NBA history is under assault. The assailants play the same position but go about their business in distinctly different ways, each highly effective.
Yahoo NBA writer Michael Lee summed it up perfectly in a recent tweet: “Russell Westbrook triple doubles are like death metal. James Harden triple doubles are like smooth jazz.”
Westbrook and Harden, former teammates on the Oklahoma City Thunder, have produced amazing hardwood feats through one-quarter of the NBA season, posting numbers we haven’t seen in several decades. Westbrook has been unleashed, thanks to Kevin Durant signing with Golden State. Harden has been energized after a shift to point guard under first-year Houston Rockets coach Mike Antonio.
Both have been prolific scores in the past, with Westbrook winning the title in 2014-15 and Harden finishing second to Stephen Curry last season. But they are so much more in their new circumstances, maybe enough to join exclusive lists.
Oscar Robertston is the only NBA player to average double-figures in points, rebounds and assists in a single season (1961-62). Entering Friday’s contest against Houston, Westbrook is right there with the “Big O,” averaging 31.0 points, 10.9 rebounds and 11.3 assists. He has posted triple-doubles in six consecutive games.
All other NBA players combined accounted for 11 triple-doubles through Tuesday; Westbrook has 11 by himself. In 22 games.
“I know there’s so much talk about Russell and what he’s doing, because what he’s doing is really incredible, remarkable,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan told reporters Monday after Westbrook had 32-13-12 against Atlanta. “Obviously the league hasn’t seen something like this in a long, long time.”
Harden entered Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakes with four triple-doubles this season, good for second place. But he leads the league in assists and earlier this season became the first player since Magic Johnson to post back-to-back 30-point, 15-assist efforts.
Such numbers bring to mind Nate “Tiny” Archibald, who in 1972-73 became the only player to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season.
Known as an explosive, but ball-hogging scorer in years prior, Harden is having his best season ever in the revolutionary pace-and-space system D’Antoni unveiled with the Phoenix Suns, precursors to the Golden State Warriors. Harden put up 29-15-13 Sunday in a double-overtime thriller as Houston snapped the Warriors’ 12-game winning streak.
Could Harden become the first player to match Archibald?
“I thrive on scoring the basketball and creating shots for my teammates,” Harden told Yahoo earlier this season. I go into every game doing what it takes to win, whether it’s assists, whether it’s scoring, rebounding, whatever it is. [D’Antoni] puts a lot of trust in me, and my teammates do as well.”
In addition to leading the league with 11.6 assists per game, Harden is fourth in scoring at 28.7 points per game. Here’s the thing, though:
Even as we fixate on triple-double magic, Westbrook is closer to pulling off the Tiny feat.
Westbrook is second in the NBA in scoring and second in assists. Incredibly, he could accomplish something that hasn’t occurred in 54 years (Robertson), or 43 years (Archibald). He might even do both.
Chatter about his phenomenal season abounds and Westbrook is the only person unimpressed. “I get satisfaction in winning,” he told reporters Monday, continuing to downplay the numbers as he’s done all season. “That’s the most important part to me. My guys do an amazing job of working on their games and making my job easy, and my job’s to be able to find those guys.”
The Thunder, 6-0 during Westbrook’s streak, has played better than expected after Durant’s departure. Westbrook figured to be a leading MVP contender given his personal drive and presumed desire to prove he doesn’t need KD. But the rest of the team is following suit.
“You could see it in the summertime,” guard Anthony Morrow told reporters Monday. “He never backs down from a challenge. I think where some people may have seen this as a tough situation for him with all those guys leaving … he trusted in us and definitely trusted in himself, and you see what he’s doing. He’s leading us and doing a great job.”
Harden has been freed not only by the addition of D’Antoni, but the subtraction of Dwight Howard clogging the middle. The floor is less crowded as Harden probes and slashes, always ready for a kickout to newcomers Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, among others. Entering their game against the Lakers, the Rockets were tied with Memphis for fourth-place in the Western Conference.
Harden’s game is more fun and Westbrook’s is more fierce. Both players have boggled our minds and stretched our imaginations thus far.
History might prove to be insurmountable in the end, with Robertson and Archibald retaining their precedents.
But Westbrook and Harden are giving them scares and giving us thrills.