Is Russell Westbrook a Top 10 NBA Star Right Now?
Forgive me for being blunt, but the notion had to be stated from the very beginning, because it's one that has not only gone unnoticed but actively ignored this season.
As the world continues to focus on Kevin Durant and his quest for a 50/40/90 season, Westbrook has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle. Which is crazy.
Upon the departure of James Harden, it was universally known that Westbrook needed to step up and he needed to become more than just a top-tier scorer. What was unknown, though, was whether he would succeed in assuming a more prominent role.
With more than a quarter of the 2012-13 campaign in the book, it's become abundantly clear that he was more than up to the task of filling the sense of emptiness that Harden left.
Not only are the Oklahoma City Thunder currently carrying the NBA's best record and riding an absurd 11-game winning streak, but Westbrook is having a career year.
The point guard is averaging 20.8 points and a career-high 8.8 assists per game, the fourth-most dimes a night of any point guard in the league. He is struggling with his accuracy from field (41.1 percent), but is shooting a career-best 36.7 percent clip from beyond the arc. His two steals per bout are also a career high.
But is that enough? Are we supposed to take his surface statistics and accept that he's one of the 10 best players in the league?
Of course not. The job of anyone who isn't an NBA player is to remain skeptic, to doubt what they supposedly know and find more meaningful answers than they've been provided with.
We could look at Westbrook's points and assists per game and declare him an unyielding superstar, but statistical dominance doesn't necessarily warrant such a title. It also comes down to what the player in question means to his team.
We know that Westbrook can score from anywhere on the floor, that he can attack the rim from any angle and that he's a decent defender, but what does that actually mean? What do his 20-plus points a night do? What do those eight or nine assists per contest represent?
In this case, they represent a multi-faceted athlete who has shown a willingness to adjust and evolve, and now means almost as much to the Thunder as Durant himself does.
Westbrook is currently assisting on 43.1 percent of his teammates' field goals when he is on the floor, the third-highest mark in the league behind Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul. While he's dishing out the highest number of assists of his career, his turnover percentage (13.5) is the lowest it's ever been, and lower than that of both Paul and Rondo as well.
Oklahoma City is also posting a plus-11.6 per 48 minutes with him on the court, the seventh-highest mark of any player in the league averaging 20 or more minutes per game.
And that's not even half of the transformation Westbrook has undergone in the last year.
Per John Rohde of The Oklahoman, the point guard is currently making a case for himself to win NBA All-Defensive honors:
Thunder coach Scott Brooks is so impressed he’s starting to plug Westbrook for all-league defensive honors. “He has been defensively as good he’s been offensively this year,” Brooks said Sunday. “He’s always been a good defender, but I think this year he’s an all-league defender. He’s so consistent. He’s like a sparkplug on our defense. … I really believe he’s one of the best two-way players in the league. Every player wants to be that, but I think he has to be two or three in the league.”
That's huge. Monstrous even. The enormity of Westbrook's impact has never been more more evident and is subsequently impossible to ignore any longer.
Westbrook toiled with the prospect of top-10 contention only last season when he was named to his second All-Star Game and notched a career-high 23.6 points a night.
Still, we weren't sold. Opponents were still scoring less with Westbrook off the floor, and the offense was a mere 2.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on it. This wasn't indicative, at least not completely, of someone who was one of 10 best players in the league.
And he has.
Oklahoma City's defense is now 4.3 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor, its offense is 3.2 points more efficient with him in the lineup as well and his assists-to-turnover ratio (2.73) is the highest of his career.
Where does Russell Westbrook rank amongst the NBA's superstar hierarchy?
Where would Oklahoma City's offense be without his new and improved selfless talents at its disposal? Where would this team be without his defensive tenacity? Where would Durant himself be without Westbrook to help split the defenses?
Simply put, we are in the presence of a new Russell Westbrook. A Westbrook that is more cognizant of his responsibilities. A Westbrook who is the only player in the NBA to be in the top 10 of points, assists and steals per game.
A Westbrook who has made a name for himself outside of Durant, outside of Harden.
And, most importantly, a Westbrook who has earned the right to be considered one of the 10 best players this league has to offer.
All stats in this article are accurate as of December 18, 2012.
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