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Welcome to NBA’s Mount Olympus, Russell Westbrook

Not even Jordan did that.

Whenever someone starts a conversation with these five words, everyone pays attention. Some NBA moments stay in our mind forever:

– Magic’s rookie season, when he replaced Kareem in the NBA Finals, winning the MVP.
– That moment Bird stole the ball from Isiah’s inbound.
– Craig Hodges mesmerizing sequence of 3’s at the All-Star Game.
– MJ flawless NBA Finals record, never surpassing the 6th games mark (how poetic is that as a 6th Titles caption?)
– LeBron’s climbing the insurmountable 3-1 mountain against the regular season best team of all times?

Russell Westbrook entered the NBA Olympus this season. He managed to lead a condemned team into an extraordinary position in the rigorous western conference, adding his personal trademark – a triple-double season. The fact only Oscar Robertson did it, 55 years ago, adds to the cinematic feel. This season many NBA pundits expected a decline and “crash and burn” scenario for Westbrook, now deprived of his favorite teammate, who left him for greener (or should we say sunnier?) pastures.

DEBATE SEASON

As the debates heat up, most of the NBA influencers have already expressed their views. From players (Pippen, Shaq, Chauncey Billups, Oscar Robertson, etc…) to coaches and NBA analysts, the vote is already carved in stone. What Westbrook did is remarkable – averaging a triple double while catapulting his very weak team to a Playoff position. Not an 8th, last-minute entrance in the Playoffs, by the way. Russell did the unthinkable – he was able to dominate the stronger opposition with almost no support. Oklahoma City Thunder regarded this season as a reboot season, a kind of experiment to see who’s in and who’s out, looking forward. Many doubted OKC could even get to 9th or 10th place.

Russell Westbrook single-handedly forced this mediocre team to another height, forcing his way to the Playoffs. A kind of “total basketball hymn”, destined to eternity. As the season progressed and the fact he could average a triple double became lingering in everyone’s mind, Westbrook’s antics were the brightest aspect of a truly unique season.

Spurs managed to amp their game due to Kawhi’s evolution, the last specimen of an old school approach where only wins matter. Fame and recognition seem unimportant to Leonard, making him the perfect heir to Tim Duncan’s stapled “no-nonsense, team basketball first Spurs”. Not far from San Antonio, the Harden explosion, playing as a point guard, led many to believe he could be the MVP. The Rockets, however, have a much better team, filled with “three point excellent snipers” and unique defensive, versatile players (Ariza and Beverley). As for the Warriors, the 3-1 punch line team (how long will it last, they ask) had a hesitant start but soon found their way, as Durant seemed to fit perfectly in the “shoot first, react later” Warriors team. In the East, LeBron James spent the season trying to motivate their teammates, enamored with the fact they are the current NBA Champions. LBJ knows better than most how hard it is to stay on top of the NBA Champions Mountain.

Near the end of this season, the MVP race talks were dominated by a poker of players: LeBron, Harden, Westbrook and Leonard. In the last few weeks, though, we saw the best Westbrook. Performances like the legendary 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists versus the magicless Orlando or the 45 points, 9 rebounds and 10 assists versus the feisty Grizzlies were remarkable. Clutch buzzer beaters. At this point, Westbrook started to distance himself from his competitors. On the later stage of the regular season marathon, only Houston Rockets Harden’s fan base still believes he deserves the MVP.

The “case for Harden” revolves around two factors: his transformation from a shoot first player to a floor general, taking the Rockets to new orbits, and the fact Houston had a much better season.

Nevertheless, Rockets are a much more talented team, making this argument automatically flawed. Yes, James Harden amassed extraordinary numbers and helped the Rockets to climb the strenuous Western Conference Hill. However, his performances were never as flashy as Westbrook and one thing is to win with a plethora of valuable players and the other – quite different – is to win with a bunch of loose pieces, “wishful thinking” hopeful projects and serviceable players (Oladipo, Adams, Kanter).

