Pat Riley was in the middle of answering a question about the Heat’s current rebuilding project on a local radio show last week when his mind drifted back to 2008, the year the Heat, coming off a 15-win season and Riley’s last as coach, used the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to select Michael Beasley instead of Russell Westbrook.
“We missed on that pick in Michael Beasley,” Riley said before correcting himself to soften the blow on Beasley, who was selected after Derrick Rose and before O.J. Mayo and Westbrook with the next two picks. “I mean, we didn't really miss on it. But the best player was Russell Westbrook.”
Riley and the Heat didn’t sweat the missed opportunity because the franchise ended up making four consecutive trips to the Finals and won two championships soon after with briging together the Big 3.
But these days, with Westbrook vying to become the first player since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62 to average a triple-double in the NBA, it’s fair for Heat fans to wonder what might have been had the Heat (10-21) drafted Westbrook and not the Thunder, which visits AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday night.
Just don’t count Heat coach Erik Spoelstra among those who will. He doesn’t play the what-if game.
“You can’t play that game because then who knows if we would have gotten the Big 3,” Spoelstra said when tossed the hypothetical question Monday of where the Heat might be today had it drafted Westbrook. “Sliding doors, one thing could affect the next.”
Still, that doesn’t mean Spoelstra and the Heat don’t admire what Westbrook is doing this season. Not only does he lead the league in scoring (31.7 points per game), rank second in assists (10.9) and 13th in rebounding (10.4), but he’s got nearly as many triple-doubles (14) as the rest of the league has combined (18).
To put it all into context: the Heat as a franchise has 22 triple-doubles in its entire 29-year history with center Hassan Whiteside collecting the last four.
What impresses Whiteside the most about Westbrook’s gaudy statistics?
“The rebounding aspect of it especially when you’re that size,” said Whiteside, who along with James Harden trails Westbrook by one for the most double-doubles in the league with 24. “It takes a lot of energy to rebound and he’s not just a defensive rebounder. He’s an offensive rebounder. A lot of people look over rebounding and how much energy that takes.”
When Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists for the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) during the 1961-62 season, he posted 41 triple-doubles that season. Robertson ended up with 181 triple-doubles over his career. Westbrook, 28, is the active leader in the league with 51 career triple-doubles. LeBron James is next with 45.
The player who has come closest to averaging a triple-double in a season since Robertson was Magic Johnson, who averaged 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 9.5 assists in 1981-82. Later, Jason Kidd averaged 13 points, 8.2 rebounds and 9.2 assists during the 2006-07 season.
Once Kevin Durant left OKC in July to sign with the Golden State Warriors, most imagined Westbrook’s statistics would improve.
“He’s doing basically everything for his team,” Goran Dragic said. “He's just an unbelievable athlete. I’ve never see a point guard that is so athletic. He can jump so high, get those rebounds. He's passing the ball well. He's shooting the ball well. He's a total package.”
In a 97-85 loss at Oklahoma City back on Nov. 7, the Heat held Westbrook to a season-low 14 points on 5 of 16 shooting. But Westbrook played only 27 minutes in the game (tied for a season-low) and sat out the entire fourth quarter after the Thunder built a 24-point lead late in the third quarter. He still finished with 11 assists.
“I don’t know if we held him in check,” Spoelstra said. “I think the first half he probably was just reading the flow of the game. It wasn’t anything we were doing. It was probably his conscious decision whether he wanted to impact every possession or not.”
Westbrook’s overall stat line against the Heat wasn’t impressive, but when the Thunder went on a 20-0 run in the third quarter to stretch a 55-51 lead into a 75-51, he either scored or assisted a teammate on every single Thunder possession.
“He's just really aggressive,” said Heat guard Josh Richardson, who grew up in Oklahoma City and was a huge fan of the Thunder. “He never stops attacking. He doesn’t let missed shots or anything get to him. He just keeps playing.”
Before Westbrook signed a three-year, $85.7 million extension in August, Heat fans — much like others across the league — were dreaming of a scenario where Westbrook would end up in Miami this coming summer. Now, that won’t be possible until after the 2017-18 season, when Westbrook has an option to opt out of his new max deal for another.
For now, the Heat will just have to settle on trying to slow him down Tuesday night.
“He makes you watch doesn’t he?” Spoelstra said. “Not that we have time to watch a lot of games, but you’re definitely watching the highlights. What he’s doing is unprecedented. I think it’s a great message to a lot of our young guys — somebody that really is a force of nature that impacts big games on every possession, both ends of the court with everything he’s got.”
COMING UP NEXT
Tuesday: Thunder (19-12) at Heat (10-21)
When/where: 7:30 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami
TV/radio: SUN, NBA TV; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish)
Series: Thunder lead 35-22
Scouting report: Heat guards Wayne Ellington (right hamstring strain) and Rodney McGruder (sprained left ankle) practiced Monday and could return to action after missing games over the past week, coach Erik Spoelstra said. Victor Oladipo (right wrist sprain) and Cameron Payne (right foot fracture) are out for the Thunder. Oladipo had 17 points in the win over the Heat earlier this season.