’Antoni’s insistence on taking advantage of every single second that Harden uses up on the court.
Houston had created an ecosystem so reliant on Harden last season that he wound up leading the NBA in minutes played. D’Antoni saw a superstar on film wearing down at the end of games and an untenable career trajectory. “How can we cut out the fat?” D’Antoni asked. “Because there’s a lot of times where he’s just standing over in the corner or just standing somewhere not being involved where the team really needed him to be the facilitator.” The toll was in the little things: running the floor, tracking a cutter, trying to move without the ball.
D’Antoni’s solution, in retrospect, was quite elegant. By making Harden the operative force on as many possessions as possible, Houston draws the most out of what makes Harden a superstar.
The pointed placement has allowed the Rockets, at 27-9, to thrive off of Harden’s economy of movement. His usage rate is the same and his scoring is down a bit in comparison to the disastrous 2015-16 turn, but he leads the NBA in Win Shares and looks all the part of the easy, top-ranked MVP candidate.
Were it not for the guy – a former teammate, we’ll remind, leading the NBA in scoring while contributing a triple-double at the same time. Goodness.
“The numbers that the guys around the league are putting up right now are crazy,” Harden said. “I think eight guys have had 50 already. Russ is doing something crazy every night with his numbers. The league is at an all-time high, and it’s fun to watch.”
It is. And for all the hand-wringing about the NBA’s best offensive season in ages and the pull to move everything outside of the three-point line, There is something special about being able to dig into a random TNT Thursday game in January with the knowledge that no two players as statistically accomplished as Russell Westbrook and James Harden have ever met in a one-on-one duel this deep into an NBA season.
Just because you can’t find this game on your rabbit ears, and even without Boston Garden’s parquet around to lend an air of legitimacy, it doesn’t mean that this isn’t something beyond compare.
Let’s just hope Russell Westbrook and James Harden actually approach their averages this time out.
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