Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook — who’s been one of the most polarizing players in the modern NBA ever since the former Seattle Sonics started finishing seasons with winning records — is once again playing at a level that’s eliciting comparisons to legends. This time it’s Pete Maravich and Michael Jordan, but he’s been earning comparisons to guys like Oscar Robertson since 2012. People pile on his shot selection and his apparent defiance to teammate (and, we suspect, consensus pick for “best player on the Thunder”) Kevin Durant’s scoring acumen, but with KD briefly sidelined and Westbrook going off, is it time to start asking whether Westbrook could wind up higher in the informal basketball rankings than Durant?
To start with, this question is silly. Debating Durant vs. Westbrook is not only so 2009, but they’re equally indispensable to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Stretching the easy analogy, Durant is Paul McCartney, Westbrook is John Lennon, Serge Ibaka is George Harrison, and Scott Brooks is Ringo Starr (this makes James Harden an imperfect fit for Pete Best, and we’re fine with that. Also, try to avoid imagining Scott Brooks singing “Yellow Submarine.”) It’s difficult. The notion of this being a binary equation seems to be a limiting one, particularly in a league like the NBA, which bears out that talent wins games nine times out of 10. That said, it’s impossible to stay away from it, because quantifying and qualifying players is what fans do.
In a head-to-head comparison, based strictly on the data, Durant has been a better basketball player. There are a number of problems with this, mostly because they don’t play the same position, they’re both on the same team, and because basketball remains something that can’t be evaluated by the numbers, but none of those problems really change anything.
KD has been better, as much as anyone can measure it, so far. He’s more efficient at scoring (while being worse at defense, but box score stats are notorious for giving short change to D), he’s accumulated more accolades, and he plays a less threatening brand of basketball, so he’s been showered in more praise by most of the sporting press to this point. But he’s never had a February like Westbrook has.
Last season, when Westbrook went down with an injury for the first time in his career, Kevin Durant exploded. During January of 2014, KD averaged nearly 36 points while netting over six rebounds and assists per game and putting together one of the most amazing shooting performances in league history: 55% from the floor, 89% from the line, and 44% from beyond the arc. Those numbers are so good no one’s been able to replicate them for an entire season, and it’s the best example of what Durant can do when he’s the unquestioned best player on the team.
Westbrook, though, averaged a 31/10/10 over his Durant-less February, something that hasn’t been done since, you guessed it, Oscar Robertson. Did he post sterling shooting percentages? No, but there’s no way you can hold him to that sort of expectation — Durant is undeniably a better shooter. He’s a better shooter than nearly all of his contemporaries, but holding onto shooting seems a curious conceit here, since a player’s shot is only one portion of the game and the people who get attached to things like shooting efficiency tend to want to look at the game in a way that practically begs to be described as “more highly evolved.”
Like it as not, the statistics (presuming good health) end up as enough of a wash that they won’t be able to prove anything one way or another, particularly if both players close out their careers on the same roster. It’s tempting to draw a Jordan-Pippen comparison, but as good as Scottie was, Westbrook is undoubtedly more distinguished in his individual play. So, could Westy end up being the better wing player for the Thunder? It’s possible, but good luck proving it.