When Westbrook took the basketball oscar from Robertson

55 years ago, Oscar Robertson, a phenomenally talented NBA player, attained basketball’s impossible milestone. Over the course of the 1961-62 season, Robertson went on to average a triple-double across scoring (30.8), rebounding (12.5) and assists (11.4) categories. Robertson achieved the historic feat by notching up an NBA-best 41 triple-doubles in the season. Since that season, Robertson’s triple-double average remained pretty much untouchable. And then came along the 2016-17 season where a certain Russell Westbrook obliterated Robertson’s achievement and how!

Oscar Robertson talks about Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder breaking his 41 triple-double record before the first half of a NBA game at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on April 12, 2017 in Oklahoma City.   -  AFP

99.94. The Test cricket batting average that is considered the Holy Grail in the gentleman’s game. When Sir Donald George Bradman played his last Test against England in August 1948, he left the game of cricket a legend, but just shy of the magical average of 100.00 runs per innings. Since his retirement, Bradman’s average has gone on to attain mythical proportions. 99.94 is a kind of magical number against which several, successive talented batting greats have been benchmarked against, but without anyone coming anywhere near it. That number is what it is — a kind of unattainable statistical milestone, beyond the reach of mere mortals.

55 years ago, something similar happened in the game of basketball. Oscar Robertson, a phenomenally talented NBA player, attained basketball’s impossible milestone. Over the course of the 1961-62 season, Robertson went on to average a triple-double across scoring (30.8), rebounding (12.5) and assists (11.4) categories. Robertson achieved the historic feat by notching up an NBA-best 41 triple-doubles in the season. Since that season, Robertson’s triple-double average remained pretty much untouchable. Players tallied double-doubles or put up fantastic scoring averages, but none came close to averaging double digits across three categories. Robertson had set up basketball’s Holy Grail.

And then came along the 2016-17 season where a certain Russell Westbrook obliterated Robertson’s achievement and how! Westbrook attained 42 triple-doubles over the course of the 2016-17 season while averaging 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg and 10.4 apg. Given the modern NBA era, with far better defensive schemes and the overall athleticism of NBA players all around the league, few words correctly describe the extent of Westbrook’s historical stats this season.

The venerable NBA writer, David Aldridge, nonetheless, put Westbrook’s stunning statistical achievement in some perspective. “At the end of the day, and at the end of this season, history compels me to recognize an achievement that none of the game’s greatest players — not Jordan, not Magic Johnson, not Larry Bird or Isiah Thomas, not John Stockton or Karl Malone, not Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing or Dominique Wilkins or Kidd or Steve Nash or Kobe or LeBron James or Dirk Nowitzki or Shaquille O’Neal or anyone has been able to do since Oscar Robertson did it,” wrote Aldridge in his weekly column. “Russell Westbrook is doing something that hasn’t been done in 55 seasons. It isn’t a party trick or a novelty act; it’s a definable, quantifiable, noteworthy and historic thing.”

Moreover, the impact of Westbrook’s triple-doubles decisively impacted his team’s fortunes. Out of the 42 TD’s that Westbrook posted, Oklahoma City won 33 of those games. And Oklahoma City won 47 games this season, which means that more than 70% of OKC’s wins were decided by Westbrook’s ability to notch up a triple-double.

Teams across the league were on the receving end of Westbrook’s superlative play. Westbrook hit 27 of the 29 opposing teams in the league with at least one triple-double. The only two teams that did not allow Westbrook to tally a double-digit performance against them in three categories were the Chicago Bulls and the Portland Trail Blazers. The irony, though, is that Westbrook fell just one rebound shy of hitting the Bulls with a TD in January while his career-best score of 58 points came against the Trail Blazers in March.

Among his 42 triple-doubles, Westbrook notched up the highest-scoring triple-double ever (57 points-11 assists-13 rebounds against Orlando Magic). Westbrook hit three 50-point triple doubles in all during 2016-17 (the other two coming against Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets) while his tally of triple-doubles at the end of the season was 20 more than James Harden’s total of 22 triple-doubles. When he went on a seven-game triple-double run between end-November to early-December 2016, Westbrook also became the first player since Michael Jordan did so in 1989 to hit such a streak. In OKC’s outing against the Philadelphia 76ers in March, Westbrook also attained the first ever perfect scoring TD, registering one without missing a single shot (6-of-6 from the field and 6-of-6 from the free throw line). He finished that game with 18 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds for his 35th triple-double of the season.

Like I said, it’s hard to put into words of what Westbrook achieved during the 2016-17 regular season. Perhaps, Oscar Robertson, the very man whom Westbrook emulated, has the only real say on the matter. “I think what he has done is historic in nature. He has played with passion and pride. It’s really outstanding what he has done, the way he did it.”