Los Angeles Lakers v Washington Wizards
WASHINGTON, DC -  APRIL 28: Russell Westbrook #4 of the Washington Wizards smiles during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 28, 2021 at Capital One Arena in Washington, DC.
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Triple-Double #182: Westbrook's rise to the NBA record

On Monday night in Atlanta, Russell Westbrook recorded the 182nd triple-double of his 13-year NBA career, passing Oscar Robertson for the most in NBA history. He secured the triple-double on a defensive rebound with 8:30 left in the fourth quarter and finished the night with 28 points, 13 rebounds and 21 assists.

In just a few short years, Westbrook’s play turned the idea of breaking the record from an impossibility into an inevitability. He’s recorded 145 of his 182 triple-doubles since the start of the 2016-17 season and three of the four most prolific single-season triple-double totals in league history. In the waning weeks of Robertson’s lead over Westbrook, a countdown of the games remaining until the record was broken seemed to replace the upward tally of the triple-doubles themselves.

Robertson played in the NBA from 1960 to 1974, earning All-Star recognition in his first 12 seasons. Unlike Westbrook, Robertson posted most of his triple-doubles early in his career, including 135 in his first five seasons in the league. His record of 181 triple-doubles has held since March 24, 1974, when he totaled 14 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in the second-to-last regular season game of his storied career.

Over nearly five decades, Robertson’s record stood the test of time, outlasting countless evolutions to the league’s landscape and style of play. No player came close to touching Robertson’s 181 triple-doubles. Before Westbrook’s run, the closest threat to dethrone Robertson was Magic Johnson, who recorded his 138th and final triple-double on February 14, 1996 – still 43 behind the record.

A triple-double is, in essence, the most pure, easy-to-understand indication of a player’s impact on the entire game: creating team possessions with offensive and defensive rebounds, driving the flow of a collaborative offense with assists and, of course, putting points on the scoreboard.

443 players in NBA history have recorded at least one triple-double. Stumbling into one or two can happen – a few balls bounce your way off the rim and teammates have a hot shooting night off your passing. But making a habit of recording them has proven to be far more difficult. Only 61 players in NBA history have recorded 10-plus. Only 15 players have recorded 30-plus. Westbrook accounts for 6.4% of all triple-doubles recorded in NBA history and 20.0% of triple-doubles recorded since he’s joined the league, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

The top of the all-time triple-double list is reserved for some of the greatest names in NBA history. Westbrook, Robertson, Johnson, Jason Kidd, LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and more. But none have done it quite like Westbrook, who is dialing up his triple-double production as his career progresses. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, he has recorded 145 triple-doubles in 353 games played.

At Westbrook’s current pace, when the NBA world looks back on his career, it’s more likely that this moment will be remembered as a checkpoint than as a culmination. There is no telling how high he will set the bar for the next generation of stars, all of whom will come up in a league more conducive than ever before to eye-popping stat lines and triple-double totals. Luka Doncic, for example, is playing in just his third NBA season and is already 11th on the all-time triple-double list. But to write away Westbrook’s surpassing of Robertson’s record simply as a sign of the times would be incorrect. Even among players in the modern era, no one does it like Westbrook.

Over the course of his career, LeBron James has recorded triple-doubles in 7.6% of his games. James Harden has recorded triple-doubles in 6.6% of his games. Nikola Jokic has done so in 12.5% and Doncic in 17.9%. Since entering the league, Westbrook has recorded triple-doubles in 19.3% of his games and an astounding 41.0% of his games since the start of the 2016-17 season.

“I’m pretty sure if everybody could do it, they would do it,” Westbrook said earlier this season.

Westbrook entered the league in 2008 as a raw, uber-athletic guard out of UCLA, drafted fourth overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Draft analysts praised his ability to impact multiple facets of the game, but consistently highlighted the need to improve his point guard skills. 13 years later and nearing what will be his third assist title, Westbrook has far exceeded even the most optimistic expectations for his development as a point guard.

With his second assist on Monday night against the Hawks, Westbrook became the 12th player in NBA history with at least 8,000 career assists. He’s averaging a career-high 11.5 assists per game this season, the fifth time in the last six seasons he’s averaged more than 10.0 per game.

