Is Russell Westbrook’s Season the Best Ever? Some Apples and Oranges to Pick From
On Wednesday night, Russell Westbrook will complete his rather outrageous (statistically speaking) regular season. It must be considered the single greatest season by any athlete ever, right? No? Here are some other contenders. Feel free to make the case for someone else in the comments section.
From a statistics standpoint, averaging a triple-double is not the most accurate measure of dominance. There are better ways to quantify value than big round numbers, and M.V.P. voters understood that in 1962 when they honored Bill Russell instead of Oscar Robertson.
But averaging a triple-double, both then and now, is almost unbelievably cool. And if you want to find a statistical feat as difficult and as cool as what Westbrook did this season, you would be hard-pressed to outdo Rickey Henderson’s 1982 season for the Oakland A’s.
It was not Henderson’s best season (that would be 1990) or the one in which he scored the most runs (1985). His team did not win the World Series, and he was below his career averages in several categories.
But in 1982, despite everyone’s knowing that he had the green light when he reached base, Henderson stole 130 bases. It is a number that was impossible to comprehend then (it was more than the combined total of 10 teams’ steals that season) and is even harder to fathom now (it is more than the number stolen by 26 teams last season).
The record took Henderson an incredible 172 attempts. The risk inherent in trying to steal a lot of bases was long ago decided to be too great, and no player has attempted even 100 steals since 1988, so the thought of a player matching Henderson now seems ridiculous. That said, the thought of someone matching Robertson was ridiculous until Westbrook came along. — BENJAMIN HOFFMAN
What Westbrook, a talent for the ages, has done is spectacular. His statistics are also inflated by the absence of co-stars, allowing for complete ball dominance. That’s not his fault, but feeding the needs and egos of others while maintaining individual dominance ought to be a strong determination for the ultimate team-sport standard.
Consider the 2015-16 college season, when Breanna Stewart powered her Connecticut women’s team on an unbeaten run to an unprecedented fourth straight national title, while winning her third consecutive player of the year award and being named most outstanding player of the Final Four for a fourth straight year. Stewart was unquestionably the nation’s best player while also providing the intangible leadership that enabled her teammates Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck to become the second and third selections in the W.N.B.A. draft — behind her, of course.
Benefiting from college-to-pro scheduling, she had the skills and stamina to be W.N.B.A. rookie of the year, finishing sixth in scoring, second in rebounds and third in blocked shots. She won a gold medal with the United States national team in Rio de Janeiro. Relative greatness across time and sports, team or individual, is a hopeless apples-to-oranges measure. But nobody in Stewart’s sport, man or woman, has ever presented such a masterful body of work, inclusive of the pressure building from the three previous years. — HARVEY ARATON
A look back at athletes’ greatest years must begin with W.G. Grace in 1876.
It can also end there: Grace’s year was simply the finest ever by a sportsman.
The pioneering cricketer is remembered for a career that spanned ages 16 to 60. No year was greater for him than 1876, when he turned 28.
Grace had huge scores the whole year. But it was during a brief period in August that he played the matches that, as the cricket annual Wisden put it at the time, “will form chapters of wondering interest in the history of the game so long as the game be played.”
Playing for Marylebone Cricket Club, Grace bashed an unheard-of 344 runs against Kent. It was the first 300 score in the history of first-class cricket. He reached 100 in just 25 minutes.
After a 177 for Gloucester against Nottinghamshire, he ripped off another monumental score: 318 not out against York, spending eight hours at bat.
Sometimes called the Babe Ruth of cricket, Grace was a mercenary, a lover of money and, some say, a cheater. He also was like a man playing with boys on the pitch. We shall not look upon his like again. — VICTOR MATHER
Inasmuch as I have petted only one athlete, great or otherwise, I reserve the right to be partial. But even without that tactile thrill, I’ll take Secretariat’s epic Triple Crown win in 1973 as the greatest season in sports, ever.
What? A three-race, five-week season? It’s an annual season all its own, a brutal test with the whole world watching: the Kentucky Derby at a mile and a quarter; the Preakness at 1 3/16 of a mile; and the Belmont at a mile and a half. Only 12 horses have won the Triple Crown. Plenty of room for injury, exhaustion, wrong distance, bad weather, bad luck. Secretariat swept all three, winning the Belmont by 31 lengths — 248 feet. The great red beast dominated his season more personally, more one-sidedly, than any two-legged athlete ever has.
Oh, the petting. The day after the 1989 Derby, I tagged along with a friend who had business at Claiborne Farm. The earth moved, and a swaybacked giant jogged into view. My friend took out a sugar cube, and I petted the flank of an athlete who had once owned Belmont, owned racing, owned the world. He was put down five months later. I’m still talking about him. — GEORGE VECSEY
Westbrook is the Bobby Orr of basketball.