The die-hard supporting Harden battalion usually throw advanced stats and obscure numbers in order to justify their views. It’s a losing battle. It all falls down to history. It reminds us the arguments some LBJ fans (almost extinct, nowadays) who use the raw usage of stats and cumulative numbers as a measure to compare LeBron to the Greatest of All Time. There’s no doubt LBJ will have more minutes, playoffs series, and higher numbers in many categories ( he didn’t spend the earlier years in college) except the NBA Finals… Those are the numbers that count more than all the others. To excel at the ultimate stage, versus the best opposition. Why is Jordan untouched as the NBA Zeus? Because he NEVER lost. He never needed a game 7. Shaq, Kobe, Duncan, LBJ… none of them could touch this kind of sacred ground. As the legendary Peter Vecsey alluded to, “maybe someone will come along better than all of them.” He will have to do the unthinkable, though. Going at least 6 for 6 or even more.

In Harden’s case, his “almost as good as Westbrook” numbers are the reason most of the NBA pundits are already giving the MVP to Westbrook. “Almost” doesn’t quite cut it…

WELCOME TO NBA’S MOUNT OLYMPUS

Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double season. Let that sink in. Most of the people covering the NBA (NBA Scholar included) weren’t alive to see Oscar Robertson extraordinary feat. It became one of those NBA mythical facts, like the 50 points, 25 rebounds season average from Wilt or the 11 rings from Bill Russel. Numbers and records everyone regarded as unbreakable. And yet…

Russell Westbrook managed to do the unthinkable.

A triple-double season? This is a once in a lifetime accomplishment.

No one could anticipate this. Except for the legendary Peter Vecsey, who explained the required transformation for Westbrook. Hall of Fame knowledge – you can’t beat that:

Books will be published in the next years narrating this phenomenal occurrence. The ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, the complicated relationship between Harden and Westbrook, serving as a backdrop to this unbelievable season.

Laudatory articles will be written, showing us the minutiae of this fairy tale season.

Songs will be made to celebrate this feat.

Russell Westbrook is the people’s champion, a quasi-novel character. A suddenly abandoned friend – as Durant chose to leave him to thunders and predictable doom – who overcame all obstacles, managed to stay relevant and helped his team. Against all odds, with weak support.

In a curious twist of events, Durant returns to his Warriors the day after Westbrook did the unimaginable. The stakes are higher for KD. In all fairness, OKC has already obtained more than they hoped for. All they can aspire is a respectful first round series or – if the NBA Gods keep smiling at Westbrook and his teammates – a second round participation. Durant knows this season is all or nothing for his new found partnership with a Warriors team eager to erase the 3-1 debacle.

In the East, the King is not amused with Cavs inconsistency, as he looks at all these distractions in the wild, wild west.

Only two things are certain, as we approach the second season:

Oklahoma City Thunder won’t win the Championship.
Russell Westbrook is the Most Valuable Player of 2016-17 regular season.

Magic, Bird, Jordan, LeBron… so many great players along the decades. None of them could do what Westbrook has done.

In the era of three-point delirious basketball and lack of loyalty to a franchise, Westbrook is simultaneously a novelty and a throwback: his NBA “new age total basketball” style of play defies all odds and yet… he might follow MJ, Bird, Magic, Kobe, Tim Duncan, Reggie Miller, John Stockton’s path ( to name a few), who opted to stay in the same franchise until the end of their careers.

Let’s see what the future brings. Nevertheless, even if Westbrook decides to leave one day, Oklahoma City Thunder will never treat him as they did with Durant. He will be forever linked to “The Triple-Double Season” – a monumental achievement coming from a player and team whom everyone had written off.

A myriad of games and performances for the ages.

Russell Westbrook managed to capture the 2016-17 NBA Zeitgeist. In all fairness, he is the NBA Zeitgeist of this wonderful 2016-17 season. He entered NBA’s Mount Olympus.

A fantastic, vertiginous triple-double season…

Not even Jordan did that.

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