In Praise of Stat Padding

Russell Westbrook stole rebounds in order to average a triple-double over two straight seasons. This is a good thing.

DENVER, CO - APRIL 09:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder celebrates after scoring a game-winning, three-point shot at the buzzer against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on April 9, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook, triple-double machine.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Were Oklahoma City situated on a large enough body of water, Russell Westbrook should have triumphantly sailed into the sunset after Wednesday night’s game. Going into the regular season finale, he needed 16 rebounds to average a triple-double for the second-straight year. The Thunder point guard wound up grabbing 20, a career-high.

At the minimum, he should have attended some sort of coronation afterward, but, alas, there was no confetti or champagne awaiting Westbrook at his locker, only a small scrum of Oklahoma-based reporters.

Just a few years ago, most basketball fans assumed no one would again average a triple-double over an entire NBA season. Oscar Robertson had been the only player to do it, in 1961–62, and the thought of someone posting such a gaudy combination of points, assists, and rebounds while playing against modern athletes and advanced defenses was absurd. Of course, Westbrook is absurd in his own right, and he has now managed to average a triple-double in two consecutive seasons. The reaction, meanwhile, has been a mixture of apathy and amusement, and that is almost more astonishing than the achievement itself.

During Wednesday night’s game, Twitter users shared humorous videos, photos, and GIFs of Westbrook boxing out his own teammates and ripping away rebounds while pursuing those critical 16 boards. The following day, the Washington Post ran an explainer, headlined, “Russell Westbrook Posted a Season-Long Triple-Double—Again. Why Don’t We Care This Time?

The truth is that we didn’t really care enough the first time, either. Sure, he won the MVP award for his troubles, but backlash to the vote brewed before he even hoisted the trophy. Critics accused him of shirking defensive responsibilities to hunt for rebounds and of dominating possessions to the detriment of this teammates. If anything, Westbrook’s second go-around averaging a triple-double only amplified those criticisms.

On Wednesday afternoon, when Westbrook was preparing to put the finishing touches on his second-straight season of statistical absurdity, he was not in a good mood. During shoot-around before the game he seemed agitated, even by his own prickly standards, and he defended himself from accusations of stat padding:

But Westbrook is wrong. Of course he’s stealing rebounds. During that last game, he got those 16 rebounds in just 21 minutes. No one grabs that many boards in such a short amount of time without committing Hamburglar-level larceny.

On Tuesday, Westbrook’s teammate (and fellow stat padder) Carmelo Anthony gave an honest assessment of the point guard’s overeager pursuit of boards. “He steals [rebounds],” he said. “I don’t think nobody thinks twice about that. As long as we get the rebound, I don’t think we worry about that.” Westbrook is so eager to build his stats, even Carmelo Anthony must reconcile with the elementary algebra that goes into sharing.

There shouldn’t be any shame in stat padding. Plumping the numbers is a healthy part of the basketball experience, and the game is better and more interesting because there will always be players who are eager to inject some collagen into the box score.

In basketball, the players decide who contributes within the flow of each possession. There is no batting order. Stat padding is a natural of byproduct of this freedom, and, fittingly, how players pad their stats is often as creative as the plays themselves. Watching a player pad his stats is like seeing a trombonist go off on an ill-advised solo. The results are liable to run the gamut from sublime to horrendous, but his fellow bandmates have no choice but to play along.

Wilt Chamberlain, the Paul Bunyan of basketball, was the most legendary stat padder of all. In the late ’60s, he was annoyed that people only considered him to be a scorer, so he cut his shot attempts by about 10 per game in order to become the league’s assist leader (which he did, in 1968). He is quoted as likening this achievement to “Babe Ruth leading the league in sacrifice bunts.”

One of the most egregious instances of NBA stat padding came in 2003, when Cleveland Cavaliers guard Ricky Davis shot the ball off his own hoop and grabbed it during the waning seconds of a blowout. He had been one rebound shy of a triple-double, and his opponents took offense to the act. (“I would have knocked him on his ass,” the opposing coach later said.) It was a brash and ridiculous play, but is now remembered fondly as a little slice of hilarity during an otherwise forgettable game. Isn’t that the most we can hope for from a blowout?

(To make matters even more sublime, Davis had been unaware of the NBA rule that explicitly prevents those types of rebounds from counting, so he didn’t even get his triple-double.)

Last year, Portland Trailblazers’ forward Maurice Harkless introduced a novel form of stat padding. His contract assured him a $500,000 bonus if he shot 35 percent or better from deep over the regular season. Harkless was at 35.1 percent going into the last game of the year, and, rather than take a any chances, he treated the three-point line like it was made of snakes. Every time he got an open look, he either passed the ball away or tiptoed inside to two-point land. He is now a half-million dollars richer because it.

There’s an argument that Westbrook’s triple-double hunts are particularly bad because he is in pursuit of a completely arbitrary combination of averages. Triple-doubles weren’t even a thing when Oscar Robertson averaged one. The term was coined in the 1980s by a Lakers PR guy to grab attention for Magic Johnson’s impressive box scores. When Westbrook rips a rebound out of his teammates’ hands, he is essentially doing so because of a superficial obsession with a turn of phrase. If that isn’t a wonderful expression of individuality, I don’t know what is.

It all represents the kind of manic excitement that makes Russell Westbrook so much fun to watch. The pursuit of arbitrary achievements is the very definition of sports; thankfully Westbrook pushes himself to do it with style. May he continue this pursuit for as long as his body allows him to throw himself at rebounds that aren’t his.