Who Russell Westbrook is and what he means to the game of basketball are always going to be up for debate, but as his first season with the Wizards has continued to trend upward, one argument many were having months ago has been settled. He may not be at his absolute peak, but there is no question he is still in his prime.
Now, it's probably the backend of it. He is 32 years old, after all. Father Time always finds a way, even if it requires a comeback. But both by the numbers he's compiling and the impact he's made for the Wizards, it is inarguable now that they traded for a Russell Westbrook who is still very, very good.
When Westbrook started the season out hurt and underperforming, some of his biggest critics and those who were against the Wizards trading for him proclaimed that the steep decline had begun. In hindsight, the idea that an all-time great, arguably a top-40 player in NBA history, would suddenly drop off a cliff without a serious injury to blame seems preposterous.
That just doesn't happen. Yes, Westbrook has a game predicated on speed and power, the types of things that fade away over time, in some cases faster than coordination and skill. But just because a player is reliant on his athleticism doesn't mean the drop-off will be quick. In Westbrook's case, he is among the best athletes to ever play the point guard position. Even at 90% of his peak, that's still more athletic than most.
The Wizards are seeing that in real time now and Saturday's narrow loss to the Mavs was another reminder. They lost a heartbreaker in the final minute, but in a game they really had no business even having a chance to win. They went down 18 points in the first half, as they couldn't shoot and the Mavericks couldn't miss.
Westbrook, though, backed up a motto he often points to when asked about his historic triple-doubles, that he can do whatever his team needs him to do, depending on the game. Sometimes it's defense, sometimes it's rebounding. On Saturday, it was scoring and he got hot when none of his teammates seemed to be in rhythm. Westbrook erupted in the second quarter with 18 points, his most points in a single quarter in three years - since February of 2018.
Westbrook finished with 42 points (tying a season-high), 10 rebounds, nine assists, two steals and only two turnovers. He shot 17-for-30 (56.7%) overall and 3-for-6 from three.
Does that sound like a guy who is over the hill? Or, even close to it?
Westbrook's season numbers are astounding, just like always, and stack up well with some of his best years. He's averaging 21.9 points, 11.2 rebounds and 11.0 assists, the latter to lead the NBA. It's the fourth time he's averaged a triple-double and his rebounds and assists are both career-highs.
Westbrook's season shooting numbers - 44.0% from the field and 31.4% from three - are both above his career averages. His three-point percentage is his highest since 2016-17, the year he won his MVP. Is he super efficient? No, he never has been. But he's right about where he's been since the prime of his career began.
The weaknesses in Westbrook's game, namely his shooting and turnovers (4.9 per game, most in NBA), are there for people to pick apart. But, again, nothing has changed. He's still the same player.
And whether you like him or not, the fact he's the same Westbrook is a good sign for the Wizards. They brought him in under circumstances that weren't ideal. They had a player in John Wall they wanted to move on from who was earning a supermax contract while trying to overcome a history of major injury issues, most notably a ruptured Achilles.
They had to attach a first round pick, but with Westbrook they are getting value from that slot in their salary cap, even if it's $41.4 million. It was important to salvage whatever value they could from the situation and so far they have done just that.
Westbrook still has two years left on his contract, but if he plays like this, the prospect of paying him the money he's owed doesn't sound nearly as ominous as it did back in December when he was dealing with a quadriceps injury and unable to get to the rim as often as he can now. It's still $40 million-plus, but at least they have a Hall of Famer in his prime to show for it.