That distinction felt like Joe DiMaggio's hit streak, Cal Ripken Jr.'s iron-man streak or John Stockton's assist and steal records. In a word: untouchable.
Then Russell Westbrook averaged a league-leading 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists on the way to the 2016-17 MVP trophy. And if he had played as many possessions per game that season as Robertson did in 1961-62, he would have averaged an unfathomable 56.0 points, 18.9 rebounds and 18.4 assists.
That's the thing about some of the gaudy numbers you see from players who dominated the '50s and '60s. There was less competition in terms of talent and the sheer number of teams (fewer than 10 for most of Bill Russell's career). Plus, the pace of the game was around 25 percent faster than it is now, and stars like Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain played almost the entire 48 minutes.
There's no guarantee Westbrook's production would hold steady with that much more responsibility. Actually, there's little chance it would. That's what makes comparing players from such different eras so difficult.
So instead of the typical per-75-possessions comparisons you've gotten used to reading in these articles, we'll start by examining what The Big O and Russ did relative to their peers.
In the following blind poll, rPTS/gm is the player's points per game minus the league-average points per game for every individual player from the time period sampled (minimum 5,000 minutes). The same explanation applies to rAST/gm and rREB/gm, only with points replaced by assists and rebounds, respectively. And finally, rTS% is the player's true shooting percentage minus the league average of the time.
Andy Bailey @AndrewDBailey
Player A is Oscar Robertson's career. Player B is Russell Westbrook's career. This one was more experimental. Had I done per-possession numbers, Westbrook would've obliterated him. No GOOD way to compare players whose eras are this far apart, but this may be an improvement. https://t.co/KGJrMfsvNg
When compared to their contemporaries, the basic numbers produced by Robertson and Westbrook are pretty close, at least until we get to efficiency. Chalk the overwhelming disparity in votes up to that massive gap in rTS%.
But as always, we can't just end on the poll and feel like a good-faith effort was made to determine the superior player. We have to dig a lot deeper for this inherently difficult task.
As Robertson wrote for The Undefeated in 2017:
"People always want to compare players and eras, but you really can't. You have to account for such things as minutes played, games played, changes in scoring, and other changes in the way statistics are kept. So I'm not drawn into comparisons between Westbrook and myself, or his era and my era. I leave that up to the basketball historians to decide."
In the spirit of Robertson's cession to the historians, we'll break each player down based on how he performed relative to his era and across the following categories: scoring, shooting, playmaking, defense and accolades.
As you can see in the poll above, Robertson holds a slight edge in relative points per game. He's also a little higher on the leaderboard for his era.
But again, Westbrook is up against a significantly larger player pool. The sample for Robertson's rank includes 208 players. Westbrook has played three fewer seasons, and the player pool he's up against includes 437 players.
If you go by percentile ranks, Westbrook takes the slight edge, 98th to 97th.
But one more consideration bears mentioning. Robertson's final three seasons dragged his overall average down quite a bit. If you just look at his numbers through 11 seasons (as many as Westbrook has played), his average is 28.3 and ranks fourth (98th percentile) for the sample.
This all may be a long-winded way of saying the scoring numbers are very close. They're probably not enough to decide this category.
"He was an unstoppable offensive player who could score from every spot on the court and in any manner he saw fit," the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame said of The Big O. "Robertson's offensive prowess changed the point guard stereotype from simply a passer and floor general to a scorer and offensive weapon."
In many ways, Robertson was Westbrook's predecessor. And that includes what he did as a scorer. Many of his points were the product of his superior athleticism, as Bill Simmons, then of Grantland, wrote:
"Much like Wilt [Chamberlain], Oscar was four or five years ahead of his time from a physical standpoint. There were only four 'modern' guards during Oscar’s rookie season; since the other three (Sam Jones, [Hal] Greer, and [Jerry] West) were shooting guards, Oscar physically overpowered defenders the same way that Wilt boned up on the Darrell Imhoffs and Walt Bellamys."
