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With 19 games left in the 2016-17 NBA season, Russell Westbrook is still averaging a triple-double — albeit, now, just barely — and has the legendary Oscar Robertson’s blessing in the pursuit. He is still the NBA’s leading scorer, averaging a career-best 31.7 points per game. He still leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating, assist percentage, usage rate, Box Plus-Minus and Value Over Replacement Player.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are 35-28 and in line for a playoff berth due almost solely to his benevolence. When he is off the floor, the Thunder have a worse point differential than the 10-51 Brooklyn Nets.
And yet, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s still not ready to put Russ in the rarefied air of the game’s true superstars worthy of consideration in the crowded field for this year’s Most Valuable Player award, according to Tim MacMahon of ESPN.com:
Cuban said Sunday that the MVP battle is a “toss-up” between Houston’s James Harden and Cleveland’s LeBron James, with San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard also deserving of mention in the conversation. Where is Westbrook in the mix?
“He’s not,” Cuban said while going through his pregame exercise routine ahead of Dallas’ 104-89 win over OKC.
[…] Cuban acknowledges that Westbrook is “an amazing athlete” who is the “most explosive” player in the league and has the “best motor.”
However, the Thunder (35-27) are on pace to fall short of 50 wins, which Cuban considers the benchmark for a player to be considered a superstar, much less an MVP candidate.
“The criteria hasn’t changed,” Cuban said. With a wry smile, he added: “And if I changed my mind, it would ruin all the fun for you guys.”
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because Cuban struck a similar note last April, when the Thunder and Mavericks squared off in the opening round of the 2016 postseason:
The subject came up when the Mavericks’ owner was asked about [then-Thunder star Kevin] Durant’s status in the league.
“They’re lucky to have him,” he said. “They’ve got one superstar and he plays like it. He’s good.”
Asked again how many superstars Oklahoma City has, he said: “One. I think [Westbrook] is an All-Star, but not a superstar. I’m not going to talk about other team’s players, I guess other than what I’ve just said.” […]
Cuban said he wasn’t trying to diminish Westbrook’s abilities. He just believes that he’s not on Durant’s level.
“[Westbrook] is an All-Star,” he said. “There aren’t a lot of All-Stars in this league. Let me add this. Kind of the way I define a superstar is, ‘Who do you want the ball in the hands of at the end of a game, or when you need a bucket?’ That’s your superstar.”
With Durant now on the Golden State Warriors, “Russell Westbrook” is Oklahoma City’s answer to that question this season … and, as we noted last week, it’s been an exceptionally good answer.
The Thunder have the NBA’s best net rating in “clutch” time this season — defined as the last five minutes of a game when the score is within five points — owing almost exclusively to Westbrook, who commands by far the league’s largest share of his team’s crunch-time possessions (a staggering 60.7 percent usage rate), contributes far and away the league’s biggest slice of his team’s points in those situations (61.4 percent, miles ahead of Isaiah Thomas’ 50.8 percent), averages a whopping (and, yes, league-leading) 56.4 points per 36 minutes of clutch time and leads the league in crunch-time plus-minus.
After Cuban’s springtime remarks, Durant spoke out for his then-teammate …
… while Russ let his play do the talking, putting up 36 points with 12 rebounds and nine assists to end the Mavericks’ season.
Undeterred by Westbrook’s on-court postseason reply or his rampaging start to his first campaign without Durant riding alongside, Cuban held to his position in December:
“He’s putting up superstar numbers. That’s for damn sure,” Cuban said of Westbrook as the Thunder took on the Houston Rockets on Friday night. “I’m not taking anything away from what he’s been able to accomplish, but I’m not going to change my definition. He’s putting up superstar numbers. You can’t deny that.” […]
“That’s no disrespect to Russell,” Cuban said. “He’s been a beast. Few have done what he’s done, but I’ll stick by my definition. I’m not saying that he’s not going to prove me wrong and that he [won’t be] a superstar by the end of the year. That’s fine, but I’ll stick by my definition.”
Cuban appeared ready to relent in January …
… but as we enter the final six weeks of the season, though, with Westbrook’s Thunder clawing for position in the middle of the Western Conference pack and Cuban’s Mavericks making a surprising second-half surge to vie for the West’s eighth and final playoff berth, the owner insists he hasn’t seen enough to change his view on Russ, owing to the likelihood that OKC’s win total will land in the 40s and they’ll be an underdog in their opening-round postseason matchup:
We’re sure the prospect of earning Cuban’s respect is going to motivate Russ to try really hard to win a playoff series. If there’s one thing that’s clear about Westbrook, it’s that he’s just too often lacking intensity, and often needs a kick in the ol’ keister to get himself going.
Cuban later acknowledged that his insistence is all just intended to wind us up …
… which, given his recent reaction to his own superstar being tweaked, seems a bit rich. But hey, all’s fair in the never-ending race of everybody to troll everybody else all the time about everything, I suppose!
The Mavs beat the Thunder 104-89 on Sunday night. Westbrook had 29 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, a block and a turnover in 34 minutes, like a real scrub.
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