Michael Jordan says a lot of things. He’s said motivation poster quotes – like the one about how he failed so many times that’s why he succeeds – and he also said: “The roof is the ceiling.”
The funny thing is that just about anything the Hall of Famer says can be turned into something that Nike can slap onto a shirt or a press release and sell, so you sort of take it all with a grain of salt. He knows that. Words carry weight; Michael Jordan’s are literally worth their weight in gold.
So last year, when the Greatest of All Time said, “30 years ago, that’s me,” about Russell Westbrook to introduce the newest pair of Air Jordans, you may have thought, ‘That’s an interesting thing to say, considering Westbrook has the Jumpman logo on his own sneakers.’ It’s fair if you just figured Jordan was hyping up a player tied to his brand, maybe taking a little jab at the other players competing for the role of the “Next Jordan.” It’s fine if you forgot about it and just waited for the season to start; the one you thought was just going to be about two teams, Cleveland and Golden State.
Then Westbrook scored 51 points against the Phoenix Suns in the second game of the season on his way to a triple-double. It was the most points a player who got double digits in three columns in one night had scored since 1975. It was something to marvel at, but still, the only reason anybody was paying attention to Westbrook that early in the season was because his showdown with former Thunder teammate Kevin Durant and his new team, the Golden State Warriors, was coming up.
Now, over six months later, as the NBA season winds into the playoffs, all anyone can really talk about is Westbrook and his triple-double record. He’s recorded one 42 times. He broke Oscar Robertson’s record that has stood since 1961-62, when the Big O averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game. The only person who could conceivably match or break that record anytime in the future is Westbrook himself.
Oh yeah, and he hit the buzzer-beater to finish off the Denver Nuggets after he broke the record to seal the deal.
A) Won the game
B) eliminated Denver from the playoffs
C) gave Westbrook 50 points
D) all of the above pic.twitter.com/NmcCpcmpls
— NBA.com (@NBAcom) April 9, 2017
But the deal, it seems, is far from sealed. All of that scoring isn’t enough for some people who think that it’s James Harden who deserves the MVP award when the season ends. Harden himself, who is playing at his own crazy level, believes that since his Houston Rockets have more wins than Westbrook’s team means the award should end up in his trophy case. And yes, any other season he’d be the clear winner. But Westbrook and his team have enough wins to get them into the playoffs. They might currently have eight less than Houston, but they wouldn’t have as many if Westbrook was out for any stretch of time. Houston could have very well survived without Harden and scraped together some wins in his absence, but it’s hard to imagine Oklahoma City doing the same without Westbrook. He’s the guy that makes the gears move.
Westbrook has been the most overlooked superstar in the league. Maybe that’s because he’s an iconoclast on and off the court. He does and says things differently. People know he has talent, but the question going into the season was what would he do without Durant. People want to doubt him, and he responded to that, night after night. He did that during the 2014–15 season after Durant went down for the rest of the season. Westbrook put the team on his shoulders and got within one game from making the playoffs. It was like watching a myth in the making. They should write folk songs about Westbrook’s play that year.
Westbrook went on to make the All-NBA Second Team. Harden made the First. Steph Curry won the MVP. I’m not saying that they didn’t deserve that, or giving Westbrook the MVP this season would be like some Martin Scorsese move, where he’s given the Oscar because he probably should have been given it long ago. That’s not the case at all. This is the season Westbrook earned every bit of recognition he is owed. He has done something monumental. Westbrook made his team better, and he did it by bettering himself.
Russell Westbrook hasn’t cheapened the triple-double, he’s turned into something we take for granted.
— Nathaniel Friedman (@freedarko) April 9, 2017
And then there’s the what comes next. The playoffs, obviously. But after that. The part players aren’t supposed to start talking about until the new season is dawning. That’s maybe the most intriguing thing, and the part where Michael Jordan comes back into play.
“Thirty years ago, that’s me,” Jordan said about Westbrook. Thirty years ago, Jordan was a great young player who could win dunk contests or dump a ton of points on Larry Bird and the Celtics in the playoffs. We hadn’t yet seen the guy who would win six NBA titles. He was a great talent, sure, but did anyone think in 1987 that he’d be The Guy?
LeBron James is obviously The Guy in the NBA right now. But for how much longer? How much time until Westbrook is in a situation where he has the pieces to help him ascend to an even higher level? It took Jordan pushing himself even further, but also the rise of Scottie Pippen, along with other players like Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman, to help the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s become one of the greatest teams ever. That’s what it took for Jordan to become an icon. This isn’t saying that Westbrook will go that far. But if he does, when he finally captures that first championship, this – what undoubtedly should be his first MVP season – will be looked at as the starting point.