Monday, April 17, 2017

Westbrook v. Harden v. Oscar: Really?

By Steve Kallas (posted by Rick Morris)

Well, this has been an incredible season for offense in the NBA.  The greatest season ever, based on the opinions of some “experts?”  Not a chance.

But let’s first talk about what got the most attention:  Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double, causing many to say that this accomplishment is as great or even greater than Oscar Robertson’s 1961-62 triple-double season average.


Take nothing away from Russell Westbrook; he’s a tremendous talent, one of the most athletic players in the history of the NBA with a great work ethic, who has done something that’s only been done once before.

But you really have to look at things in context.  According to Oscar, back when he played, nobody even talked about a triple-double, let alone try for it or try and make things happen late in the game to make sure you got one.  And the change in the assist rule, hard to pin down but certainly different today than it was back in the early ‘60s, gives one pause when trying to compare then with now. Also, according to at least one ESPN stat guy, there might be some “home cooking” (his phrase) when it comes to Westbrook’s assists.


For example, it’s often been said that you didn’t get an assist back in Oscar’s day if a player that you passed to dribbled the ball before he scored.  The best example that comes to mind is that, on a fast break, if you hit a guy in stride and he dribbled once and then scored, today you get an assist and back then you didn’t.  While the definition of an assist seems simple (“an assist is a pass that leads directly to a basket”), it’s obviously open to a broad (or narrow) interpretation.

You don’t have to be a basketball genius to figure out that there would be more assists today than back then.  Russell Westbrook broke Oscar’s record for most triple-doubles in a season with 42 (Oscar had 41). 

But three things come into play here. First, in 1961-62, the season was 80 games.  Today it’s 82.  So, if Oscar had played two more games, maybe he would have had one or two more (or no more) triple-doubles. 

Second, if assists really were scored differently (i.e., harder to get one), maybe Westbrook wouldn’t have had as many 10-assist games under the old rule as he was given credit for this season.  A review of Westbrook’s triple-double games shows that he got 10 (10 times) or 11 (7 times) assists in 17 of his 42 triple-doubles this season.  It says here, under 1961-62 rules, he would have missed a number of triple-doubles under the old assist rule. Conversely, Oscar might have had one or two more triple-doubles if he played in an 82-game schedule (rather than 80) and might have had a few more triple-doubles using the modern-day assist rule.

Third, according to ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh, Westbrook might be getting some “home cooking” with assist scoring from the OKC official scorers.  Interestingly, Haberstroh points out that Westbrook averaged almost two assists (11.1 to 9.2) per game more at home than on the road.  Indeed, Haberstroh goes on to point out that, by comparison, both James Harden (10.7 to 11.8) and John Wall (10.5 to 10.8) actually averaged more assists on the road than at home this season. 


The rebound analysis is different.  There is now an NBA stat kept for “uncontested rebounds.”  Westbrook was the league leader in uncontested rebounds this year.  According to ESPN, the next nine guys on the list are big men. 

According to Tom Haberstroh, in that ESPN video cited above, Westbrook’s 2016-17 rebounds per game were a 2.6 per game improvement over 2015-16 (10.4 this season compared to 7.8 last season).  He then points out that Westbrook”s uncontested rebounds this season went up to 8.4 (versus 5.9 last season).  The 2.5 increase per game, which also catapulted him to the league lead in uncontested rebounds (something a guard has never done), puts Westbrook over the magic 10.0 per game needed for a triple-double.

How were these uncontested rebounds obtained by Westbrook? What led to the 2.5 per game increase this season in his uncontested rebounds?  Well, on the Haberstroh video, there is an example of both of the OKC big men, set up inside on the foul line, simply boxing out there man and allowing Westbrook to get the rebound.  It’s unusual, to say the least, but this writer has always believed that there should be a separate stat within defensive rebounds for rebounds after a foul shot versus rebounds obtained in the flow of defensive play.  Obviously, the latter is virtually always harder than the former.

Finally, politicking for a triple-double or focusing on getting one doesn’t seem to be beyond Westbrook, even though he always gives the standard “I just want to win” quote (and good for him).  But take a look at an article by Kevin Draper at from March 13, 2015 (i.e., that’s the 2014-15 season, not this season or last season), entitled Russell Westbrook got a “Triple Double” Last Night on This “Rebound.”  Watch the video, read the article and decide for yourself.

And, remember, Oscar talked about how people didn’t really know or care about triple-doubles when he did it.  To this writer, that means a lot in today’s stats-obsessed world.

While giving credit at the beginning of the ESPN video to Westbrook for accomplishing the feat, Haberstroh then goes on to point out the issues with respect to the assist/rebound numbers for Westbrook.


Tom Haberstroh, in a separate appearance on ESPN, talked about the fact that Westbrook accomplished his triple-double in about nine minutes less per game than Oscar (rounding off, about 44-35 minutes per game).  When asked about this, Haberstroh, a stats guy, explained that Oscar played in an era where Wilt Chamberlain played “basically” 48 minutes per game. 

