Russell Westbrook is only a couple of months removed from being named 2016-17 NBA MVP. But that wasn’t enough to catapult him into the top five of Sports Illustrated’s ranking of the league’s best players.
SI just concluded its list of top-100 players, and on the final day, it named Westbrook sixth, wedged between two Houston Rockets guards, Chris Paul, who was seventh, and James Harden, who was fifth. Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard was ranked fourth, two-time MVP Stephen Curry was third, reigning Finals MVP Kevin Durant was second and — of course — four-time MVP LeBron James was named the best in the NBA.
Needless to say, Thunder fans thought Westbrook should have been ranked higher coming off an historic season, one in which he averaged a league-leading 31.6 points to go with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists, making him the second player ever to average a triple-double. Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, who accomplished the feat in 1961-62, is the only other man to do it.
The social media uproar from the Westbrookians was substantial. But it wasn't quite necessary.
So high on a list, it mostly matters that the right players are present — in some order. Once the rankers get that part right, the actual order is up for debate. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to who should be sixth or fifth or fourth.
James and Durant were always going to be Nos. 1 and 2. And even though Westbrook is coming off an MVP and certainly has an argument to be No. 3, it’s not like an argument for Curry can’t stand up against one for him. The Golden State Warriors point guard has two MVPs to compare to Westbrook’s one. He has an historic 2015-16, one of the best offensive seasons of all time, which he can hold up against Westbrook’s 2016-17.
Leonard, meanwhile, might be the game’s best defensive player and somehow improves on offense ever year while simultaneously leading perennial 60-win teams. And Harden has the modern system around him to show off his tremendous all-around offensive game.
Even behind Westbrook are players who will shine this year. Paul remains the game’s arguable best defensive point guard while carrying nearly the same offensive load that Westbrook does. New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis finished No. 8. And Davis is somehow still only 24 years old. He may not even be in his prime yet. Depending on how much he improves this year — he'll almost certainly improve to some degree — No. 8 may just be too low.
The top 10 rounded out with the Milwaukee Bucks’ 22-year-old Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, at No. 9 and Warriors everything man and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green at No. 10.
Westbrook wouldn’t fall that far. It’s hard to argue he could reasonably be below where he is now. But placing him next to Paul George, who was No. 12 on this list and who enters his first season for the Thunder when the team starts training camp Sep. 26, could give him an opportunity to take a step back.
Maybe Westbrook becomes the seventh- or eighth-most impressive player in the league this year. Or maybe it goes the other way. Maybe George lets him shine even more and he proves to be third or fourth or fifth.
But regardless of this season's outcome, rankings are convoluted. They’re personal. And once they get to a top five or top seven of a sample that includes hundreds, rankings usually say more about the subjects creating them than they do about the ones who are actually being ranked. When it’s that high up, it’s almost always a wash.