Kyrie Irving vs Russell Westbrook is a closer matchup than you might think

Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook with Team USA
Westbrook vs Irving is a divisive topic. Photo from USA Today.
  • Comparing Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook‘s Hall of Fame careers
  • Statistical comparison and evaluation of where the two stand
  • Who had the better career?

For better or for worse, Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving have been two of the more controversial and polarizing point guards in the NBA in recent years. Media narratives have not been kind to either of the two, with both having been painted as among the “toxic teammates” in the league for practically their entire careers thus far.

Westbrook, once a league MVP who is still capable of notching a triple-double on any given night, has earned the reputation of putting up bloated but empty stats with an overall game that is at once incendiary but also incongruous with winning—a reputation that is not undeserved given his track record in that department.

On the other hand, Irving, once an NBA champion with the Cleveland Cavaliers, has been called a bad leader on the court owing to his performances over his two years with the Boston Celtics. His off-court antics have certainly not helped his case either.

Ahead of Monday’s matchup between the Brooklyn Nets and the Washington Wizards, here’s a comparison of how the matchup between two so-called poisonous personalities has played out over the years.

Irving vs Westbrook: Scoring

Believe it or not, this one is actually tougher than it sounds. Irving is certainly the more skilled and complete player on paper, having flaunted a flashy package of acrobatic circus finishes around the rim, difficult floaters, and stepback threes. Couple that with his all-world handles and dribble moves, and there’s really no way around it: Irving is a walking bucket capable of dropping 50 whenever he wants. If we’re talking about unguard-ability alone, Irving wins this in a heartbeat.

But one cannot discount the explosive and robust scoring of Westbrook, who has historically had his way with smaller and weaker players in most every matchup against point guards. His quick first step coupled with his elite athleticism allows him to finish with ease inside the paint, almost regardless of who’s guarding him at that position. He’s an absolute freight train in transition, which is not something you can say about his craftier counterpart.

Of course, there is no argument to be made for Westbrook when it comes to shooting the basketball. Owing to his lack of a consistent jumper, opposing defenses have always been content to sag off him on the perimeter, a tactic which has more often than not yielded a stop for the defense. Unsurprisingly, Irving has outshined Westbrook in terms of his shooting efficiency across the board, with 46-39-88 shooting splits over his career versus the latter’s 44-30-79.

Yet the stats say that this scoring matchup is closer than you’d think: over his career, Irving has actually averaged less than a full point than Westbrook has, with a scoring average of 22.5 points per game versus Westbrook’s 23.2.


Per Game Table
Rk Player From To G GS MP FG FGA FG% 3P 3PA 3P% 2P 2PA 2P% eFG% FT FTA FT% ORB DRB TRB AST STL BLK TOV PF PTS
1 Kyrie Irving 2012 2021 533 533 33.8 8.2 17.7 .466 2.1 5.5 .390 6.1 12.2 .500 .526 3.8 4.4 .878 0.8 2.9 3.7 5.7 1.3 0.4 2.6 2.2 22.5
2 Russell Westbrook 2009 2021 882 865 34.6 8.2 18.8 .437 1.1 3.7 .304 7.1 15.2 .469 .467 5.7 7.1 .799 1.7 5.4 7.1 8.3 1.7 0.3 4.1 2.6 23.2
Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 1/3/2021.

Though production is close, efficiency is an entirely different matter. Irving got his average on 47% shooting for his career, while Westbrook has shot the ball on 44% efficiency. When it comes to scoring, Irving is the bigger, more skilled, and more efficient threat. But the gap between the two is not as substantial as some may say.

Irving vs Westbrook: Defense

If Irving has the clear edge in bucket-getting, then Westbrook surely takes the cake in stopping the bucket-getting. His athleticism alone means he can keep up with speedier slashers better and contest more shots. Where Irving has been well-documented to give up on defensive plays, Westbrook’s high motor has proven to be the difference-maker in putting opposing point guards on clamps.

It’s not a knock on Irving either, as the advanced stats over their careers show just how big the defensive gap between the two is. Defensive (and interestingly, offensive, too) win shares show that Westbrook has vastly outshined Irving on that end of the floor, 41.0 to 15.7. No contest there.

