When you have been an NBA MVP, when your place in the history of your sport is secure and you’re guaranteed to earn more than a third of a billion dollars in your career — and then you find yourself on an injured, limited team with a 17-32 record and no sensible future this season — you mail it in, right? Maybe next year you break a leg. Not now.
Wrong. That’s not Westbrook’s ferocious personality. The 6-foot-3 guard has put the Wizards on his back in a 15-5 run entering Wednesday that has them (almost) certain to make the play-in tournament.
The more they need him on a specific night, the more he has provided. Ten of those 20 games were decided by four points or fewer; in those, he has averaged 26.1 points, 14 assists and 14.7 rebounds. That’s not just a triple-double. It’s almost 25-15-15, which should bend what’s humanly possible.
That Westbrook has missed a few crucial shots in the closing minutes of tight games, as he did Monday night — misfiring a three-pointer at the end when he might have passed to an open Raul Neto at the top of the circle in a 125-124 loss — has not hindered my enjoyment of him.
The only area where Westbrook is below average for the NBA is shooting. He’s not, as some have charged, a gunner or ball hog — you don’t have three 20-plus-assist games in six weeks playing that way. Also, it’s the opposite of selfishness to use your penetrating and feeding skills to turn three humble centers (Alex Len, Daniel Gafford and Robin Lopez) into a 23-point, 13-rebound-a-night asset over the past month. Westbrook’s just not a good NBA shooter. Nobody has everything. But for his whole game to stick together, he needs to be a threat to shoot, penetrate, dish or hit the offensive glass. You diminish him if you say: “Be Jason Kidd. Take a third fewer shots.”
As Westbrook is about to average a triple-double for the fourth time in the past five years — something Robertson only did once — we realize that his final total of career triple-doubles, now 182 to 181 ahead of the Big O, will continue to eclipse Robertson in the same stupefying way Cal Ripken surpassed Lou Gehrig’s “unbreakable” consecutive game streak by 501.
Compare their career averages in points, assists and rebounds, and the similarity is obvious. Robertson: 25.7 points, 9.5 assists and 7.5 rebounds a game for his career to Westbrook’s 23.2, 8.5 and 7.4.
In recent weeks, when Westbrook recorded a triple-double far more often than not, I even remembered that almost the only knock on the Big O was that, because he knew his Cincinnati Royals in the 1960s were never going to win a title from the Boston Celtics or even from the perennial runner-up Los Angeles Lakers, he focused on his own production — with hints of stat padding.
However, before writing that Robertson and Westbrook both belonged in the same frame, though with utterly different styles — one deliberate and a perfectionist, the other a blur and a midair improviser — I wanted to check the record book to make sure I wasn’t missing something significant. Neither was a big winner by rings, with Robertson getting his one title late in his career when he molded his stats to be a wise wing man to a young Kareem-Abdul Jabbar in Milwaukee. Westbrook has none yet.
It’s humbling how much you can forget, especially because I watched Robertson’s whole career from age 12 through 26, including five years in The Washington Post’s Sports department listening to veteran reporters talk basketball. Few sports fans missed a televised NBA game with the Big O for the entire 1960s. I sure didn’t. Do I have amnesia?
Until I did some homework, I had forgotten that Robertson was the most accurate shooter of his era. He wasn’t just ahead of his time; he was generations ahead of it. I’m going to use true shooting percentage as a measure; don’t go all fetal position on me. It’s the best measure of accuracy, combining one, two and three-point shots.
Robertson played in an era when shooting percentages were so low that you would have thought a basketball had corners. The NBA’s true shooting percentage in 1960, when he arrived, was .469. By 1971, when he won his title, it was .500. Now, it’s .572.
Basketball is a vastly different and better sport. And a gift for shooting threes — introduced in 1979, five years after Oscar retired — helps shooting averages — if you’re good.
You’re not going to believe what comes next — well, I didn’t. Sixty years ago, Oscar Robertson shot as well as a star guard shoots today.
The Big O’s career true shooting percentage of .5644 ranks just behind Larry Bird (.5645) and Michael Jordan (.5686) and just ahead of … pause … Bradley Beal (.5639).
Because Robertson mastered everything else in his sport, it’s likely he would have shot threes well, too. Then, his ability to drive, back down defenders on the low block and arc his back on his deadly wrist-cocked midrange jumpers all would have been improved — granted, in theory — by the threat of threes.
Somehow, the NBA seems to have forgotten, as I did, that Robertson was for a decade not only its best passer and one of its highest scorers and the best-rebounding guard by miles but the most accurate shot, too. In his first 10 seasons, he finished first, second, second, second, third, second, second, second, second and third in the league in true shooting percentage.
What about Westbrook?
Unfortunately, he shoots — both from the field and the foul line — as if it were still 50 years ago. His true shooting percentage this season is .508.
That is a long, long way below the NBA average of .572. Robertson had six seasons above .572 — without the three-point line.
Yes, they are both great, both the best rebounding guards of their era and probably the two best ever. Both are the most prolific assist men of their periods. Both scored a ton. Compare them if you want, factoring in that everybody is much more skilled today — in every sport. But just a word to the wise. Robertson shot with the accuracy of 2021 in 1961. Westbrook shoots like it’s 1971 in 2021.
There’s no objective proof, but I’m badly fooled if Westbrook does not work quite a bit harder on defense than Robertson did, at least in my memories, and also shame energy out of his teammates better with his ferocity.
However, Westbrook also leads the NBA in turnovers and has the second-highest “usage percentage” — how much of the time he monopolizes offensive plays — in NBA history, behind only Michael Jordan.
Compare them if you wish and how you will. I’m just glad that I got to see Westbrook play — all the time — so I could grasp why NBA players hold both his talent and his consistent intensity in such high regard.
And I’m glad I got to revisit the Big O for a second look. Many have passed Robertson in the shooting accuracy ranks as the game and its players have improved. But on the all-time list of NBA leaders in true shooting percentage, only two guards whose careers predate the three-point shot are in the top 250.
They’re Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. And the Big O is more than 100 spots ahead of the Logo.