Russell Westbrook is having a ridiculous year. The only player to average a triple-double in NBA history is Oscar Robertson, who accomplished the feat in the 1961-62 season. However, now past this season’s midway point, Westbrook is averaging 30.6 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game, and has already recorded 21 triple-doubles while carrying the Thunder to a 25-19 record. Yet somehow, despite consistently dropping video game numbers, Westbrook was not elected a starter in the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.
The basketball world fell into collective shock among hearing the announcement Thursday that Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and Anthony Davis would start for the Western Conference in New Orleans for this year’s exhibition of the NBA’s best talent. Although the West likely has the three best guards in the NBA in Curry, Harden, and Westbrook, only two of them could have made the starting lineup. Despite Curry being the two-time reigning MVP, his numbers have dropped this season while Westbrook and Harden are seemingly breaking records every other night. For most analysts, naming the starters was pretty cut and dry.
Still, the “experts” aren’t the ones calling the shots- All-Star Weekend is put on for the fans. In previous years, fans had all the say in determining who started the game, but this led to problems such as Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming being voted starters despite being injured and hardly playing if at all. The new formula this year still gives fans the most say (50%) while players and select members of the media each get 25%. Interestingly, when the results were weighted, Westbrook finished in a three-way tie with Curry and Harden but lost the tiebreaker because he finished third in the fan vote.
So does this injustice to Russell Westbrook mean we should reform the voting system, largely a popularity contest? Not at all. In fact, I’d say the 50-25-25% breakdown is probably exactly how it should be. Again, first and foremost, the All-Star Game is for the enjoyment of the fans- that means it should be a popularity contest. The Warriors have captivated the NBA over the past few seasons, and I’ve gone as far as to call them the most exciting team to watch in all of sports. They’re incredibly talented and naturally will and deserve to have success in the fan vote. Plus, it’s not like Steph Curry wasn’t going to make the game anyways. One of the three star guards was going to miss out, and there’s nothing we could do about it.
However, we do need players and the media to step in when the collective public tries to send someone to the game who is clearly undeserving. Case in point, Zaza Pachulia. The Warriors starting center finished a remarkable second place in the Western Conference frontcourt voting despite averaging just 5.6 points and 6.1 rebounds a game. His stunning fan support stems partially from the fact that he joined the Warriors this season, but also was a continuation of a campaign from last season, where Zaza similarly came out of nowhere to finish 4th place in the fan vote, just nearly missing out on becoming a starter in what was the best season of his career.
So Russell Westbrook isn’t a starter, but he’ll obviously be the first person selected as a reserve for the West. While I would have voted for Westbrook, he wouldn’t have been my #1 choice like he was with the player and media votes. That honor goes to James Harden, who is currently my pick for league MVP. While I don’t want to take away from Westbrook, I don’t feel that he’s been the most impressive player in the league. His usage rate currently sits at 41.9%, blowing both second-place DeMarcus Cousins (37.0%) and the all-time record set by Kobe Bryant in 2005-06 (38.74%) completely out of the water. Usage rate is a measure of the percentage of a team’s possessions a player “uses”, meaning he either shoots the ball, gets to the foul line, or turns the ball over. Essentially, Westbrook has the ball more than any player in NBA history.
This isn’t necessarily a “problem”, or anything to blame Westbrook for. Since Kevin Durant left the Thunder, Westbrook is by leaps and bounds the best player on the team, and OKC has adopted a strategy of essentially giving Westbrook the ball and letting him go to work. The fact that he has the ball so incredibly often means he naturally scores more points, and when teammates score, it more likely than not comes off a Westbrook feed. He isn’t particularly efficient in his scoring, and he turns the ball over at a relatively high rate. Still, Westbrook’s athleticism remains off the charts, and his ability to get easy buckets in the paint and get to the free-throw line are at the top of the league.
For me, what’s been most impressive about this year for Westbrook has been his rebounding. For a 6’3″ point guard, Westbrook’s rebounding numbers are absolutely unprecedented- at 10.6 per game, he ranks 11th in the league. Only four guards average even six per game. This speaks to the insane energy and tenacity with which Westbrook plays. You can argue some of the finer points about just how good Russell Westbrook is, but he’s undoubtedly one of the very best in the league. Since we know he’s an All-Star, the question becomes, who’s joining him? Here are my reserves.
Starters: Stephen Curry (Warriors), James Harden (Rockets), Kevin Durant (Warriors), Kawhi Leonard (Spurs), Anthony Davis (Pelicans)
Backcourt Reserves: Russell Westbrook (Thunder), Chris Paul (Clippers) Damian Lillard (Blazers), Klay Thompson (Warriors)
Frontcourt Reserves: Draymond Green (Warriors), DeMarcus Cousins (Kings), Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves)
Starters: Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers), DeMar DeRozan (Raptors), Jimmy Butler (Bulls), LeBron James (Cavaliers), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Backcourt Reserves: Isaiah Thomas (Celtics), Kyle Lowry (Raptors), John Wall (Wizards)
Frontcourt Reserves: Joel Embiid (76ers), Kevin Love (Cavaliers), Paul George (Pacers), Carmelo Anthony (Knicks)