USA TODAY Sports' Sam Amick gives us three of the biggest surprises thus far in the NBA season. USA TODAY Sports
PORTLAND — For anyone with even a passing interest in the NBA, it has reached the point where you have to clear the evening schedule whenever Russell Westbrook is taking the court.
The Oklahoma City Thunder star is a one-man highlight show this season, an absolute blur on the court whose speed, skill and high-flying, ferocious style has him threatening to pull off one of the game’s rarest achievements: a triple-double season, otherwise known as Oscar Robertson territory.
With averages of 31.1 points, 11 assists and 10.9 rebounds entering Tuesday's game against Portland, Westbrook is on pace to join Robertson as the only players to achieve that feat (Robertson did it in the 1961-62 season). And while Westbrook’s focus is elsewhere – on the fact that his post-Kevin Durant play has carried the Thunder to a surprising 15-9 mark that is just one game off their pace from last season – he took a moment to acknowledge the historical context at the team’s shoot-around on Tuesday.
Of all the names that have entered this conversation because of Westbrook’s play, titans of the game like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, Robertson’s is the most applicable because of how his skillset compared to Westbrook’s. Not only is he the triple-double king – a league record 181, compared to Westbrook’s 49, with Johnson, Jason Kidd, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird between them – but he was a devastating scorer and an elite playmaker in ways that even those other greats weren’t.
Robertson, who won his lone championship alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee in 1971, came painfully close to averaging a triple-double four other times during his career and averaged 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 assists in his 14 seasons. Westbrook, by comparison, has averaged 21.8 points 7.7 assists and 5.8 rebounds in his nine seasons.
It’s enough to make you wonder if the two men have ever compared notes. Sadly, they have not – not yet, anyways.
“I’ve met him,” Westbrook said of Robertson. “I don’t know him (well enough to) sit down (and) have a conversation type relationship, but I’ve met him before. I haven’t really talked basketball with him before to be able to say that.
“But whenever you get the opportunity to be mentioned with those guys – him, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson – those guys, it’s a blessing. It’s something I never take for granted. I definitely don’t want that to go out the window, but at the same time, I always like to live in the moment.”
It makes perfect sense for someone whose moments tend to be so magical.
“Live in the moment to be able to find ways to help others,” said Westbrook, who trails only his former Thunder teammate, the Houston Rockets’ James Harden, in assists (11.6 per). “I think that’s what made those players so great – Magic, MJ, Oscar. They did it by winning some championships, (and) by also helping the guys around them. That’s what I want to do.”
Westbrook’s close relationship with Jordan is well-chronicled. He signed an endorsement deal with the Jordan Brand in 2012, launched his first signature shoe with “His Airness” in 2015, and made headlines under MJ’s corporate umbrella in late October with the airing of a commercial that many believed to be a subtle shot at Durant (it included Westbrook dancing to the lyrics, ‘Now I Do What I Want,’ on a virtual loop as the song by rapper/songwriter Lil Uzi Vert played).
Just weeks later, the two created a stir yet again when Jordan – as part of his speech honoring Westbrook for his induction in the Oklahoma Hall of Fame – seemed to reference Durant’s departure while praising Westbrook and drew laughs from the Thunder-loving crowd. What’s more, the inherent nature of Jordan’s role as lead owner of the Charlotte Hornets means he’ll cross paths with Westbrook on a relatively routine basis. The two have had plenty to talk about of late, what with Westbrook becoming the first player since Jordan in 1989 to tally seven consecutive triple-doubles (that streak ended on Sunday).
Johnson is easy to find in NBA circles, too, even moreso now that he decided to re-sign with ESPN as an analyst. With his standing as the second-best triple-double threat in league history (138 in all), the Lakers legend can rest easy knowing Westbrook still has a long ways to go to catch up.
Gallery: Triple-double tracker
But while Robertson is the only one who can truly relate to what Westbrook is doing right now, Westbrook made it clear he’s leaning on his inner circle for feedback these days. It is, he explained, an easy way to make sure this stunning display continues.
“My Dad, brother and wife – they keep it honest with me,” said Westbrook, the Los Angeles native and UCLA product who noted that his mother steers clear of the hoops conversations. “That’s the most important part, my friends as well. That’s the best part, to be able to be honest with me about my game and where they see how I can get better. Those talks have been every day.
“I don’t like to come home to, ‘Oh, great game,’ and pat on the ass. That’s not what happens at my house. My house is trying to find ways to get better, find ways to be able to improve, help your teammates, to help win, win championships. My goal is not to worry about numbers, man.”
The numbers, nonetheless, just keep piling up. And the Westbrook Show goes on.
Follow Sam Amick on Twitter @Sam_Amick