For those who are voted into it, the NBA all-star game is a chance to divert the competitive nature of the sport, if only for a few days, all before hopping a red-eye flight to the Bahamas. Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook used the league’s midseason event as a launch pad to cross-promote his recent partnership with True Religion, his personal fashion line with Barneys New York, and his soon-to-be-released signature shoe. But let’s be clear about something: Russell Westbrook ultimately ended up using the weekend as his lectern, where he warned the league of his plans to be the post-all-star break MVP and bring the Thunder to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season.
Since his 41-point eruption and all-star MVP award, as of Thursday, Westbrook had led the Thunder to four wins (by an average margin of victory of 15) – tallying 20 or more points, 10 or more assists, and five or more rebounds in each, with a plus-minus average of plus-14. Kevin Durant, who had a second surgical procedure on his right foot, didn’t play in three of them. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Westbrook is the first player to total more than 20 points and 10 assists in four consecutive wins in two and a half decades. The NBA Stats Twitter account nearly dedicated an entire day to his recent analytical surge, and for good reason.
No one’s denying that the Thunder sans Durant is a lesser unit: As of Feb. 5, OKC was 11-16 without him, and he is the MVP, after all. But, as ESPN’s Royce Young pointed out Wednesday, Oklahoma City is bolstered by arguably its deepest roster since the franchise moved from Seattle, thanks to the trade deadline moves that brought Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin, Kyle Singler and Steve Novak to the franchise. Moreover, Westbrook has never been a more integral component of everything that the Thunder does on court than he is now.
Coach Scott Brooks is more than comfortable running his offense through the dynamic point guard: Westbrook is sopping up a career-high 37.3 percent of plays while on the floor. As ESPN notes, he’s responsible for 44.1 points per game (!), tops in the league. When he’s playing at his best – a tachycardia inducing, chaotic one-man show gift-wrapped for highlight reels – the team is a freight train. With Westbrook on the court the team’s offensive rating spikes more than 10 points, and since he has been playing at the aforementioned inhuman level, OKC is one of the hottest teams in the NBA – winning nine of its last 10.
As of Thursday, the Thunder sat comfortably in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The team’s playoff chances were above 81 percent.
In a season in which James Harden and Stephen Curry are the two leading names tossed around in the MVP discussion, Westbrook has been better than both the past two months. He’s second in the league in player efficiency rating (29.2), and is vying to be just the fourth player ever to average 26-8-6 in a season.
But an MVP candidacy requires a certain Iron Man quality, and empirical data suggests Westbrook missing 14 games nearly all but eliminates him from the race. Bill Walton and Allen Iverson are the only players ever to win the award despite missing 10 games.
When Durant went down prior to the season and the Thunder started 3-12, Mark Cuban openly posited that the team should consider tanking. Despite the team winning 72 percent of its games in the last three seasons, pundits openly counted them out. Since 2011-12, the team has won 66 percent of its games in the last three months of the regular season. With Westbrook playing at an MVP-caliber level, the Thunder can look ahead to a generally unencumbered final stretch to the playoffs.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Huffington Post and VICE, among other publications. He has been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@JPlanos).