The triple-double represents all-around play: the raw power of scoring, the hustle of rebounding, the unselfishness of the assist. It is a feat of multiple dimensions.
That’s why his season should not be compared to those muscular, number-bending seasons of, say, Wilt Chamberlain or Babe Ruth. It is a bit like the years that Wayne Gretzky dominated hockey. But subtler.
In 1969-70, Orr, an average-size player for the Boston Bruins, won his third Norris Trophy as the N.H.L.’s best defenseman and his first Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer.
(Not impressed by 120 points, which pales in comparison to seasons that Gretzky and others had in the 1980s and 1990s? It was the second-highest season total in league history at the time. And no N.H.L. player has had 120 points in the last 10 years.)
Orr threw in a team-high 125 penalty minutes, lest anyone question his toughness. He led the league in shots and plus/minus. His all-around play earned him the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
He also won the Smythe Trophy as the playoff M.V.P. His Stanley Cup-clinching goal (known simply as “The Goal” and shown above) is one of the most iconic moments in hockey.
Sure, Orr had the advantage of playing alongside Phil Esposito, another future Hall of Famer. But Westbrook had his Esposito, a guy named Kevin Durant, for a lot of years. The biggest difference is that it took Durant’s departure for Westbrook to have his Orr-like season. — JOHN BRANCH
Westbrook’s season, while awesome, is not the greatest in N.B.A. history. That belongs to none other than Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62 with the Philadelphia Warriors. Chamberlain averaged 50.4 points and 25.7 rebounds that season and (this may be the greatest stat in all of sports) 48.5 minutes played per game. Regulation games last 48 minutes, but the Warriors played seven games that extended for at least one period of overtime. During that 80-game regular season, Chamberlain played 3,882 of Philadelphia’s possible 3,890 minutes.
On March 2, 1962, Chamberlain famously scored 100 points against the Knicks, but that was only the culmination of a four-game stretch in which he scored 67, 65 and 61 points in the three previous games, according to basketball-reference.com. All told, he scored at least 60 points 15 times that season, including a stunning performance on Dec. 8, 1961, against the Lakers, in which Chamberlain delivered 78 points and 43 rebounds. — JERÉ LONGMAN
Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds
1920 and 2004
To find the greatest individual season in baseball history, look at the players who broke the game. Many have changed it, mastered it or nearly perfected it. But to really break it, a player has to upend the norms so thoroughly that the performance looks like a mutation. Think of Babe Ruth in 1920 and Barry Bonds in 2004.
Ruth’s most famous season was 1927, when he swatted 60 home runs: a majestic round number that would stand as the record for decades. Bonds’s most famous season was 2001, when he had 73 home runs, a new standard. (Yes, a year later, the players’ union would finally agree to test for steroids.)
But in 1920, his first season with the Yankees, Ruth did something the game had never seen: He hit 54 home runs, not only more than any other player, but also more than any other team in the American League. The combined figure for his on-base and slugging percentages, 1.379, would stand as a record for 82 years.
Bonds broke it in 2002, when pitchers walked him intentionally 68 times. In 2004, though, the league acquiesced to Bonds as it has to no player before or since. When given a chance to hit, Bonds batted .362 with 45 homers and won his seventh and final most valuable player award.
Yet pitchers walked him a record 232 times that season, helping him to a record .609 on-base percentage and a combined on-base and slugging percentage of 1.422. Most astounding, he was walked intentionally 120 times. No other player has ever been intentionally walked even 50 times in a season.
Think about that: Bonds was such a destructive force in 2004 that rivals simply stopped competing. Whatever he was doing to inspire such fear, he achieved the ultimate compliment from pitchers: You’re too good for this game. — TYLER KEPNER
With her big lefty serve and unparalleled net game, Martina Navratilova was the Babe Ruth of tennis in the 1980s. Among the many terrific seasons she enjoyed, 1983 stands out as a slice of near perfection unmatched in her sport.
Navratilova went 86-1 that year, her lone defeat a shocking upset at the hands of the American player Kathleen Horvath in the fourth round of the French Open.
After that loss, which for years Navratilova attributed to her own failures rather than to Horvath’s forceful play, Navratilova won 50 straight matches that year, including her first United States Open, and was named female athlete of the year by The Associated Press.
For perspective, in 2015 when Serena Williams barely missed the Grand Slam, she went 57-5 over all. In Steffi Graf’s Grand Slam year, 1988, she went 72-3.
Navratilova was also the best doubles player in 1983, going 61-2 and winning the same three majors that she did in singles.
