When I’m in the Hoops Lab, I break down the game using numbers. I’m the senior fantasy basketball writer at ESPN. I break down lines and make gambling picks in our Best Bets NBA articles. And I regularly contribute to NBA analysis on the ESPN NBA page.
But if you let the Charles Barkleys and Stephen A. Smiths of the world tell it, analytics just aren’t cool. So I’m bringing the Hoops Lab to the barbershop. Because numbers are neither a dirty word nor a different language. We’re all just talking about hoops. And nobody talks hoops better than your boy.
“Back in the days when I was young I’m not a kid anymore. But some days, I sit and wish I was a kid again.” – Ahmad, “Back in the Day”
Old heads are quick to tell youngsters they “don’t know nothing” about what things were like back in the day.
“Back in the day, the music was better.”
“Back in the day, times were way tougher.”
“Back in the day is when real men played sports.”
I’m a sports nerd, so I respect the greats who have come before. But quiet as kept? We are currently watching some of the best who have ever done it. History is happening right before our eyes. And like Tupac Shakur said, we need to “recognize and realize” what we’re witnessing.
Take, for example, the trio of 30-something, future first-ballot Hall of Fame point guards who are etching their names into the record books:
Russell Westbrook. Stephen Curry. Chris Paul.
They are each doing things we’ve never seen before.
So, when trying to figure out where these amazing guards slot into NBA legend, it might be useful to think outside the box. Instead of comparing them with other guards, which is what we often do, let’s take a different perspective and examine how these “little men” are walking in the footsteps of giants.
Westbrook is Wilt in the backcourt
Westbrook now has more triple-doubles (182) than any other player in NBA history after breaking Oscar Robertson’s longtime record on Monday. He has averaged a triple-double in four of the past five seasons. Robertson is the only other player in NBA history to average a triple-double in a season; he did it once in 1961-62.
Because of this, people often compare Westbrook to the Big O or Magic Johnson, who rained triple-doubles on the rest of the league in the 1980s. But stylistically, Westbrook doesn’t really play like them. Johnson and Robertson were both “pure” point guards whose games were primarily about setting the table for teammates.
Westbrook is probably the most athletic point guard in NBA history, mixing explosive quickness and leaping ability with an aggressive, powerful game that allows him to do things on the basketball court that mere mortals can’t do. Back in the day, there was another player who could physically dominate the game in that way: Wilt Chamberlain.
Chamberlain had the ability to “call his shot.” He was known for finding a record he wanted to break, then going out and breaking it. He once scored 100 points in a game. He averaged 50 points and 25 rebounds for an entire season. He decided to lead the league in assists as a center and accomplished it. He decided to set a record for the highest field goal percentage, and he did that too.
Westbrook has been able to do that in this generation. The triple-doubles are the most famous examples, but he’s shown he can achieve amazing feats on demand just like Chamberlain. Remember Westbrook’s game immediately after the tragic death of rapper Nipsey Hussle? He decided to score 20 points, grab 20 rebounds and dish 20 assists in one game as a tribute to Hussle. And then he went out and did it. A 20-20-20 game had only been accomplished once in NBA history … by Chamberlain.
Curry is changing the game like Russell
Curry is the best shooter in NBA history. It’s not even a controversial statement to make anymore. He holds the record for the most 3-pointers made per game for an entire season, and could break his own record this season. By next season, Curry should also surpass Ray Allen for the most 3-pointers made in NBA history. He currently trails Allen by 151 treys, despite Allen having played in 540 more games.
Names such as Allen, Reggie Miller and fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson are who Curry is often compared with in a historic sense. But in many ways, his best comparison might just be to a big man who never attempted a 3-pointer in his NBA career (though to be fair, the 3-point line didn’t yet exist).
Bill Russell changed the entire way basketball was played. Before Russell, it was considered poor defense to jump for a blocked shot. No joke. Jumping to block a shot would have been enough to get a player benched. “Blocks” wasn’t a stat category in the box score before Russell. But then Russell came along and dominated the game on defense, using his Olympic-caliber leaping ability and agility to prevent opponents from scoring at levels unheard of. People started unofficially counting Russell’s blocks, and estimates from a large sample of games suggest Russell could’ve been averaging double-figure blocks in some seasons.
During the Boston Celtics’ 13-year dynasty with Russell, they finished No. 1 in the NBA in team defensive rating in 12 of 13 seasons and won 11 championships. And in the 60 years since Russell showed the rest of the world how to block shots, every defense and big man defender has tried to emulate what he did.
Curry is doing the same thing with the 3-pointer. The NBA has had a 3-point line for 41 years, but no one has ever taken advantage of the extra point the way Curry has. Curry and Thompson used the 3-pointer as the offensive spearhead of the last great NBA dynasty in Golden State, and Curry is leading his peers in finding new and creative ways to score efficiently from all over the court. NBA defenses now have to pick up players such as Curry or Damian Lillard as soon as they cross half court. Stretching defenses out like that breaks them down. Curry has changed the way basketball is played, just like Russell once did.
Paul is channeling Abdul-Jabbar
Paul turned 36 years old on May 6. Before his birthday, he had dished 10,227 career assists. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the second-most assists in NBA history by a player before turning 36, behind only assist king John Stockton. But, while Paul and Stockton are both consummate floor generals, Paul’s two-way impact on the game is in many ways more similar to an elite big man.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was named to 15 All-NBA teams and 11 All-Defensive teams in his NBA Mount Rushmore career. He had a huge offensive footprint as the highest scorer in the history of the NBA, but many people don’t realize how excellent a defender he was as well. Abdul-Jabbar is the godfather of this type of balance, one of only three players in NBA history with double-digit selections in each category, according to ESPN Stats & Information (Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant are the other two). And if Paul were to be named to both teams this season, he would join this elite group with his 10th selection to each.
This season, Paul has led the Phoenix Suns to a top-10 ranking in both team offensive and defensive ratings. That’s kind of his thing. In 2008, Paul finished first-team All-NBA and All-Defense while leading the then-New Orleans Hornets to top-10 rankings on both ends. He did the same in 2013, with the LA Clippers. In 2018, Paul helped lead the Houston Rockets to the top 10 at both ends.
Over the last 15 seasons, Paul is one of only eight players to play at least 50 games for a team that finished top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating in at least six seasons (including 2020-21). Among those eight, Paul is the only one to have at least one such season with four different teams. Abdul-Jabbar’s teams hit this mark six times while he was with the Milwaukee Bucks, and another 11 times with the Los Angeles Lakers. To dominate on both ends for this long is remarkable.
Bottom line: We’re witnessing greatness
Westbrook, Curry and Paul are three of the best point guards the game has ever seen. They are walking history that we need to appreciate in real time. They may typically be the smallest players on the court, but their games and the legacies they’re building are as big as giants.