I’m not sure what he meant by that comment.  Obviously, back then, guys just played a lot more minutes than they play today.  To compare anyone to Chamberlain, the greatest physical specimen in the history of the NBA, is absurd.  In fact, in the 1961-62 season, Wilt Chamberlain averaged 48.5 minutes per game, meaning he averaged more than a complete 48-minute game for the season. 

That’s because Wilt’s team played in overtime games that year and Wilt played virtually every minute of every game.  Unbelievable (Here’s a little known fact: contrary to popular belief, Wilt did not play every minute of every game that year – Wilt’s Philadelphia Warriors played 10 overtime periods, so, of the 3,890 minutes the Warriors played in 1961-62, Wilt played in 3,882 minutes – a staggering achievement and, yes, a record that will never be broken).

Achieving a season-long triple-double in less minutes per game cuts both ways.  While it’s beyond impressive, it is simply easier to get assists today and, if your big guys are going to box out and let you get the rebound, it’s easier to get rebounds.  Also, if Westbrook averaged as many minutes per game as Oscar, he might have gotten hurt or tired over the long season by playing in the mid-40s in minutes every game. 


James Harden also had a season for the ages and is a main candidate (along with Westbrook) to win the MVP (more on that later). But, even in the Harden amazing stats (and, to be clear, he’s a superstar as well), there are some interesting things to compare with the past.

For example, arguably Harden’s most impressive stat is the following: he’s the first player in the history of the NBA to finish a season with 2000+ points, 600+ rebounds and 900+ assists. 

Beyond impressive.  And totally true.

But wait!  In Oscar’s 1961-62 season, he had more points than Harden (Oscar 2,432 to Harden’s 2,356, which includes 262 more threes than Oscar had – hopefully, you get the joke/point), more rebounds than Harden (a staggering 985 to Harden’s 659) and only seven less assists than Harden (899 to 906 for Harden). 

Again, the amount of games comes into play.  Is Harden the first ever to do the above?  Absolutely.  But if Oscar played two more games, which he couldn’t due to the 80-game (versus today’s 82) schedule back then, it says here he would’ve broken that now (somehow?) important (?) 900-assist mark.  Since Oscar averaged 11.4 assists per game in 1961-62, it says here that he would have found a way to get eight assists in two (or even one) games to beat that mark as well.


Another Harden record, maybe, is in the points accounted for category, beating another hero of this writer, Tiny Archibald.  But despite anointing Harden with this record, there still seems to be some dispute as to whether Harden did it or not.  ESPN says no, a number of others say yes.

To this writer, it’s another irrelevancy.  Tiny Archibald had one of the greatest seasons ever in 1972-73, becoming the only player in the history of the NBA to lead the league in both scoring (34) and assists (11.4) per game.  Tiny, who this writer thinks has to be on the short list of greatest players ever under 6 feet (he’s listed at 6’1”, but someone should check that – this writer thinks he’s closer to 5’10” than 6’1”, having stood next to him a couple of times when he was still in the NBA).

In any event, it’s irrelevant because of the existence of the three-point line.  As noted above, Harden scored 262 three-pointers so, if he did beat Archibald (still, it seems, an open question at this point), it was only because of making and assisting on threes.  Tiny had more assists than Harden (910 to 906) and many more points (2719 to 2356 (and again, Harden’s 363 points less than Tiny’s includes 262 three-point shots made)).

That should count for something. 


To this day, this writer would vote for Oscar as the greatest player of all time, with Wilt number two.  Bill Russell is number three as the greatest winner of all time.   Michael Jordan would be four and Lebron James, with time left in his career, would be five.  

And while it doesn’t really matter what this writer thinks, here’s what the NBA logo, Jerry West, has said: “When I look back on my career, he [Oscar] is the greatest I ever played against.  Period.” Of course, West played against Wilt and Russell, among others.

For one season, you can compare a Westbrook or a Harden with an Oscar, but understand this:  If you total up Oscar’s stats for his first five seasons in the NBA, he averaged a triple-double for FIVE SEASONS.  His numbers are (from 1960-61 through 1964-65): 30.3 points per game, 10.6 assists per game and 10.4 rebounds per game.  Beyond staggering.

Indeed, some would say that Oscar averaged a triple-double for his first six years, but this writer didn’t want to round up his 9.99 six-year rebound average to 10.0.

These are numbers that will never be matched. 

Incredible seasons by Russell Westbrook and James Harden. They have attained superstar status in today’s NBA and deservedly so.  But be careful when you compare them to superstars of the past.  Things like how many games in a season, changing rules (we never even discussed how, in the “good old days,” guys could hand-check while playing defense (and get away with a lot); nor did we discuss how the carry rule stopped being enforced since the early-1990s), the desire of more players (and fans and media) today to be concerned with stats, etc., all have to play into any analysis of what their accomplishments all mean. 

