Basketball fans know that Russell Westbrook has for the second season in a row achieved what had only been done one other season in NBA history.  Russell Westbrook finished the 2017-18 season averaging 25.4 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 10.3 assists to complete his triple-double.  The great Oscar Robertson was the only other player to achieve it in the 1961-62 season.  Westbrook has never had trouble scoring, and his assists have always been high as the point guard of the team.  But how has 6’3” Westbrook managed to average 10 rebounds a game?  And should we be impressed?  

During Westbrook’s 10 NBA seasons, about 9 players per year average 10 or more rebounds per game, all those being bigger players, mainly Centers and Power Forwards. Makes sense. The shortest player in that span to average 10 rebounds per game was Gerald Wallace at 6’7”.  So how does the much smaller Westbrook manage to average 10 rebounds per game?  The answer is in the NBA.com’s Contested Rebound statistic.  

In watching countless NBA games, often a team would miss a shot, and the opposing team has three players standing around waiting to grab the rebound.  Only one player can get credited with the rebound and many of the smaller players will defer that duty to the big man on the team. Any of the three players could have grabbed it and it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the game.  In the NBA this season, roughly 37% of total rebounds were deemed “Contested”.  This is where the Contested Rebound stat comes into play and why if it was the measure as the best indicator for rebounding ability, Westbrook’s stat would look much different. 

Let’s look at the numbers.  StatJacks has compiled data based on a player pool that have played a minimum of 30 games in the season.  Last season Westbrook finished with 10.7 rebounds per game which ranked 11th in the league.  His 2.4 contested rebounds were ranked 66th.  Of the top 50 rebounders in the league, his ratio of contested rebounds to total rebounds were ranked last.  His total of 8.3 uncontested rebounds per game was the highest in the NBA.  This year Westbrook posted similar numbers: (13th in rebounds per game; 68th in contested rebounds; lowest ratio in the top 50; 3rd in uncontested rebounds).  

 So, what does this all mean?  Was Westbrook cherry picking the rebounds just to hit the mark?  You can certainly make a case for it given the numbers.  Towards the end of this season Westbrook needed 72 rebounds in the last five games (14.4 per game) to hit the elusive triple-double.  He finished with 76 in the last five games (15.2 per game) including finishing the season with 18 rebounds and 20 rebounds in his last two.  

 Advanced statistics notwithstanding, the measure used in the past was simply offensive rebounds vs. defensive rebounds.  Where an offensive rebound meant you took it away from the other team and gave your team another opportunity to score.  As you can see from the graph below, Westbrook’s offensive rebounding has stayed static throughout his career, and only his defensive rebounds are on the rise.

Rebounding statistics can be easily swayed by player designation and is the only major NBA stat that can be controlled in this manner.  If you compare the rankings together, Westbrook’s 68th rank in contested rebounds would be equivalent to the 68th rank in total rebounds, which would be 5.7 per game.  That is a respectable average for a point guard does not get him the triple-doubles accolades.  When you think of a triple-double player, you think a well-rounded player that can dominate the boards and also be a play maker.  When you look at Westbrook’s 2.2 contested rebounds this season and compare to the league leader Andre Drummond’s 7.4, he’s not really doing the dirty work under the glass.   

 All this raises the question; should we judge greatness by statistics?  No doubt multiple seasons averaging triple-doubles, could be considered a great accomplishment, but the 10/10/10 are just arbitrary levels.  There are greater seasons achieved than Robertson’s and Westbrook’s triple-double seasons.  There are greater games than a player that finishes with exactly 10 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists (that has happened 5 times by the way).  If you asked LeBron James to make averaging a triple-double in a season his priority, you’d be hard pressed to say he couldn’t do it.  Westbrook’s OKC Thunder were booted out of the 1st round of the playoff in both seasons he averaged a triple-double.  Would his team have done better if his focus wasn’t on getting the rebounds, or may even if he rested more?  No one knows, but those two triple-double seasons are in the record books now.