Russell Westbrook, an iron man in fragile times


Wait, I’m up there all by myself? (REUTERS/Bill Waugh)

Each week, another one goes down, either for a game, a few weeks or the rest of the year. This has been a rough season for occupants of the league’s most important and glamorous position.

But while his point guard peers have struggled to stay in uniform and avoid the expected setbacks of a grueling and taxing season, Russell Westbrook continues to play on with those angry glares, high-stepping romps and fake gun holster celebrations for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

As the league’s reigning iron man, Westbrook not only stands above other point guards; he is far ahead of the rest of the league in terms of durability. The electrifying, eccentric, sometimes erratic but always exciting Westbrook has played an NBA-best 374 consecutive games, the longest active streak by more than 160 games.

The San Antonio Spurs’ Tony Parker became the latest all-star-caliber point guard who was forced to sit after suffering a sprained left ankle last Friday against Sacramento; he will likely be out for a month. And already this season, Rajon Rondo has suffered a torn left anterior cruciate ligament and is done for the season, Steve Nash missed more than a month with a fractured left leg, Chris Paul has been sidelined for a few weeks with a bruised right kneecap, Kyrie Irving has missed time for various ailments, Stephen Curry and Deron Williams have battled a troublesome ankles and Derrick Rose has yet to play in nearly 10 months after suffering a torn left ACL.

In fact, only six other players have an active streak of at least 160 games in a row:  Houston’s Omer Asik (211), Memphis’s Ed Davis (191; he didn’t appear in two games this season because he was traded from Toronto and Memphis and is given travel leeway), Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (190), Denver’s Andre Miller (189), Indiana’s Tyler Hansbrough (166) and Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings (164).

Detroit Pistons forward Greg Monroe’s streak of 208 consecutive games ended on Wednesday when he missed the first game of his career with a sore left ankle. Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin missed the season after he was drafted with a broken left patella but played the next 2½ seasons before he had string of 197 straight games snapped last month because of a hamstring strain. And Charlotte Bobcats point guard Ramon Sessions played 185 games in a row before suffering a sprained left medial collateral ligament in loss on Wednesday to Brooklyn. He will miss his first game in more than two seasons on Friday, when the Bobcats host Westbrook and the Thunder.

Kobe Bryant has begun to approach a gladiator-level reputation for toughness and resilience as he attempts to play no matter what ails him. Bryant has appeared in every game this season and has pledged to keep pushing despite recently injuring his elbow. In his 17 seasons, Bryant has appeared in 1,223 out of a possible 1,324 games (92.4 percent) but he has never played more than 235 consecutive games.

Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton only missed 22 games in his entire 19-year career and appeared in his final 442 – between ages 35 and 40. Maintaining extended stretches of durability is tough, given the physical grind of an 82-game season. And now, some coaches on teams that have already locked in playoff positions often rest players in late April to get ready for the postseason. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich has even done it in November.

I keep going. What? (REUTERS/Bill Waugh)
I keep going. What? (REUTERS/Bill Waugh)

Westbrook doesn’t talk much about his streak, explaining to reporters last season how he twisted his ankle the last time he discussed it at length. When asked to explain how Westbrook has maintained for so long, a person close to him said he “goes 110 percent every time he works out and wouldn’t dare miss a day” and added the he’s “incredibly tough mentally.”

Cal Ripken remains the professional sports standard-bearer for consecutive games streaks, playing 2,632 straight games over 17 years with the MLB’s Baltimore Orioles. But Westbrook would have to play every game for the next 10 seasons to match A.C. Green’s NBA all-time record of 1,192 consecutive games, set from November 1986 to April 2001.

Miller anks fifth on the active list, picking up where he left off after his previous string of 632 consecutive games played was snapped on Dec. 7, 2010, when he was suspended for a flagrant foul on Griffin.

Derek Fisher replaced Miller that night and played 537 games in a row from April 2005 to March 2012, when he sat out in order to negotiate a buyout with the Houston Rockets after getting traded by the Los Angeles Lakers. In his mind, Fisher hadn’t missed any games, but the NBA ruled that he was eligible to play since he was under contract. He played the final 20 games last season with the Thunder but was forced to miss time with a strained right patella injury last December while playing for Dallas.

Westbrook was next up after Fisher and hasn’t let go, nearly a year later. Miller and Fisher haven’t missed much time during their careers, but have been low-to-the-ground point guards who move at a measured pace that doesn’t place as many demands on their bodies. The 6-foot-3, 187-pound Westbrook is a dervish and his speed and explosiveness has helped him make three all-star appearances and make all-NBA second team for the past two seasons.

In his time in Oklahoma City, Westbrook has heard endless criticism of his decision-making; over taking more shots than Durant, his teammate and league’s reigning three-time scoring champion; and even over a wardrobe that features glasses without lenses and bizarre, colorful shirts. But his dedication to being available every night to compete cannot be questioned, with him appearing in every game since the Thunder drafted him fourth overall in 2008. He never missed a game at UCLA, either.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee | March 7, 2013