Who Ya Got at Point, Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry?
On the one hand, you can't go wrong. Tell a general manager he can have whoever is leftover from Curry and Westbrook, and it'll qualify as the best day of his career.
On the flip side, picking between them means someone technically has to lose, which feels unfair. Both are superstars. Both have MVP awards on their resumes. Both are point guards you should probably want on your team—unless, of course, you root for the Houston Rockets.
This exercise is not meant to hand out the Best Point Guard Alive crown. Think of it instead as an innocent discussion among friends that's bound to devolve into a mess of hurt feelings and ruinous disagreements.
Stephen Curry. Russell Westbrook. Who ya got as the better player entering 2017-18?
Westbrook deserves some sort of award for his on-ball work within the Thunder offense. Nabbing 2016-17 MVP honors alone doesn't do his efforts justice. It has to be separate.
Oklahoma City placed dead last in accuracy on wide-open threes. Remove Westbrook's own 40 percent knockdown rate in those situations from the equation, and his teammates failed, collectively, to shoot even 31 percent on uncontested triples.
Lanes weren't as open with him as the sole offensive hub. Defenses sagged and collapsed, walling off the rim and trying with relative ease to stamp out rolls toward the hoop from Steven Adams or Enes Kanter. The functional ramifications of losing Kevin Durant and deploying few reliable snipers were enough to impede and derail the most talented bucket-getters.
Westbrook made do anyway. He finished in the 71st percentile of both isolation and ball-handler execution. His efficiency around the rim dipped, but he shot a respectable 48 percent on a heavy dose of drives and co-opted the league's lead in free-throw attempts generated per 36 minutes with James Harden (10.8).
Curry is just...better.
The two-time MVP ranked in the 93rd percentile of isolation efficiency and 78th percentile of pick-and-roll-initiation duty. He doesn't manufacture as many foul-line trips, but he doesn't need to. He parlays limitless range into high-quality drives; he canned a ridiculous 57.4 percent of his shots on downhill assaults.
Heavier usage and fewer surrounding shooters depress Westbrook's returns. Give him a starting five with Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, and he'll improve his numbers across the board. But he could never mix circus handles with pinpoint precision.
Even during an off let-er-rip year, Curry registered as the more dependable pull-up marksman. His turnover rates within the most prominent play types are unfairly low, and he'll conjure crunch-time looks out of thin air that Westbrook's predictable bulldozing or stop-and-fire approach just can't (though he did shoot at a slightly higher clip in the clutch).
This category doesn't demand much thought. Curry is by far the more lethal off-ball weapon. Westbrook's detonative physique gives him the edge when looking for a stage-left cutter, but he cannot hang with Golden State's splashiest Splash Brother elsewhere.
He did an admirable job making the most of his catch-and-shoot opportunities, posting an effective field-goal percentage north of 60, just like Curry. But that gap mushrooms into a solar system when looking at their performances off screens. Where Curry once again notched an effective field-goal clip above 60, Westbrook's mark plunged below 48.
Working off the ball isn't a prominent part of the reigning MVP's job description—important context. Offensive lifelines don't get to run defenders through a labyrinth of off-ball screens. And Westbrook cannot leverage Thompson's flame-throwing touch or a smorgasbord of five-out lineups into a glorified three-point obstacle course light on actual obstacles.
Playing next to Paul George this season might give Westbrook an opportunity to hone his off-action craft. Then again, he spent the first eight years of his career beside Durant and never once registered as a high-volume spot-up assassin. About 10 percent of his total shot attempts came off the catch last season—his most since NBA.com started tracking these looks in 2013-14.
Coaching has factored into Oklahoma City's offensive design. Scott Brooks seldom pushed Westbrook's off-ball boundaries, and current Thunder head coach Billy Donovan only enjoyed the tools to do so in 2015-16.
This absence of roving wizardry shouldn't be held against Westbrook in the grand scheme. Curry's charm, however, gets molded by it.
Not every superstar can thrive while taking more than one-quarter of his shots off passes or having a lion's share of his made buckets come off assists. Durant's fit with the Warriors isn't so seamless if his superstar partner doesn't have the ability to make an art form from the ancillary side of offense.
Plop Curry into any situation, and his game will jibe with the prevailing system before long. The same cannot be said for Westbrook.
Just as Westbrook's offensive role inherently drags down his off-ball ceiling, Golden State's freewheeling system curbs Curry's playmaking cachet.
Increasing Green's ball-handling responsibilities triggered an organic decline in his creativity. Adding Durant did the same. Curry's assist rate has fallen in each of the past three seasons and might continue to dip. Green has paced the Warriors in dimes per 100 possessions since 2015-16, and Durant's stay has ruled out the possibility of a role reversal.
Call it a luxury. Or proof that part of Curry's peak will be restrained by the transcendental talent around him. Whatever's at play, Westbrook isn't subject to it—not even with George in the fold.
The Thunder offense has almost always revolved around Westbrook. His tactical relationship with Durant leaned more on the latter's ability to at times blend in than the your-turn, my-turn dynamic frequently peddled up and down Convenient Narrative Row.
