One of the age-old traditions in professional sports is comparing elite athletes and determining who is the better of the two. While subjective belief may cause concern for validity, there is a way to resolve this highly debated affair: compare, contrast and assess.
With Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder sitting atop the Western Conference with a record of 34-11, it's easy to call Westbrook the more successful player. Not too far behind him, however, are Chris Paul's Los Angeles Clippers. The question is, can we define these players by regular season records?
Not surprisingly, we can't. What we can do, however, is begin this debate with a comparison of their regular-season success.
Considering Westbrook is midway through his fourth year in the league and Paul his seventh, it's important we track the progress made by each through the same time period.
For Russell Westbrook, he has done the unthinkable by playing in all 291 regular season games the Thunder have had since drafting him.
Those games have come with career averages of 18.7 points, 6.9 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 3.5 turnovers per game. He's also shot the ball 43 percent from the field, 29 percent from distance and 82 percent from the line.
Chris Paul, on the other hand, struggled with injuries through his first four seasons, playing in 300 of the Hornets' 328 games.
Over that span, Paul outdid Westbrook across the board with averages of 19.4 points, 9.9 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. He also shot the ball better, going 47 percent from the field, 34 percent from distance and 85 percent from the line.
Paired with his much-lower 2.6 turnovers per game, it's clear that on a statistical standard, Chris Paul was the better point guard through four years.
As often found in great debates, statistics don't tell the story here. After all, Chris Paul and David West were virtually alone through those four seasons while Russell Westbrook has been playing with two-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, James Harden and many more.
A telling tale for this argument, as we document right now and not then and before, would be the comparison of decline vs. incline.
After suffering a season-ending torn meniscus in the 2009-10 season, many expected Chris Paul to hit a downfall.
After all, his 2011 campaign was highlighted by a career-low 15.8 points per game and his worst shooting percentage since 2007. By worst, of course, I mean 46 percent shooting from the field; a mark many coaches wish their players could reach.
In 2012, Paul seems to be back where he left off from a scoring perspective. He's shooting an eye-popping 49 percent from the floor while putting up 19.7 points per game, his best mark since 2009.
As for Westbrook, his decline has been as a facilitator. After posting consecutive seasons of greater than eight assists per game, he's down to just 5.5 in 2012. With that being said, he's shooting 47 percent from the field and scoring 24.0 points per game, both career-bests.
Neither have faltered, neither have outstanding flaws and both players constantly improve. What's the deal-breaker?
While one could argue that the Clippers would be nothing without Paul, how are we to know what the Thunder would be without Westbrook? After all, he hasn't missed a single game for them since they drafted him.
The telling tale is the one word that Jim Mora has always despised: playoffs.
In the 2011 NBA Playoffs, Chris Paul solidified his status as elite with a dominant performance against the Los Angeles Lakers, nearly knocking Kobe and company out in the first round. While his efforts came up short, his Game 1 and Game 4 performances will forever live on in glory.
In the opening game of the Hornets-Lakers showdown, Paul posted 33 points, 14 assists, seven rebounds and four steals.
Not to be outdone by himself, Paul followed that up with a Game 4 triple-double where he posted 27 points, 15 assists, 13 rebounds and two steals. Both of those performances led to wins.
Russell Westbrook saw that and raised Paul one... Early on.
While many will argue that Kevin Durant led the Thunder to the Western Conference Finals, as well as contest that Westbrook's rushed shots were the cause of their eventual downfall, just as many people will credit Westbrook with helping the Thunder even reach that stage.
In one of the greatest games in NBA history, Westbrook led the Thunder to a 133-123 triple-overtime victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. The new Agent Zero accounted for 40 points, five rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks. The win tied the series up at 2-2, saving the Thunder from a potential elimination game.
He followed that up with a triple-double in Game 7, scoring 14 points to go along with 14 rebounds and 10 assists.
The issue is, Westbrook fell apart in the Western Conference Finals. While he scored 23.6 points per game, he did so on 36 percent shooting from the field on an average of 20 shots per game. He also averaged 4.8 turnovers per contest.
While Russell Westbrook may be on an equal level of talent, the mental aspect of basketball cannot be denied. In that sense, there is no comparison, as the cool demeanor of Chris Paul triumphs the easily frustrated and turnover-prone status of Russell Westbrook.
While it's unfortunate that it should come down to this, it's maturity and basketball intelligence that win this debate.
Until next time, it's Chris Paul over Russell Westbrook by the slimmest of margins.