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Appreciating Russell Westbrook

How does Russell Westbrook’s career stack up to Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant’s first seven NBA seasons?

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Thanksgiving is over, but it’s not to late to give thanks to Russell Westbrook. The Oklahoma City Thunder “point” guard is one of the NBA’s most talented stars and his play needs to be appreciated.

Westbrook’s unique style of play is challenging the status quo, changing what it means to be a point guard. Some have even tried to create a new label for players like Westbrook, such as “power guard.”

What makes the fourth overall pick in 2008 so unique is that he fills up the stat sheet in a way that not many players can. He can score with the best of them, be an elite playmaker by dishing out assists and rebounds better than most guards. This is to say nothing of his defensive prowess.

Westbrook is a physical specimen. He is 6’3 and a solid 200 lbs. of lean musle, making him bigger than a lot point guards. He takes that frame and combines it with crazy explosiveness, so he’s a nightmare to guard. Whenever Westbrook is playing, the national commentators seem to bring up “fast-twitch” muscles. He can stop and start on a dime; the best example of this is when he speeds up the court and pulls up for a jumper, turning all that horizontal momentum directly into a vertical movement, giving him a high release on his shot in traffic. When attacking the rim with reckless abandon, Westbrook is also able to contort his body to easily make what seem like unmake-able shots.

However, there are a lot of players in the league with better measurables than Westbrook – except for maybe the explosiveness – that flame out and don’t have the success he has already enjoyed. That’s because Westbrook also has the necessary work ethic, attitude and basketball IQ to be great.

Tenacious. Relentless. Ferocious. There are just a few words that seem to encapsulate what the former UCLA product mentally brings to his game. He doesn’t typically take plays off; he plays all-out every second, whether he’s looking to score or facilitate. He’s rarely out of control. He used to be and that got him in trouble on the court, but now he is more patient and measured when running Oklahoma City’s offense. Westbrook is now a better version of the 1B to his teammate Kevin Durant’s 1A. Westbrook is able to control the pace and help his team win most games when OKC’s core is healthy.

When Westbrook misses a few shots, he has the appropriate “amnesia” to still have the confidence to take that next open jumper. However, he still has the awareness to go to the rim when his shot isn’t falling.

Two players who are similar to Westbrook are Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. All three have that scorers’ mentality and the drive for greatness. Iverson was also technically a point guard like Westbrook, but is even smaller, listed at 6’0. Weighing in at a slight 165 pounds, the 40-year-old Iverson, who retired officially in 2010, has been heralded by many as the best pound-for-pound player in NBA history. Although Bryant is a shooting guard and stands at 6’6 and 212 pounds, he has the same mentality as  Iverson and Westbrook. After a recent Thunder-Lakers game, Bryant compared Westbrook to himself.

How does Westbrook, who just started his eighth season, stack up against these NBA greats through their first seven years in the league? For reference, Westbrook’s first seven years were from 2009-2015, while both Iverson and Bryant started in 1997 and were entering their eighth season following the 2002-03 season.

Scoring

First off, how does Westbrook stack up in the scoring column against Bryant and Iverson? On a per game basis, Westbrook and Bryant are nearly identical while Iverson is a bit ahead of them. Westbrook and Bryant averaged around 21 points in 34 minutes per game, while Iverson was at 27 points in 41 minutes a night. The numbers cluster closer together when you look at the per 36 and per 100 possession stats, though Iverson still has the slight edge as his massive amount of time on the court allowed him to put up big numbers.

Does any of this change when it’s playoff time? In postseason play, Iverson scored the most points since he had the ultimate green light as he played even more minutes and attempted more field goals. He also didn’t have as talented teammates, so he was relied on more by his team. Westbrook did edge out Bryant in scoring across all three categories (PPG, PTS/36 MINS, PTS/100 POSS) in the playoffs.

Efficiency

What about efficiency? Westbrook is sandwiched between Bryant (on the high-end) and Iverson (on the low-end) in overall field goal percentage with all of them in the low to mid 40s. From behind the three-point line, Westbrook’s percentage is only slightly behind both of them with all of them in the low 30s. Westbrook’s 81.9 percent free throw percentage is just behind Bryant’s 83.1 percentage, but they both beat Iverson who was at 76 percent from the charity stripe through seven seasons.

Advanced Statistics

What do the advanced stats say about these three players? Westbrook beats both of them in offensive and defensive rating in the regular season per 100 possessions. The same is the case in the playoffs, except Bryant ties him with an offensive rating of 108. Westbrook had a higher free throw rate than either Bryant or Iverson.

A testament to the greatness of these players is their PER (player efficiency rating) over their first seven seasons. PER is a metric that takes a somewhat overall look at a player to determine relative value. The average NBA player has a PER of 15. Over their respective first seven seasons, Bryant leads the way at 22.2, with Westbrook just barely behind him at 22.1. Iverson is right there with a PER of 21.

Filling Up the Stat Sheet

Westbrook hangs with these all-time greats in scoring, but comes out on top in both the rebound and assist departments. On a per game basis, Westbrook averages more rebounds with 5.2 than either Bryant (5.0), who should have more as a taller shooting guard, or Iverson (4.1). Westbrook is also a better facilitator as he averaged 7.2 assists per game, while both Iverson and Bryant were under five assists per game.

Westbrook really is a stat-stuffer. And making his numbers even more impressive is the fact that they aren’t coming in garbage time or losing efforts. He’s putting up these monster stats as part of a legitimate contend (and while often taking the backseat to Durant). With each dominant, stat-stuffing performance, the legacy of Westbrook continues to grow.

Triple-doubles

Even though Westbrook has had only a little over seven seasons to accumulate stats, he is already ninth in NBA history in triple-doubles with 25 (including the two he already notched in 2015-16). LeBron James has 53 in 13 seasons and is third on the all-time list. Westbrook might not catch number one on the triple-double list (Jason Kidd at 118), but he will probably catch Magic Johnson, who is currently second with 78. Bryant has 21 so far, while Iverson had only one triple-double in his career. This season, Westbrook will probably pass Michael Jordan’s 27 triple-doubles.

Westbrook is tied with Larry Bird for the highest scoring triple-double, as both players finished with 49 points. And Westbrook did it nearly a decade younger than Larry Legend.

Still Improving

Westbrook can score with Bryant and Iverson, some of the best scoring guards in the previous era. However, he is a more complete player – averaging more rebounds and assists – and is also at least as good or better than both of them on the defensive side of the ball. The scary thing for the rest of the league is that Westbrook is still improving. In the 14-game sample size in 2015-16, Westbrook’s averages of 28.7 points, 10.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds are all career-highs, which is why triple-doubles are becoming relatively frequent for the “point” guard. Also, keep in mind that Westbrook just turned 27 years old this month, so it’s possible that he has several years remaining in his prime.

Westbrook doesn’t have an MVP award like both Iverson and Bryant, but if he ever has a season apart from Durant, MVP honors would probably be soon to follow as well as some insane stats.

Add in Westbrook’s fashion sense, intriguing personality and community outreach and we really need to appreciate what we are seeing from one of the game’s best and most interesting players.

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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