National Basketball Association

Russell Westbrook is Mr. Triple-Double, but his legacy is complicated

May 11


That might be the best word to describe Washington Wizards point guard Russell Westbrook, a player whose career has been both illustrious and complicated.

Westbrook entered this 2021 season as a nine-time NBA All-Star, nine-time All-NBA selection, two-time All-Star Game MVP and the NBA MVP in 2016-17. Now, after his latest in a long string of dazzling all-around performances on Monday night against Atlanta, he is also the league's all-time leader in triple-doubles.

Magic Johnson, considered by many to be the greatest point guard in NBA history, urged fans to praise Westbrook for his on-court prowess, emphasizing how difficult it is to do what the Wizards guard does.

"People have played 13 years, 15 years, and never get 20 rebounds," Johnson said. "Same with assists. I know I got 24 a lot, but for him to get 24, there's guards who’s played who would never get even 20 (assists). The things he's been able to do, hopefully, we will say, 'Give him his love, give him his respect.' This is really big. This is something I couldn't even do. I know how big it is."

And Wizards coach Scott Brooks recently said he considers Westbrook to be the second-best point guard in NBA history behind Magic.

And there is no denying Westbrook is one of the NBA's all-time great point guards and one of the most productive players the league has seen from a statistical perspective.

He has averaged a triple-double in four of the last five seasons and has been one of the NBA's best players for the better part of a decade. He's also played in the postseason 10 times and was a key component of a 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder team that advanced to the NBA Finals.

But for all of those trips to the postseason, and all of the individual accolades amassed, Westbrook has yet to bring home the ultimate hardware.

A Larry O'Brien trophy.

This is a point Skip Bayless made on "Undisputed." Bayless praised Westbrook's energy, effort and ability to fill a box score, but said that he wouldn't trust Westbrook with a title on the line.

"Magic knew how to win in ways Russ has never gotten it through his head how to win," he said. "There's some gene that you're born with that is the winning gene, and Russ doesn't have it. But I loved what Magic said because he's stepping back saying we need to appreciate him even more than we do and I got it. I'm with you. … But when it comes down to, ‘OK, how do you win? Can you shoot it at all?' No, he can't shoot it at all."

That might sound harsh from Bayless, but evidence has suggested that Westbrook might be shaky at best when the lights are the brightest.

Upon Kevin Durant's departure from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016, Westbrook failed to make it out of the first round of the NBA playoffs from 2017-2019 while also failing to win 50 games in any of those three seasons.

For his career, Westbrook's assist-to-turnover ratio in the playoffs is less than two to one. He has also averaged four turnovers per game in the playoffs throughout his career, and he has four career postseason appearances where he has shot below 40% from the field.

It is clear that Westbrook is a lightning rod for conversation, as observers struggle to process a player who is both historically productive while also being, at times, infuriatingly reckless. This was evidenced by the inability of ESPN's Max Kellerman to answer the question: Is Westbrook overrated or underrated?

"He is overrated by half the basketball fans and underrated by the other half, badly," he said.

Now that Westbrook has passed Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson for the NBA's all-time triple-double record, and while he attempts to will the Wizards into the playoffs, the enigmatic point guard is again in the spotlight as fans and pundits try to define his legacy.

One of those who made such an attempt was Bill Simmons, who offered a nuanced viewpoint on the Bill Simmons Podcast: "He just makes terrible decisions. He’s sometimes just a train wreck. And then he can lose a game, win it, lose it and win it all in the span of four plays. ... This is the Westbrook experience."

But Simmons continued: "I'm kinda coming around because he's so intense. This is the one guy who like really gives a s⁠---. He's just got a lot of flaws. But I do think when he's on your team, it's almost impossible to go below .500. He cares too much."

For Chris Broussard, who talked about the feat on Tuesday's episode of "First Things First," Westbrook solidified his name in the annals of the sport.

Westbrook's game is unique. He can dazzle in one moment and infuriate in the next. But he'll always capture attention with his intensity, drive and talent.

His legacy is complicated and murky and difficult to define. And maybe that in itself is what makes it special.

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