Russell Westbrook is officially the 2016-17 NBA MVP, and the vote wasn’t even close. But that doesn’t mean we would build a team around him. Before you flip out, know the criteria. This isn’t about stats, or selling tickets, or who’s the most talented or impressive player. It isn’t about regular season wins or MVP awards, and it sure as hell isn’t about triple-doubles.
It’s ONLY about this: if every player in the NBA were available in a dispersal draft, and your life depended on how many NBA titles your team won over the next eight seasons, who would be your first pick? This isn’t team building – we’re simply listing individual players with whom we would rather start a team than Russell Westbrook.
Here we go:
The Close Calls
These four would probably get the nod over Russ in our book, but the decisions were tough and they didn’t make the top ten.
Both players are tremendous one-on-one offensive players who leave a lot to be desired on the defensive end. Westbrook is more well-rounded and would do better carrying a team on his own, but Kyrie is more efficient, a better shooter, a slightly better finisher, and raises his game several notches in the playoffs. Perhaps most importantly, Kyrie showed over the past three seasons that he is willing to play off the ball and accept a role as a number two weapon. That is exactly what Westbrook failed to do playing with Kevin Durant in OKC.
Stick PG13 with the same teammates as Westbrook and he wouldn’t put up the same numbers or win the same amount of games. However, Paul George could be the 3 on a variety of different types of title-contending teams. He’s a strong two-way player who can get to the hoop and shoot a high percentage from three. As for Westbrook, A) history suggests it isn’t even possible to win a title with someone who hogs the ball that much, and B) if it is, it would have to be with a very specific group of guys that would be nearly impossible to assemble.
This one is tough, because the team you would have to build around Wall would be similar to the one you would have to build around Westbrook. However, it would be easier for two reasons: he’s a better defender and a much more willing passer. He averaged slightly more assists than Russ (10.7 to 10.4) with a far smaller usage rate (41.7% to 30.6%). Wall is also younger by almost two years, has better shot selection, and can replicate more of what makes Westbrook special – insane athleticism, open court dominance, etc. – than anyone else on this list. He can give you the good of Westbrook without the bad.
By now you know our feelings on Westbrook. This one is all about Porzingis, and how good he will end up being. On paper, he should be a no-brainer star as a small-ball 5, but in reality, he plays for a shitty team and a terrible, toxic franchise, hasn’t improved his shooting as much as he should have, and gets cleared out of the way by much shorter, stouter defenders. Still, he’s 7’3 and 21 years old, seven years younger than Westbrook. Worth rolling the dice.
10. Klay Thompson
Is he as talented as Russ? Would he have been as impressive as Russ on the Thunder if they had traded places this past year? Does it really matter for our purposes? No, no, and no. If you are building a title team, you need players like Klay Thompson: unselfish guys who can contribute on both ends of the floor and score efficiently without needing the ball in their hands a lot. Klay is the prime example of that, and as a bonus, just happens to be a top ten shooter of all time. He would also fit on pretty much any team you could imagine building, so he wouldn’t limit your options the way Westbrook would. Building a great team with Klay would be easier than with Russ, precisely because you wouldn’t have to build it around Klay.
9. Nikola Jokic
This one is all about offensive basketball philosophy. Would you rather have a ball-dominant guard who plays iffy defense and dribbles into the floor every possession, or an unselfish 6’11 center who plays iffy defense but has a rare passing gene (passed down from the likes of Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis) that allows him to consistently create open shots for his teammates, in addition to averaging 17 points and ten rebounds in just 28 minutes per game? Jokic makes his teammates a lot better on offense; Westbrook makes his worse (just ask Ibaka or KD). When you consider that Jokic turned 22 in February and is clearly getting better, while Westbrook is turning 29 in November and about to hit the back nine of his career, this one becomes fairly obvious.
8. James Harden
This is a tougher debate because Harden and Westbrook are such similar players. Their traditional numbers were basically the same last year. Harden averaged an extra assist per game, while Westbrook averaged two more rebounds (lifting him over the meaningless triple-double mark) and an extra 2.5 points. However, Harden had a much higher effective field goal percentage (.525 to .476), took five fewer shots per game, and included his teammates more. He’s also a year younger, has more positional versatility, and relies on athleticism less than Westbrook, making us think his prime will last longer. To be fair, Westbrook plays slightly better defense, but in a close call we’re still going with the younger, more efficient player who’s more of a proponent of sharing the ball.