Losing Durant accentuated that part of Westbrook's game. Only Harden averaged more assists per 100 possessions, and Westbrook ended up third in total points created off dimes. And even those standings are rife with caveats.
Put Westbrook on a team with more shooters, and these numbers balloon. That he racked up the totals he did, even when accounting for his stat-chasing moments, is a minor miracle.
Build an offense from scratch, with the bare minimum in talent and spacing, and Westbrook might be a more appealing lifeline than Curry. Under those circumstances, the force with which he crumples defenses trounces his turnover tangents and ill-advised shot attempts.
Otherworldly athletes are supposed to be good defenders. Westbrook is an otherworldly athlete. Ergo, he is a good defender.
Some version of that logic still exists, even though it's not true. Westbrook is not a top-notch defender. He crashes the glass harder than maybe any guard ever, and that helps buoy some individualized defensive metrics; he finished first last season in NBA Math's Defensive Points Saved. But he does not flash the same unending commitment championed by Patrick Beverley and Chris Paul.
Consider what Tom West wrote for FanRag Sports in November:
Most of the time, Westbrook simply isn't as interested in playing consistent, hustling defense as when he's taking over in other facets of the game. If you disagree with me, watch through some Thunder games and focus on Westbrook's movements during each defensive possession.
When his frequent gambles to dive for steals aren't paying off and send him way out of position, or he's simply floating around the floor with less intensity or purpose than you'd expect from an angry one-man wrecking crew like Russ, you'll see how bad his defense actually [is] most of the time.
These same criticisms were amplified during his first full go-round without Durant. The Thunder's rebounding model, by many appearances, existed almost entirely to drum up Westbrook's triple-double totals, and OKC used Andre Roberson liberally to cover for certain assignments.
Something about Curry's defense is more agreeable. He plays the same way he does on offense: within the flow of team schemes. His steals don't always look like the result of gambles and deviation.
At the same time, Curry gets afforded certain benefits Westbrook does not. The Warriors can be more selective with where he plays, since at any given moment, another three to four players on the floor can switch everything. Westbrook has yet to bask in that option, even when Roberson is checking point guards.
Plus, the lock-in effect, although painfully overused, is real. Westbrook can be a ferocious defender when he wants to—or when he's not exhausted from posting the highest usage rate in NBA history. He will sometimes suffocate pick-and-rolls, has shown he can crowd players in space without getting torched off the dribble and is even up for spot duty in the post.
Should he be living off potential nearly a decade into his career? Not at all. But physical tools still reign supreme, and Westbrook has got 'em.
Verdict: Westbrook (but very close to a tie)
No one in the NBA can match the aesthetics of Curry's game.
Defensive workaholics will never be held in art-form regard (I know, Kawhi, life isn't fair), and the bloodthirsty recklessness Westbrook borrowed from Kobe Bryant just isn't as fun to watch in the pace-and-space NBA.
Let's be real: Westbrook may hold the record for the most hard-to-watch triple-doubles in NBA history.
Curry is enchanting to follow, even when his shots aren't nuking nylon. He is basically a contrived freelancer—an under-control loose cannon who has, quite inexplicably, melded the auto-efficiency of Kyle Korver with the handles of Kyrie Irving and shot-selection conscience of a younger JR Smith and Nick Young.
Think about how much people are inclined to dissect Curry's game, right down to the supernatural, just to understand it—including those around him on a regular basis.
"I've always suspected he has extra nerves in his fingertips," Warriors assistant Nick U'Ren told GQ's Andrew Corsello. "His ability to manipulate and adjust the ball in a fraction of a second, to transition the angle or arc of his shot in response to what a defender is doing, is unlike anything I've ever seen."
As a general rule, if co-workers are still marveling at what you do, and how you do it, and wondering how what you do is even possible, you're a visual gem.
Ditto for when a former head coach kinda, sorta implies you're reweaving the very fabric of basketball for the worse from top to bottom.
Who Ya Got?
No draws here. Curry is the pick.
To Westbrook's credit, the argument is closer than his loss even suggests. Teams in need of a solo act can roll with him, and it wouldn't be an egregious decision. The Thunder posted the net rating (plus-3.3) of a 50-something win squad with him on the floor last year while faring like a league-worst doormat (minus-8.9) whenever he took a breather.
Curry is more complementary, and integrative star power plays in today's Association. Slot him on any team, alongside any bundle of skill sets, and he has a better chance of being the exact same player or, equally important, figuring out a way to make it work.
Westbrook is someone even his own team must plan around—and rightfully so. His body of work, while not always efficient or pretty, is impactful enough to warrant such measures.
That difference matters. And the Warriors' incomprehensible amount of star power cannot be held against Curry. Can they survive without him? Obviously. But they experienced a bigger drop-off in their net rating without him in 2016-17 than anyone else on the roster—a generalized, if imperfect, measurement of how invaluable he remains to the inception and then perfection of their identity.
Golden State exploded when he did. Durant joined the party in part because of how easy it is to play and be around him.
Lone wolf, secondary option, timeshare superstar, a little bit of everything—it doesn't matter. Curry fits whatever bill.
Final Verdict: Curry