Were there more possessions way back when due to the pace of the game?  Absolutely.  Were there more rebounds because shooting percentages were lower?  You betcha.  But the game is played the way the game is played, then and now.  The pace of the game is faster today than it’s been in some time.  Not as fast as the early ‘60s, but faster nonetheless.  There were more rebounds due to poor shooting percentages way back when, but there are more long rebounds today due to so many missed, by definition long, three-point shots.

The game today, while very different, is still basketball.


It was good to see Oscar present to congratulate Russell Westbrook on averaging a triple-double for a season and breaking Oscar’s record (by 1) with 42 triple-doubles in a season.  Then it was fascinating to hear Oscar lead the chants of “MVP” in front of the wild OKC crowd.

As most of you know, Oscar finished third in the MVP voting the year he averaged a triple-double.  The award went to Bill Russell, as he led the Celtics to a 60-20 regular season record, the best in the NBA (they would go on to win the NBA Championship).  Russell, the greatest (and probably smartest) defender ever, averaged 18.9 points per game and 23.6 rebound per game in 1961-62.

Wilt Chamberlain finished second in the voting.  He averaged 50.4 points per game and 25.7 rebounds per game.  Of course, on March 2, 1962, he scored 100 against the Knicks.

Oscar, with his triple-double, finished third in the voting.  It would seem that, back then, winning mattered more and defense mattered more.  Certainly winning and defense did matter more when choosing the winners of MVP awards back then.

Well, Harden is on record as saying that winning matters the most.  Before this season, OKC was expected to do better this year than Houston.  OKC, with an average over/under total of about 45.5 or so, won 47 games.  Houston, with an over/under of about 43.5 or so, won 55 games.

As between Harden and Westbrook, this writer would give the MVP to Harden.

But if we look at winners and defense, too (and, of course, we should), the MVP this year is Kawhi Leonard.  Leonard, the defending NBA Defensive Player of the Year, averaged 25.5 points a game, 5.8 rebounds per game and 3.5 assists per game.  He’s probably, this season, either the NBA Defensive Player of the Year (again) or he will finish second to Draymond Green.

The Spurs were 61-21 this year, so, if winning matters, he’s ahead of the other candidates (nobody from Golden State stands out – that’s part of the problem with having a Big Four).  Some people, in discounting Leonard’s candidacy, simply say that the Spurs are the Spurs and they always win 60.  But the Big Three in San Antonio has, essentially, left and gone away. 

It’s really been Leonard and then the Big Three the last few seasons.  This year, Tim Duncan is gone (but he hadn’t been TIM DUNCAN for a few seasons, including their last championship), Manu Ginobili hasn’t really been Manu Ginobili for a few seasons and Tony Parker is still pretty good, but not as good as he’s been in the past.

Leonard’s the man, and the fact that they haven’t missed a beat is mainly because of him.  LaMarcus Aldridge has been good for the Spurs as well, but he’s not Kawhi Leonard, who usually guards the best player on the other team.

You’re rarely going to say that about Westbrook or Harden.


Be serious.  This writer hasn’t looked at every season, but it’s hard to believe how anybody could say this season is better than 1961-62.  There was a piece shown a few times on ESPN recently, stating that this year is the best season ever.

Again, you have to put everything in context.  If someone tells you that, for example, there were more triple-doubles this season then ever before, or even better, that there were more 20 or more point-per-game scorers than ever before, there should be someone there to say wait a minute!

There are over three times as many teams in the NBA today as there were back in 1961-62, and, thus, many more games per season.  As virtually everybody knows, there was no three-point line back then.  It’s like fools in baseball who equate “post-season” home runs with World Series home runs.

Those stats mean nothing when comparing this season with 1961-62.  And, not surprisingly, there was no mention of any defense, stat or otherwise, in the piece.

Another absurd reference in that ESPN piece was that Anthony Davis scored 52 in the All-Star game.  Well, if anything, that was a total embarrassment for the NBA.  Nothing against Davis, a young star who was playing before his home crowd, but you could barely call that an exhibition game.  It was such a joke that the NBA is looking at ways to “fix” it.

Back in the ‘60s, the All-Star game was played like a real game – it was played hard and played for pride.  Like the MLB All-Star game, the NBA All-Star game has become a joke, nothing more than a laughing matter.

Again, nothing against Davis, but to include that in an argument that this was the greatest season ever just shows a lack of understanding of the game as it was and as it is today.

So, this writer would argue that 1961-62, a season with somebody averaging over 50 (and over 25 rebounds) per game (think about that), a superstar defender who did win the MVP and the only guy to average a triple-double in one season (until this year), makes that year better than this year.

Oh, and that first guy also scored 100 points in a game.

That should be more than enough.


No comments: