Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.
Russell Westbrook wanted to talk about anything other than Oscar Robertson’s triple-double record as he approached the milestone in recent weeks.
Every probe from reporters was met with a chuckle or an admonishing shake of the head, followed by a quick dismissal. Westbrook made sure to note his reverence for the Big O, but frankly, more pressing concerns awaited. For perhaps the most singularly focused player in league history, triple-double No. 182 didn’t necessarily hold any special significance.
“We’ve been talking about it every day, but my answer isn’t going to change,” Westbrook said following a win over the Pacers on May 8. “If I’m lucky enough to break [the record] we’ll talk about it then.”
Westbrook finally acknowledged passing Robertson’s record on Monday night. His words were classic Westbrook, short on personal detail and full of appreciation for his teammates, coaches and family. We’ve seen numerous iterations of Westbrook over the last decade-plus, from the reckless colt to the one-man band, from the sidekick to the sage veteran. But as Westbrook loves to remind us, he remains largely the same player he’s been since entering the league. And he’s not slowing down anytime soon.
“Every night I try to do things that people say can’t be done,” Westbrook said. “When they call my number, they know what they’re going to get. ... I’m not going to stop until I can’t play no more.”
Westbrook joined the Wizards before the 2020–21 season behind a flood of skepticism. He limped to the finish with the Rockets following a dismal performance in the NBA bubble—in which Westbrook was seriously hampered by a quad strain—and few believed he could bounce back in Washington as an aging point guard with a shaky jump shot. The critics appeared to be validated early on.
Westbrook averaged just 19.4 points per game on 41% shooting in his first 14 games this season, and the Wizards limped out to an Eastern-Conference-worst 6–17 start before Valentine’s Day. Westbrook’s burst to the tin seemed dampened. His turnovers rose at an alarming rate. Washington was battered by COVID-19 absences and a stream of losses, and Bradley Beal’s future with the franchise became an increasingly tenuous question. Yet amid the early-season struggles, neither Westbrook nor coach Scott Brooks panicked.
“We’ve had a lot of things go against us, but we just chipped away,” Brooks said. “I know at one time we had the worst record in the league, but we knew we had two guys that would keep battling and we had young guys that would keep developing.
“We’re going to fight our way into every game because of the guys we got.”
The tide quickly began to turn in mid-February as Westbrook continued to get healthy. Washington ripped off seven wins in eight games as February came to a close, and it has a 15–5 record in its last 20 games. Westbrook has been spectacular in crunch time—where he sports a plus-7.5 net rating and a better shooting percentage than Nikola Jokić, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry—and he's been particularly brilliant as of late. Westbrook has tallied 14-plus assists 12 times since April 1. He sports a plus-8.8 net rating in his last 15 games, with the Wizards averaging 117.3 points per 100 possessions in those contests. It's unlikely Westbrook earns a 10th All-NBA selection this season, though he's made quite the impressive push as the regular season comes to a close.
Perhaps Westbrook's finding the fountain of youth was a surprise to some, but you don’t need to dive back to his Thunder tenure to find Westbrook playing at a similarly dominant clip. He was Houston's best player from Jan. 1 until the league’s COVID-19 hiatus last season, a period when Westbrook averaged 30.6 points and 7.9 assists per game on 51.5% shooting. The public perception of Westbrook seems to ebb and flow by the month, with each stretch of strong or poor play changing his reputation to fans around the league. Brooks never took the bait.
“Having coached [Westbrook] for seven years and knowing him for 13 years now, I know what he’s about; I know what his character is,” Brooks said. “Our team has adjusted to him as he’s adjusted to us. ... When you have a hard worker, a high-character guy like him, your program is going to be in a good place.”
Westbrook hasn’t changed his stripes in Washington, largely to the benefit of his new team as it eyes a return to the playoffs. But that doesn’t mean Westbrook has been a perfect player with the Wizards, or really anything close.
Westbrook's 0.75 points per isolation possession is the worst mark of all 42 players with at least 100 attempts. He sports a shaky 0.84 points per post-up possession, and 22.9% of his shots come from between 16 and 23 feet (nearly double the frequency during his Houston run). Even Monday’s record-breaking performance ended with a relative thud as Westbrook clanked an ill-advised three off the side of the rim in the final seconds. Yet it’s nearly impossible to find a teammate quibble with Westbrook’s singular style. The wins and losses often feel almost immaterial, with Westbrook’s personal impact on those around him standing as a central part of his legacy. For a player with a wave of critics throughout the basketball intelligentsia, Westbrook’s approval rating from players around the league sits near 100%.
“The way he cultivates his relationships with his teammates is so unique,” Wizards center Robin Lopez said. “He’s always picking up his teammates in his own way; he’s always getting after people, trying to bring out the potential he sees in them.
“There’s nobody like him. He’s supremely Russ.”
Monday night may mark the last defining achievement of Westbrook’s career, and he could very well exit the '21 postseason before the calendar turns to June. We’re likely to see plenty of clanked jumpers in the coming years, and even a supreme athlete of his caliber has to lose the battle against Father Time at some point. We’ve long assumed the end of Westbrook’s career will be ugly as his knees go and his shot continues to wane. But regardless of how the twilight of his career turns out, the Westbrook experience is something worth cherishing.
We’ve never seen a player quite like Westbrook. It’s unlikely we ever see a player like him again.
Get Well Soon, Jaylen Brown
It’s been a difficult season in Boston by all accounts, with Jaylen Brown’s season-ending wrist surgery standing as a fitting coda to the Celtics’ year to forget. Losing any key contributor for the rest of the season is a shame, yet Brown’s injury feels like an especially dispiriting gut punch.
The fifth-year forward emerged as a true partner in crime with Jayson Tatum in '20–21, posting a career-high 24.7 points per game on 39.7% from three. Brown made a major leap as a lead playmaker and offensive initiator, and as the Celtics floundered throughout the regular season, Brown was the primary reason Boston was able to stay afloat. Brown is one of the league’s premier voices with regard to social justice. He’s perhaps the NBA's most thoughtful player, and he could very well emerge as one of the elite Boston athletes of the '20s. Let’s hope to see Brown healthy and ready to pick up where he left off when the '21–22 season begins in the fall.
More Morning Shootaround
• Prewitt: Do Triple Doubles Matter?