Westbrook has dominated in a similar fashion. When you think of his scoring ability, you're not likely to default to craftiness or skill. Many of Westbrook's points seem to come by virtue of sheer will and a rare combination of size, speed and explosiveness.
"He's one of the freakiest athletes I've ever been around," UCLA strength and conditioning coach Wes Long said of Russ in 2017, per Bleacher Report's David Gardner.
And that's evident in all the ferocious drives and jams that precede Westbrook's in-game scowls. Even in a league teeming with remarkable athleticism, he has stood out for over a decade.
That he's done so against better competition will serve as the counterbalance to Robertson's superior efficiency (which will get its own examination, anyway).
After all that, the first category ends in a tie.
Westbrook 1, Robertson 1
This one won't be nearly as difficult. Though we don't have as much data available on things like shot location and defensive pressure for Robertson's era, his advantages are significant enough to overlook that.
In terms of basic percentages, Robertson leads in all of them. His 48.5 field-goal percentage is well ahead of Westbrook's 43.4. Even if you factor in threes (which weren't available to Robertson), Westbrook's effective field-goal percentage of 46.5 still comes up short. The Big O also edges Russ at the line, 83.8 to 80.1 percent.
But even that undersells it.
Players from Robertson's era were significantly less efficient than they are now. The league-average true shooting percentage over the course of his career was just 49.4, giving him a relative true shooting percentage of plus-7.0. During Westbrook's career, the average true shooting percentage has been 54.4, leading to a minus-1.5 relative true shooting percentage.
Westbrook 1, Robertson 2
Over the course of his career, Robertson's 9.5 dimes per game weren't just first; they were a full assist ahead of second-place Tiny Archibald's 8.5.
"Oscar controls the flow of a game even more than a top quarterback does in football," Edward Linn wrote for the Saturday Evening Post. "What impresses you, watching Robertson from the floor, is the ease and rhythm with which he moves. His style is to change speeds, to fake and feint, to move in bursts."
That's a far cry from Westbrook, who almost always seems to be shifted into his highest gear.
While many point guards like to lull defenses to sleep, Russ is more about the knockout. His relentless aggression will test the league's best-conditioned athletes. And the way those straight-line drives draw defenders at the rim has opened up scores of drop-off and kick-out assists to the likes of Steven Adams, Paul George and Kevin Durant.
Many of those dimes almost seem to come out of necessity, though. That may not be a fair characterization for someone who's averaged double figures in assists each of the last three seasons, but a lot of the passes look like a last resort.
Even if that's true, his average of 8.4 dimes over the last 11 years is still plenty impressive. Throughout the league, though, it trails Steve Nash (9.9), Chris Paul (9.7), Rajon Rondo (9.4) and John Wall (9.2). Westbrook is fifth. And again, The Big O was a decisive first.
Because he was the premier playmaker of his era, this category goes to Robertson.
Westbrook 1, Robertson 3
In the same piece for the Saturday Evening Post, Linn detailed a game in which Robertson was tasked with defending Bill Bradley:
"Robertson is not known as a rough player, but sportsmanship was hardly his main concern this season when he was matched head-to-head for the first time with Bill Bradley of the New York Knickerbockers. Bradley, who had just come into the National Basketball Association after attending Princeton and Oxford, was the most celebrated college player of his day, just as Robertson had been a few years before, and the game was billed as a personal confrontation.
"Although his left thigh was heavily taped, Robertson set out from the opening whistle to teach the new boy a lesson. Throughout the first half he picked Bradley up at half court and played him chest-to-chest, as the great defensive players of the old gymnasium leagues used to do when the goal not only was to shut out your man but to prevent him from getting off a single shot. On one notable occasion, when all eyes were on the action under the basket, Oscar, crouched in front of Bradley at mid-court, threw a short left jab to the midsection as if to inform the rookie, in non-Oxonian language, that there was absolutely no chance that he was going to get past.
"When Bradley left the court, with only a few seconds left in the half, he had managed to get off just two shots. One was a 20-foot jumper; the other came when Bradley, moving across the key, finally freed himself for a moment. Neither shot was good."
Bradley went on to make one All-Star game and win two titles. He was elected to the Hall of Fame. And he was a career double-figure scorer. Robertson made it his personal mission to shut him down, and he was successful.
Russ has set out on similar endeavors.
"He made some shots. Too comfortable," Westbrook said after giving up a 26-point triple-double to Ricky Rubio in the 2018 playoffs, per Royce Young of ESPN. "But I'm gonna shut that s--t off next game, though. Guarantee that."
To Westbrook's credit, Rubio managed just 13 points on 12 shots in the next game, though he had another eight assists and was a plus-22 in a win. The Utah Jazz would go on to eliminate Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder, 4-2.
Both these examples may be as close to anecdotes as they are to evidence, but they lend support to the following premises: Westbrook's defense is more bark than bite, and Robertson's may be the opposite.
Advanced numbers such as defensive box plus/minus (not available for Robertson's career) like Westbrook, but that can largely be chalked up to his uncharacteristically high rebounding rate for a point guard. That's something Robertson can match.
What a box-score metric like DBPM doesn't capture is how routinely Westbrook is blown by on the perimeter. Whether he's out of position when his man gets the ball or he's gambling for a steal, he often plays defense at a disadvantage.
A new defensive metric from FiveThirtyEight, DRAYMOND, attempts to show some of what the box score can't—specifically, how often and how well players contest shots:
"Cases such as [Klay] Thompson and Westbrook are interesting because the conventional wisdom has been way off from where the advanced metrics have them. RPM and BPM say that Westbrook is the much better defensive player, when a lot of NBA general managers might prefer Thompson or at least would regard it as close. But Thompson is a good defender according to DRAYMOND, whereas Westbrook is a wretched one, which closes at least some of the gap. Undoubtedly, there are even better ways to use opponents’ shooting data than what we’ve established with DRAYMOND, but the data ought to be a central part of the conversation about player defense going forward."
No such data exists for Robertson, but his teams were routinely average to awful in points allowed per game until he was traded to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Milwaukee Bucks for his last four seasons. That could be the product of Robertson playing without a top-tier defensive big in Cincinnati, though.
Without the benefit of advanced data—or even blocks, steals and defensive rebounds—from Robertson's era, this category is tough to call. And dinging Westbrook, whose teams, per PBP Stats, have allowed nearly two more points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor throughout his career, for playing in an era with more analysis feels unfair.
There is some value to his defensive rebounding, even if plenty of them are ceded to him by teammates. And he's yet to play with a big like Kareem (something almost no one has the opportunity to do).
At the risk of this being a cop-out, we'll call this one a tie, as well.
Westbrook 2, Robertson 4
This may not be fair, given the fact that Robertson's career is over while Westbrook still has some prime years left. And Westbrook is up against significantly more teams and players than Robertson ever was. But most of Robertson's accolades were collected before he went to Milwaukee. And again, we'll try to focus on what each player did relative to his own era.
Robertson is a Hall-of-Famer, a 12-time All-Star, an 11-time All-NBA selection, a six-time assist champ, a one-time scoring champ, the 1963-64 MVP and a 1970-71 NBA champion. Westbrook is an eight-time All-Star, an eight-time All-NBA selection, a two-time assist champ, a two-time scoring champ and the 2016-17 MVP.
Westbrook still has some time to catch his predecessor. But for now, the legend tops the active superstar.
Westbrook 2, Robertson 5
Who You Got?
Like plenty of the comparisons in this series, this one is terribly close. And if we phrased part of the question as, "What would Westbrook do if transported to Robertson's era," the answer might be different.
But when trying to compare these two and their levels of dominance against others of their time, Robertson comes out ahead.
Westbrook is undoubtedly a future Hall of Famer. He still has time to add to an already loaded basketball resume.
But Robertson is on the shortlist of players who legitimately changed basketball. He opened the door for scoring guards, one that players like Pete Maravich, Michael Jordan and, of course, Westbrook walked through.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.