Russell Westbrook’s Season Eclipsing The Legend Of The Big O

For 55 seasons, Oscar Robertson has stood alone as the only player to average a triple-double for a season. Russell Westbrook is on the brink of joining him.

Oscar Robertson has stood alone since 1961-62 as the only player to average a triple-double for an full season. Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 is daring to challenge that.

Robertson’s achievement has gone down in NBA lore as an untouchable standard lost to the evolution of the game, such as Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game or Bill Russell’s 11 titles in 13 seasons.

But now, one man stands on the brink of history, vying with the legacy of the ancient basketball Gods on his path to maintaining the Oklahoma City Thunder’s status as a relevant franchise.

What’s incredible is, even if Westbrook were to ultimately fall short of this lofty standard, his performance this year outstrip those of Robertson.

Head-to-head

Per Game Stats
Rk Player Season Age G MP FG FGA FG% eFG% FT FTA FT% TRB AST PTS
1 Oscar Robertson* 1961-62 23 79 44.3 11.0 22.9 .478 .478 8.9 11.0 .803 12.5 11.4 30.8
2 Russell Westbrook 2016-17 28 50 34.6 10.0 23.7 .420 .464 8.6 10.5 .821 10.4 10.3 30.7

On the surface, Robertson’s 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists give him the advantage over Westbrook’s 30.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.2 assists.

However, looking at minutes played per game, Robertson averaged almost 9.5 more minutes on court than Westbrook does. That’s an extra 27 percent of playing time more than the Thunder guard.

The differential in time on court can be removed by looking at per 36 minute stats. And here is where the advantage swings in Westbrook’s favor, with Robertson now no longer averaging a triple-double.

Of course, we’re comparing two significantly different eras and in a half-century-plus, the game has evolved significantly.

Per 36 Minute Stats
Rk Player Season Age G FG FGA FG% FT FTA FT% TRB AST PF PTS
1 Oscar Robertson* 1961-62 23 79 8.9 18.6 .478 7.2 9.0 .803 10.1 9.2 2.7 25.0
2 Russell Westbrook 2016-17 28 50 10.4 24.7 .420 9.0 10.9 .821 10.9 10.7 2.5 31.9

These times they are a changing

Oscar Robertson didn’t have the benefit of the three-point line (introduced in 1979) or playing in an era when the game was a lot more physical (hand checking allowed).

And although there were only nine opponents to face across the course of the season, Robertson’s Cincinnati Royals still had to get through 80 games without the luxury of private travel facilities and hotel suites afforded to this generation of stars.

Removing the three from Westbrook’s per 36 stats (2.2 made per game) would drop his scoring down from 31.9 to 29.6 per 36 minutes. Nullifying additional fouls, therefore reducing made free throws, is significantly harder and much more speculative.

For argument’s sake, let’s say his free throw attempts mirrored Robertson’s (a reduction of 1.8 made per game). This would give Westbrook per 36 averages of 27.8 points, 11 rebounds and 10.6 assists to Oscar’s 25 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.2 assists.

A change of pace

It’s clear Westbrook is one of the speediest and most explosive players in the league right now. But it’s a misnomer that the NBA, as a league, is quicker than it used to be.

According to basketball-reference.com, OKC are the seventh-fastest team this year with a pace of 100.49 (possessions per game). By comparison, the Royals ranked fifth in 1961-62 with a blistering pace of 124.9.

Unfortunately advanced statistics, such as usage rate, don’t go back to the “Big O’s” era (separating rebounds into offensive and defensive or even recording steals and blocks didn’t start until 1973).

But it’s fair to assume that for a point guard, averaging a triple-double at a time when player positions were more robustly defined, that Robertson’s usage rate would have been high.

However, given that the statistic estimates the percentage of team plays used by a player when on the floor, it’s unlikely that with the additional minutes Robertson logged, that his usage rate would have matched Westbrook’s league-leading 41.9 percent.

So instead, we will just have to compare the two using possessions.

The Thunder use 100.49 possessions per 48 minutes; that’s 2.09 possessions per minute. Therefore, across Russell’s 34.7 minutes, 72.64 possessions take place.

The Royals used 124.9 possessions per 48 minutes; that’s 2.6 possessions per minute. Thus, across Robertson’s 44.3 minutes, 115.27 possessions take place.

This gave Oscar had an additional 42.62(!) possessions per game to collate his stats.

What does it all mean?

Irrespective of Westbrook’s inefficiencies, it is undeniable that the tenacious guard’s unwillingness to let his team slide into obscurity means that we are all bearing witness to one of the most historic season-long performances ever.

Even if he fails to maintain his averages across the remainder of the schedule, barring a massive drop-off, he will have performed at a level that should be remembered among the all-time great individual seasons.

Would averaging a triple-double bolster his bid for MVP? Unlikely. Robertson’s remarkable season only saw him ranked third (behind Russell and Chamberlain) with just 13 of a possible 85 first-place votes.

With only two MVPs coming from teams outside of the top two seeds in since 1985 (Karl Malone in 1998-99 and Michael Jordan in 1987-88), the Thunder have a long, long way to go.

So enjoy it while it lasts, soak up every second of it, because if this type of season only happens once every 55 years, you’re going to want to tell your grandchildren about it.

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