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Mess Around and Miss the Triple-Double

photo: Wikimedia Commons

Russell Westbrook was all in on Friday night in an effort to break Oscar Robertson's record for most triple-doubles in a single season.

What transpired in the fourth quarter of the Oklahoma City Thunder's blowout loss to Phoenix was the epitome of a me-first, let's-break-records style of play that pops up all too often in today's NBA.

This is not Kobe Bryant playing one-man ball in the swan song of his career. This is Westbrook--and his coach--deciding a fourth-quarter game in which they trailed by over 20 as an important time to try to set an individual record.

The Phoenix Suns--losers of 13 straight--denied Westbrook his 42nd triple-double and the Thunder a victory, winning 120-99.

Westbrook and the Thunder might say different, but leaving in the one man who could possibly carry your team to a playoff victory is nothing more than trying to set a record for record-sake.

And it's a perfect example of seeing how far an NBA player will go in simply trying to set records without accumulating wins in mind.

A MVP Season

Westbrook has had an outstanding season. Let's be clear on that front. He is averaging 31.7 points, 10.4 assists, and 10.7 rebounds per game. Without him, the Thunder easily might have been in discussion for the top-pick in the 2017 draft.

A game like the one against the Suns--which included a blistering 24% (6-25) from the field--should do nothing to take away from what he has accomplished during the regular season.

This last game, though, is indicative of a deeper trend, one that has been growing for years, of players playing the game strictly for records. (Look no further than to Devin Booker--of the very same Suns team-- and his 70-point game last month against the Boston Celtics).

I get it. I really do. Players want to leave their mark on the game. I'd rather see these records broken in the natural course of a game or a career, though, than broken by forcing the subject. (And again, not exactly a new idea, as David Robinson once won a scoring title this way.)

Years ago, even months ago, I would have never written of a player/team being selfish over an assist. Normally, a stat like an assist is the perfect time to say, "Hey, he's being a team player. Why deride him for that?" Except in this game, in Westbrook's case, every effort was being conceded to get Westbrook the record. It was being attempted out of the natural flow of the game. Yes, he was struggling with his shooting, but when you're an MVP candidate and you're passing up open shots, there's more going on. Especially if you're coach is leaving you in during a meaningless blowout in a late-season game.

The Art of the Assist

The assist used to fall into the category of being the ultimate team player. Over the years, players like John Stockton exemplified a pass first mentality for a point guard. Yes, he scored a fair amount in his career, but that was also a product of him being involved in a team offense.

These days, isolation and dribble-drive offenses are the norm (if you even want to call them that in the NBA). It's natural that scorers like Westbrook and James Harden (29.2 ppg, 11.2 apg, 8.1 rpg) are going to see their assist numbers rise.

Another factor is the way an assist is being scored. Based off my own interpretation, an assist should be given if player one passes to player two and player two makes no additional moves to score a basket. I've gone by that rule since my high school days.

I've learned that sometimes official scorers are much more generous. If a player catches a pass, takes a few dribbles to get open and hits a turn around jumper, an assist should not be given. I see this happen about 2-4 times per game--in the small sample size I've kept stats myself and compared to official box scores--slightly inflating assist numbers.

Westbrook had eight assists in the game against the Suns. He also had eight turnovers. Before thinking this is an aberration, know that Westbrook averages 5.5 turnovers per game. Harden averages 5.7. For what it's worth, Stockton averaged 10.5 assists in his career. In his final year, playing in all 82 games, he averaged 2.2 turnovers. His highest amount of turnovers per game was in 1988-89, in which he averaged 3.8. The last time he averaged three or more? In 1996-97.

I've learned to accept that watching the NBA in its current iteration is going to be frustrating to myself and a collection of others from my age group. It's probably similar to the generation before who had to watch the introduction of the three-pointer to the game. The game will keep evolving and it's still one that I love. But if the desire to overtake games in pursuit of individual records starts to outweigh the pursuit of victories and championships, it might be a sport no longer important to me. If it continues down this path, fans will be left with a season full of all-star games in which scoring reaches 200 for both teams involved.

If not careful, it's a future that might be not too far off. But hey, at least someone will have nailed down their triple-double. And they probably didn't even need to mess around.


Great article and I agree 100% on your take on Russ Westbrook and the OKC Thunders Act. Their bigs openly joke about Russ actively stealing rebounds from them.

I do agree with your basic premise about assists to but not the conclusion you came to. You are focused on isolation heavy ball which I think is starting to fade from many successful teams as motion based offense start to reign. Look at Steph Curry, he consistently leads the league in hockey assist; where he makes the 'basketball move' and draws defenses makes s pass and that person will make another pass for the score. Assist percentage differentials are better than using out dated counting stats in my opinion.

Finally I vehemently disagree with you 'get off my lawn, modern basketball is boring' rhetoric. The modern game has much more parity than it ever has and more stars. The overall talent is way better; simply look at 3 point percentages and the athleticism of these athletes. For every Russ Westbrook, there's the Hawks, Warriors, Spurs and many more teams moving the ball around and playing beautiful basketball..

Great article as ever, good read.
Jason Haskins said…
Thanks for reading!

I may have not conveyed it clear enough in the post, but I'm not quite in the 'modern basketball is boring' camp. I enjoy watching the Spurs because they've been able to keep their team oriented style of play from the "olden" days and blend it nicely with today's up-tempo, three-point style of attack.

One of my favorite things to see--especially in the college game--is the 'hockey' assist and finding the open man with the extra pass. It's one of my favorite aspects of the game.

And I suppose it's the isolation part of motion offenses in which I was thinking. Looking at it now, I could have been more clear and for some reason couldn't think of what type of offense that was. Sometimes there is too much one on one, dribble around and have to force something up. Again, saw this more at the college level and too be honest, something that will never go away. Part of basketball, which will always make it interesting.

Thanks again for reading. Enjoyed reading your comments and made me think a bit more about my overall stance.

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