Advanced Table
Rk Player From To G MP PER TS% 3PAr FTr ORB% DRB% TRB% AST% STL% BLK% TOV% USG% OWS DWS WS WS/48 OBPM DBPM BPM VORP
1 Kyrie Irving 2012 2021 533 17989 22.3 .572 .309 .247 2.5 9.7 6.1 30.9 2.0 0.9 11.8 29.3 46.4 15.7 62.1 .166 4.7 -0.2 4.5 29.2
2 Russell Westbrook 2009 2021 882 30528 23.5 .529 .194 .376 5.5 17.1 11.3 42.3 2.5 0.7 15.7 32.7 60.1 41.0 101.2 .159 4.2 0.6 4.8 52.1
Provided by Stathead.com: View Stathead Tool Used
Generated 1/3/2021.

Westbrook’s defensive woes have been put on full display this season, however, as he has so far allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions versus Irving’s 103.9 through four and five games played respectively.

Is Westbrook’s advanced defense enough to make up for his offensive limitations in this matchup? Given how significant the difference is, it just might be, especially if he figures it out with his new squad moving forward.

Irving vs Westbrook: Leadership and Playmaking

The two lead their teams in very different ways. Think of it this way: ultimately, Westbrook is not capable of hitting that stepback three over the outstretched arms of Stephen Curry in the finals, but Irving would not have carried an Oklahoma City Thunder team starting Andre Roberson and Taj Gibson to the NBA Playoffs while winning the MVP.

That isn’t to say that the latter is a bad leader. Irving is capable of heating up in a hurry to single-handedly carry the offensive load for his ball club. And though the argument can be made that doing so doesn’t necessarily make his teammates better, it has definitely led to wins for the former NBA champion.

Whether you’re on board with his flat-earth views, anti-media practices, and sage-burning pre-game routines, you can’t deny the confidence that his offensive play can inspire, and the many ways that this contorts opposing defenses to create good shots for others.

Where Irving has hit clutch shot after clutch shot in the biggest moments of closing games, we’ve seen Westbrook shrink in the biggest moments by taking borderline unintelligent shots that are simply not in his repertoire and that only lead to free points on the fastbreak.

But Westbrook’s leadership comes in his consistent on-court presence on both ends of the floor and production. In the 2019-20 NBA season, Westbrook proved he still had it despite his departure from Oklahoma City, notching eight triple-doubles for the season, second only behind 6-foot-7 point-forward phenom Luka Doncic for point guards, and fourth across all positions.

He was also fourth in double-doubles, fourth in points per game, sixth in Player Efficiency Rating, (Irving, who didn’t play much that year, was second in PER the year prior), and ninth in field goal percentage (47.2%). Limited skill set aside, the numbers don’t lie: Westbrook has been a productive player wherever he ended up, and his unique game has proven his ability to impact games outside of just scoring.

You can spin it any way you like, but Russell Westbrook was a top ten point guard in his time with the Houston Rockets. Against Irving, it’s just a fact that Westbrook has outmatched him across all major statistical categories for his career.

Gap is not as big as it seems

It’s hard to insert the caveat that one has played with more stars than the other in this conversation. One has played with two MVPs, a Hall of Famer, and another two-way MVP candidate. The other has played with arguably the best player in professional basketball. The point is, they’ve both had a lot of help in their respective squads.

For all his unquestioned greatness in his position, Westbrook’s production alongside that of Bradley Beal has not been enough to eke out wins for the Washington Wizards thus far this season. Even before that, his on-court impact has hardly led to any significant playoff success.

Miles away in Brooklyn, Irving is, to put it plainly, a championship contender. There aren’t a lot of defenses in the league capable of shutting down the Irving-Durant pick-and-roll. Even when he sits, the Steve Nash-led Nets can comfortably slot in the likes of Caris LeVert and Joe Harris taking his place on the floor. With both the talent and depth to show for it, this Nets team is for real.

Early on, it’s looking like the coming showdown between the Nets and the Wizards is leaning in Brooklyn’s favor. And right now, Irving is outplaying Westbrook by a mile.

The narrative between these two misunderstood point guards seems to flip-flop with every passing season. It’s tempting to just give it to Kyrie on his flashiness and offensive diversity alone: in an NBA that values shooting almost above everything else, he’s becoming the more sensible option. But until he can prove he can lead a team to the promised land after practically giving up on the Boston Celtics, a cloud of something will always hang over any argument for him.

But Westbrook, with his consistent overall production on both ends of the floor has shown that his impact on games transcends mere scoring, even though it hasn’t led to much playoff success either. All-time, he may come out the better point guard, but only by the smallest of margins.

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