Oscar Robertson and Wizards star Russell Westbrook have more in common than just triple-doubles. For years, Robertson was criticized for playing on a losing team. He spent the first decade of his career with the Cincinnati Royals losing to Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics and Wilt Chamberlain’s Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs. It gave him a reputation as a losing player, someone capable of putting up big numbers but not leading a team to championship glory. Robertson only reached the mountaintop after being traded to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks, and that criticism mostly subsided thereafter.
But Robertson sees Westbrook heading down a similar path without a late-career trade on the horizon to change that. In an interview with Marc Stein of The New York Times, he lamented the idea of sports media criticizing Westbrook for not winning a championship because championships are won by teams, not players.
“I think it’s ridiculous that some sportswriters criticize him because he has not won a championship,” Robertson said. “Players don’t win championships by themselves. You’ve got to have good management. You need to get with the right group of players.”
While Robertson has a point, it should be noted that his situation and Westbrook’s aren’t exactly identical. In Robertson’s entire tenure with the Royals, only two of his teammates ever earned All-NBA honors. Jack Twyman did it once, and Jerry Lucas did it five times. That might sound impressive, but remember, there were far fewer teams in Robertson’s day, so making All-NBA wasn’t nearly as impressive. To only have two teammates make it in a decade in Cincinnati would have been very disappointing.
Westbrook has played with two full-fledged MVPs in Kevin Durant and James Harden. Paul George finished third in one of his seasons alongside Westbrook. In fact, it could be argued that outside of his 2016-17 MVP season, Westbrook has never even been the best player on his own team. Bradley Beal holds that distinction now in Washington.
That extra talent helped bring Westbrook close to the title on a few occasions. He reached the Finals in 2012 and nearly made it back in 2016. But those teams lost in part to Westbrook’s own flaws as a player. Last season, for instance, the Los Angeles Lakers refused to defend him on the perimeter. Instead, using the extra defender to double James Harden and force the ball out of his hands. They could do so because of Westbrook’s poor shooting, which has dogged him throughout his career. Westbrook turned the ball over 15 times in the final three games of the 2016 Western Conference finals in which his Thunder blew a 3-1 lead.
None of this is to suggest that Westbrook’s flaws make him incapable of winning a championship. It just means that working around his flaws is very difficult to do on the championship stage, and it makes him less valuable than some of his counting stats suggest that he might be. Averaging a triple-double is incredibly impressive, but we know enough about basketball in 2021 to know that it doesn’t make a player as well-rounded as it would conceptually appear. Westbrook is very, very good at certain parts of basketball. He is not as good at other parts of it.
As Robertson says, players don’t win championships by themselves. Westbrook has never found an organization capable of putting a championship team around him. But based on the caliber of players he’s played with, it’s not for lack of trying. Westbrook, unlike Robertson, spent his prime on some very good teams. Those teams lost in part because of Westbrook, in part because of their own flaws and in part because of the strength of their opponents. It shouldn’t take away from the remarkable parts of Westbrook’s game, but it shouldn’t be ignored entirely, either.
Published: 2021-05-06 01:25:43
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