7. Anthony Davis
We’ll keep this short: Davis is more than four years younger than Westbrook, more efficient, way more effective on defense, still getting better, and doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be successful. Despite this, he still averaged 28 points and 12 rebounds per game last year. His game is also flexible enough to fit well with almost any other player (Boogie Cousins being an exception – nice job, New Orleans!), making him easier to build around.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo
If the Thunder called and offered Westbrook for Giannis straight up, the Bucks would think they were being punked. That’s how obvious this one is. Antetokounmpo may just be scratching the surface of his potential, but he still managed to average 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game this past year as a 22-year-old. If he improves his defense and outside shooting the same way he did the rest of his game, the sky is the limit, but even if he doesn’t, his size, length, versatility, and age make him a preferable option to Westbrook long-term.
Put it this way: which guy would you rather play with?
5. Karl-Anthony Towns
As Steve Kerr explained on The Lowe Post podcast when comparing Curry and Durant, 7-footers simply have higher upsides than 6’3 guards. A 6’3 guard may be able to single-handedly will his team to more wins during the regular season as a result of having the ball in his hands all the time, but when the chips are down and titles are on the line, smart coaches like Kerr are taking the big guy every time.
This, of course, assumes that the 7-footer in question is as talented as the 6’3 guard. That’s not an issue for Towns. He’s the perfect stretch five for the modern NBA and already the best offensive center in the league. Last year as a 21-year-old (SEVEN full years younger than Westbrook) Towns averaged 25.1 points and 12.3 rebounds per game with an effective FG% of .576. He has a legit chance to become a 30-15 guy, probably sooner rather than later, and if he improves his defense (a safe bet, considering he’s only 21 and plays for Tom Thibodeau) he has a chance to become a top 12 player in NBA history and a multiple time MVP.
4. Steph Curry
Both guys are about the same age (Curry is even a little bit older), so this isn’t about potential or upside. Steph Curry is simply a better basketball player than Russell Westbrook. Just ask Kevin Durant. Think about the traits that go into winning. Outside shooting. Efficiency. Ball Movement. Defense. Curry gets the check mark on all four of them. He also makes his teammates better. Imagine Westbrook on the Warriors instead of Curry, and ask yourself whether they would have won the title two years ago or 73 games last year. No and no.
Russell Westbrook is an amazing athlete and an insane competitor. The stuff he does on a basketball court is incredible to watch. But the point of the sport isn’t to see what kind of numbers you can put up going one-on-five. The point is to win. If you polled NBA fans on who was the better player, Westbrook would probably win by a small margin. If you polled all of the coaches in the league (head and assistant), Curry would win and the margin wouldn’t be small.
3. Kawhi Leonard
Let’s see: he’s younger, bigger, better at defense (understatement of the year), way less of a ball hog, and still averages 25.5 points per game. Kawhi needs the ball in his hands more than Klay Thompson (for instance), but for a high-scoring wing player, he really doesn’t dominate it too much. He’s also improved his assists per game average each year he’s been in the league, which suggests he has some future potential as a point forward. This is all without mentioning his defense, which is legitimately terrifying and puts him in the discussion for the GOAT of perimeter defenders. Every single team in the NBA would gladly welcome Kawhi Leonard in their starting lineup; the same can’t be said for Westbrook.
2. Kevin Durant
Did you watch the NBA Finals? Durant has reached a level that only a few players ever have, none of them being under 6’6. He’s just straight up better than Westbrook on both ends, but especially on defense. Throw in the fact that Durant could play with literally any lineup or group of players on earth and still be dominant, while building around Westbrook would take a level of precision normally left to brain surgeons. KD is the obvious choice.
1. LeBron James
Do you really need an explanation? LeBron is a guaranteed ticket to the NBA Finals. It’s safe to say Westbrook isn’t. Without even getting into stats or style of play issues, that’s enough right there.