Earlier this month, Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said he believed Westbrook was the second-best point guard in NBA history. The duo spent seven years together in OKC and were reunited this season when Westbrook was traded to the Wizards.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to see him for eight years do a lot of things that are pretty much superhuman at times,” Brooks said. “Point guards don’t do what he does. They’re not built that way…There’s nobody in the history of the game that can do what he does throughout the stat sheet. What he does, no point guard has ever done it. Nobody.”

Westbrook and Brooks have developed a close relationship over the years, staying in touch even during the years between their stints together in Oklahoma City and Washington.

“I’m grateful for somebody like Scotty,” Westbrook said. “Not just a coach, but a friend. Number one, he gave me my first opportunity to go out and be me. He’s always allowed me to do that since day one…I’m very grateful and thankful for him and his ability to allow me to go out and compete and his trust in me to be the point guard and go out and play.”

Some have classified Brooks’ willingness to let Westbrook be himself as a negative. Westbrook has been accused of selfishness, despite the fact that he’s closing in on his third assist title. For years, he’s had to answer to an outside narrative that his style of play does not lead to winning. Excluding his rookie season, the Thunder finished with at least a 54.0% winning percentage every year he was there, including a 60-win season, a 59-win season and a trip to the NBA Finals. Houston won 63.1% of the games Westbrook played in during the shortened 2019-20 regular season. And in Washington, Westbrook’s second-half performance has led the team’s resurgence into the postseason picture.

Westbrook tunes out all of the noise.

“I take a lot of pride in my preparation,” Westbrook said. “I take a lot of pride in taking care of my body. I take a lot of pride in competing every night. I don’t take nights off. I don’t cheat the game. So with that, I’m OK with the results of going out and competing and if it’s a triple-double, then (expletive), why not?”

“He’s only had problems with maybe a few teammates that didn’t want to play hard,” Brooks said. “Russell doesn’t get along with anybody that doesn’t compete. You don’t have to be an All-Star talent; all you’ve got to do is play hard.”

Ask any one of the guys with whom he shares a locker room and they’ll speak only of a first-class leader, a culture-setter and the consummate teammate.

“He’s made different,” said Ish Smith, whose relationship with Westbrook dates all the way back to their high school years. “He really is. Russ gives you 120, 130 percent, 150 percent, 200 percent every single night. On the defensive end, offensive end, rebounding – every aspect of the game. The thing I love about him is, basically, it’s a game of wills for him. (He’s) going to outlast you.”

The organization commemorated the moment that Westbrook broke the record with a video tribute that included messages of congratulations from Robertson himself, Johnson, Kidd, James, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and members of the Wizards’ organization.

“Russell Westbrook, a tremendously gifted athlete has a great knowledge of the game of basketball,” Robertson said in the video. “He’s been so successful with his triple-doubles, it been almost unbelievable. He’s at the top of the heap…What he has done is classical and it’s going to be in the record books…I’m very happy for you, your family is very proud of you and I salute you for all your accomplishments in the game of basketball.”

“What a feat,” Kidd said. “Incredible. You (passed) me a long time ago, but you’re going to go down as Mr. Triple Double.”

“I’m going to be honest; I didn’t think it was even possible,” James said. “Not only for someone to pass (Robertson) in triple-doubles, but to actually average a triple-double in a season. And you’ve done it I think, like, 70 times? You’re incredible, bro…It’s an incredible feat. If someone had to do it, why not you?”

Westbrook understands NBA history. He has shared publicly more than once how much it means to him to be in the same basketball conversations as NBA legends like Robertson and never lets one of those moments go by without praising Robertson for what he meant to the game on and off the court.

In the final week of his 13th regular season, Westbrook’s drive and on-court abilities have not wavered. He is playing some of the best basketball of his Hall of Fame career. At this rate, there’s no telling just how high his triple-double total will go, which milestones Westbrook will hit next, whose records will fall, or what jaw-dropping stat lines of his will own the NBA zeitgeist for a day.

But for Westbrook, it’s about not about the numbers – it’s about the process. It’s about a rigid routine on game days and days off. It’s about locker room leadership and doing his part to guide a winning culture. It’s about laying the groundwork every day to succeed, over and over again.

“I don’t think about (the stat lines),” Westbrook said. “I just go out and have fun and hoop. At the end of the day, when my journey is done and I’m done playing basketball, I can look back and think about some of the crazy stat lines – the good, the bad, the ugly – and be thankful. I’m grateful for it all.”

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