Most of the comparisons between Russell Westbrook and Oscar Robertson are born from the fact they’re the only two players in league history to average a triple-double over an entire season, with the former accomplishing the feat in 2016-17 and 2017-18 and the latter pulling it off 55 years prior, in 1961-62.
But there are other reasons to compare the two unforgettable floor generals.
For starters, the two are (or were) ferocious rebounders despite their stature. They also regularly display (or displayed) feats of ball-handling wizardry, which more often than not leaves (or left) opposing defenders folded over in their wake. Both players love to pull-up on drives into high-rising mid-range jumpers, and neither was much of a defender.
Their career numbers, to this point, are pretty similar…
…and although one of them clearly has the advantage in every statistical average, he did perform in a far weaker era.
As a fun exercise, we decided to break down and compare Robertson and Westbrook in six separate categories – scoring, passing, rebounding, defensive abilities, team accomplishments and personal accolades – before deciding once and for all: Who was better?
Without further ado, let’s get into it.
Although neither Robertson nor Westbrook are known purely for their scoring as both guards are more widely recognized for their stat-stuffing abilities, the dynamic floor generals could still get buckets with the best of them. Both men used a hard-to-stop pull-up jumper as their primary weapon, though Robertson probably had better touch around the basket while Westbrook is the far superior athlete.
Robertson led the league in scoring once, in 1967-68, when he put up 29.2 points per contest. Westbrook, as of 2017-18, has managed to accomplish the feat twice, in 2014-15 and 2016-17, averaging 28.1 and 31.6 points nightly in the two campaigns respectively.
However, due to the difference in era, particularly how the 1960’s and ’70s were known for a fast-paced style of play which led to high scoring totals, as well as for stars regularly playing over 40 minutes on a nightly basis, despite only leading the Association scoring once in his career, Robertson averaged at least 30 points per game six times in his heyday – a feat Westbrook has only managed once in his career.
What’s more, Robertson currently ranks as the NBA’s 12th all-time leading scorer, with 26,710 points during his time as a professional. Westbrook, at the moment, places 90th in the same category, at 17,184 points. There’s a chance the Oklahoma City Thunder ball-handler reaches Robertson’s total, but to do so, he’s going to have to play at least 75 games over the next six seasons and average roughly 22 points per contest in that time span. Considering Westbrook will enter his age-30 season in 2018-19, it’s far from a lock he’ll be able to reach that accomplishment, but it can’t be totally ruled out, either.
Still, despite playing in a time known for a lack of efficiency, Robertson still outpaced Westbrook in field-goal (48.5 percent to 43.5 percent) and true-shooting percentage (56.4 to 53.2) for his career, and scored more points without the benefit of a three-point line in his era.
Neither Robertson nor Westbrook possess(ed) the vision or flair as passers of a Magic Johnson or Steve Nash, yet both racked up dimes anyway.
Well, both legendary players drew (and still draw) so much attention with the ball in their hands that easy opportunities would frequently open up for their teammates – opportunities which they would rarely miss on setting up.
For his career, Robertson averaged over 11 assists four times, leading the NBA in dimes an astonishing six times. Only John Stockton (with nine) and Bob Cousy (with eight) had more campaigns where they were the league leaders in assists.
Westbrook, on the other hand, has put up over 10 assists three times, and was the NBA’s assist leader once, which happened in the 2017-18 season.
Looking at how the two players stack up as passers in the historical sense, Robertson ranks sixth in all-time helpers with 9,887, while Westbrook places 35th with 6,113. Again, it’s highly unlikely the Oklahoma City guard catches the Hall-of-Famer, unless he plays at least 75 contests over the next six years, and averages 8.4 assists in that time span.
There’s probably a better chance Westbrook surpasses Robertson in career dimes than in scoring total, but even so, we have to give the Milwaukee Bucks legend the edge here, too.
Few players in NBA history can match Westbrook’s pound-for-pound tenacity on the glass.
Among men listed at 6-foot-3 or shorter, the UCLA product ranks fifth in total rebounds (4,953), and is within 712 boards of first place, where Hal Green currently resides. That means all Westbrook has to do to break the record is play 80 games next season and average nine rebounds. It could very well happen in 2018-19.
Robertson was a fantastic rebounder in his own right, as he pulled down double-digit boards three times in his career.
