Westbrook on Fire

Nate Levinson, Sports Editor

For the past month, Russell Westbrook has been by far the best player in the NBA.

In the month of February, the 26-year-old star guard averaged 31.2 points, 10.3 assists and 9.1 rebounds per game, all while leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 9–3 record and single-handedly keeping them in the race for the eighth playoff seed in the Western Conference. Westbrook notched three consecutive triple-doubles to end the month and joined Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson as the only other player to average 30 points, 10 assists and 9 rebounds in a calendar month. Since the All-Star break, he’s averaging a triple-double. Not too shabby.

On the season, Westbrook leads the league in scoring average, is second in player efficiency rating (per-minute production), first in usage percentage (percentage of plays a player is involved with while on the floor) and first in assist percentage (percentage of teammate field goals a player assists while on the floor). No matter the measure, Westbrook has been a beast on the court.

Much of this recent success has also come without his teammate and reigning MVP Kevin Durant. The star forward has missed nine of the team’s last 15 games in his struggle to regain full health following offseason foot surgery. Westbrook was especially good in those games that Durant missed, and in February he averaged a triple-double when Durant was out.

It’s tough to fully consider Westbrook for the Most Valuable Player award, as he missed 14 games in November with a broken hand, but if he continues playing at this level, his case as the league’s top player will be impossible to ignore. James Harden is the frontrunner now, with Steph Curry not far behind and LeBron closing in fast as the Cavs continue to shine, but none of these three has been nearly as dominant on the court as Westbrook.

Now, he just has to stay healthy. His third consecutive triple-double, a 40-point, 11-assist, 13-rebound effort on the road against the Portland Trail Blazers, came to a bitter end when he fractured his cheekbone after being hit by a teammate’s knee.

He had surgery on Saturday, but not even broken bones can keep him down. In his return to action, Westbrook donned a protective face mask and put together his finest effort yet. Against the 76ers on Wednesday he scored a career-high 49 points to go along with 16 rebounds and 10 assists for his fourth consecutive triple-double. The last person to accomplish that was Michael Jordan in 1989. That’s some pretty good company.

In the past, Westbrook has often been criticized for taking too many bad shots and for not being a true point guard, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any flaws in his game right now.

I don’t expect Russell Westbrook to win the Most Valuable Player award this year. He’s missed too many games, and Harden and LeBron’s numbers are pretty damn good as well, but I do think he’s been the best player in the NBA when healthy.

His numbers may take a bit of a hit if and when Durant is back and healthy, but don’t expect too much of a dip. He handles the ball less when Durant is in the lineup, but the Thunder would be crazy not to ensure he continues to run the offense. His ability to play big minutes while Durant rests will be invaluable as well.

The question now is if Westbrook will be able to lead his team to the playoffs. Durant should return for the latter part of the season, and the Thunder did well to add Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler and D.J. Augustin at the trade deadline, but the load is still squarely on Westbrook’s shoulders. The Thunder currently lead the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, but the Pelicans are just a game behind and the Suns are two and a half games back.

Despite the close race, with those recent additions, I like the Thunder’s chances, and they even have a good shot at overtaking the Spurs for the seventh seed. Then, if Durant is truly healthy for the playoffs, they’ve got as good a shot as any team before them at completing an eight over one or seven over two upset. The likely top two seeds, the Warriors and the Grizzlies, are good, but right now there’s no way I’m betting against Westbrook.