But he had two inches on Westbrook and played in a far less athletically challenging era, so the advantage here easily goes to the point guard who’s still active.
It’s nearly impossible to compare defense across generations, especially going as far back as the 1960’s. The addition of the three-point line coupled with the vast improvements in conditioning and athleticism make point-stopping a completely different game today than it was 50 years ago.
Additionally, with the tracking of possessions not coming into effect until late in Robertson’s career, we don’t even have the benefit of advanced stats such as Defensive Box Plus/Minus, block or steal rate with which to compare the two explosive guards.
All we have to look at is Defensive Win Shares, a metric that estimates the number of wins a player contributed thanks to his defense. Per that stat, Robertson added 37.2 wins to the teams he played for thanks to his prowess on the less glamorous side of the ball, while Westbrook has contributed 33.5 wins to this point.
Regardless, Robertson was never quite praised for his defensive abilities while Westbrook is known to be flighty on that end, often chasing steals or rebounds rather than playing conventional team defense.
As such, in this category, the two players are a wash.
Both players had the misfortune of peaking at the same time of an all-time dynasty – Robertson with the fabled Boston Celtics of the 1960’s and Westbrook with the Golden State Warriors of the 2010’s.
Bill Russell’s Celtics won seven championships during Robertson’s first eight seasons in the Association, with the other title going to another unforgettable talent, Wilt Chamberlain and his Philadelphia 76ers. While Stephen Curry and the Warriors are heading into 2018-19 winners of three of the last four titles, with little signs of slowing down.
Even so, Robertson was able to secure two trips to the NBA Finals, both of which came late in his career. He came out victorious in one of them, securing the lone championship of his playing days in 1970-71 after sweeping the Baltimore Bullets. The Cincinnati legend averaged 23.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the 1971 Finals, but Finals MVP honors (rightfully) went to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that year.
Meanwhile, Westbrook has only led his team to the NBA Finals once, in 2011-12, where his Oklahoma City squad were defeated by LeBron James and the Miami Heat in five contests. He came close to reaching the championship series one other time in his career, in 2015-16, when the Thunder held a 3-1 series lead over the heavily favored Warriors.
But then, Steve Kerr’s group, behind insane performances by Klay Thompson and Curry, came back and won the series, and the summer following, coaxed Kevin Durant into leaving Oklahoma City to join them in Golden State, leaving Westbrook – and any chance for the Thunder to contend for a title – in the dust.
This section doesn’t require much discussion. Instead, we’re just going to list out the countless accolades each player has amassed (and is amassing) in their historic careers.
First up, Westbrook:
- Seven All-Star Game appearances
- Two-time All-Star Game MVP
- Two-time 1st Team All-NBA
- Five-time 2nd Team All-NBA
- 2008-09 All-Rookie 1st Team
- League MVP in 2016-17
- Second player ever to average a triple-double
And now, Robertson:
- 12 All-Star Game appearances
- Three-time All-Star Game MVP
- Nine-time 1st Team All-NBA
- Two-time 2nd Team All-NBA
- 1960-61 Rookie of the Year
- League MVP in 1963-64
- First player ever to average a triple-double
- Hall of Famer as player
Westbrook’s still in his prime so he has time to cut Robertson’s vast lead in total accolades, but as of now, this category isn’t all that close.
It’s hard to go wrong here, but after examining how these two transcendent floor generals stack up in various categories, it’s clear who had the better career.
Robertson won a title; Westbrook can’t say the same. Robertson made nine All-NBA 1st Teams; Westbrook has only done so twice. Robertson was a 12-time All-Star; Westbrook has five fewer appearances in the star-studded affair.
Robertson also had more longevity as a superstar, hitting the ground running by averaging an absurd 30.5/10.1/9.7 stat line as a rookie. Westbrook truly began to hit his peak in his age-25 season; prior to that, the advanced stats said he was merely a great player, and maybe not a Hall-of-Fame caliber one.
So even despite the huge talent disparity of the eras the two studs played (or are playing) in, with Westbrook having to face off against the likes of Curry, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and James Harden on a nightly basis while Robertson spent a large portion of his career in a league with, like, nine teams in it, Robertson was still more of a game-changer – a player truly ahead of his time.
Who was better?
We’re taking Robertson.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.