After the loss at Roland Garros, Navratilova went on to beat Horvath seven more times in her career to compile a 10-1 record against her. The only sets she ever lost to Horvath came on that imperfect day at the French Open. — DAVID WALDSTEIN
You want to talk triple-doubles? In 2000, Tiger Woods won the United States Open with a score of 12 under par, the British Open with 19 under par and the P.G.A. Championship with 18 under par. Those were the lowest scores to par in the history of each event.
He already held the record for low score at the Masters.
Winning three of four major golf championships in one season is remarkable enough, but in 2000, Woods did something that is unlikely to ever be replicated: He also won six other PGA Tour events. That’s nine victories in the 20 events he entered that season.
But it was not just how much Woods won in 2000, it was how much he won by. At the United States Open at Pebble Beach, Woods was 15 strokes ahead of the second-place finisher. (No one else in the field that year was under par.) At the British Open, Woods was eight strokes clear of the field. Yes, at the P.G.A. Championship he won in a playoff.
But cut him some slack, he was only 24 years old. Besides, the next spring he won his fourth consecutive major at the Masters. — BILL PENNINGTON
As a kid in the early 1960s, I got it into my head to stop rooting for the mighty Yankees and instead line up behind the awful Mets. These are the kinds of choices that shape your life, and it did mine. Ever since, I’ve veered toward losers, not winners.
That’s why I pick Roger Craig’s battle to keep his sanity while pitching for the 1963 Mets as the most impressive performance I’ve ever witnessed. Starting in May of that season he lost 18 consecutive decisions — three of them by 2-1 scores. Still, he endured until, finally, on Aug. 9, he decided to change his luck by trading his No. 38 uniform for No. 13.
That night, facing the Cubs at the Polo Grounds, Craig was still in the game when it went to the bottom of the ninth with the score tied, 3-3. And with two outs and the bases loaded, the Mets’ Jim Hickman hit a pop fly to left field that grazed the overhang of the upper deck for an absurd 300-foot grand slam that ended Craig’s losing streak.
Craig was so happy, he kissed Hickman. Even more impressive, he didn’t quit the Mets on the spot. Instead, he finished out the season with a 5-22 win-loss record and a solid 3.78 earned run average.
So there you have it: a decent pitcher, a terrible team and the courage to keep going back to the mound over and over again. — JAY SCHREIBER
You’d think it would be easy to pick one — to pick any — of the seasons conjured by Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo between, roughly, 2008 and 2016, when both scored goals in scarcely credible numbers and produced moments of otherworldly beauty with astonishing regularity.
But it isn’t. So soaring have their performances been for so long that it is almost impossible to identify, from the ground level, when and where the peaks were. Messi in 2012? Cristiano a year later? Both? Neither?
It is much easier, more definitive, to choose a (very slightly) lesser mortal: the Brazilian Ronaldo, the original Ronaldo, who was for a comparatively brief moment the best player in the world.
The 1997-98 season was his masterpiece: 25 goals in 32 games in Serie A, then the toughest league on the planet, for an Inter Milan team that pushed an all-conquering Juventus every step of the way in the title race. And then the World Cup, where Ronaldo inspired Brazil all the way to the final, before succumbing to a panic attack and then to the tournament’s host, France, only at the very last.
That season, his teams fell just short of the trophies they so desperately wanted. But until it all came screeching to a halt in Paris, he was untouchable. — RORY SMITH
Westbrook is a supremely talented man beamed down from Planet Hoops. Wilt Chamberlain, averaging more than 50 points and 20 rebounds per game over half a century ago, wasn’t gefilte fish either.
Ted Williams batted .406 and, yes, for the equine-inclined, four-legged sorts had grand races.
Me, I’ll take a graying man in the autumn of his career whipping that elegant swing and hitting a record-setting home run into the gale force winds of American racism. Henry Aaron was 40 when he whacked the home run on the Atlanta Braves’ opening day that enabled him to catch Babe Ruth. Four days later, with the Braves playing at home, he passed Ruth.
The previous year he had put up a pre-steroidal season for the ages: He hit .301 with 40 home runs and a .643 slugging percentage, higher than last year’s leaders in both leagues.
Aaron’s triumph, however, was one of spirit. He faced down death threats and a waterfall of hate mail, as Americans disgorged grotesque demons at him. “I read the letters,” he said later, “because they remind me not to be surprised or hurt. They remind me what people are really like.”
He became a baseball executive, though he never ran a club. “On the field, blacks have been able to be super giants,” he said. Later, they go “to the back of the bus again.” — MICHAEL POWELL
These days, Richard Petty — known as Nascar’s King — looks the part of the sport’s kind patriarch. At 79, he roams the garage at races, usually smiling, wearing his tall and feathered cowboy hat, dark sunglasses and belt buckle the size of a butter plate. At a glance, you’d never think that in his best season, 1967, he was as ruthless as they come.
Petty and his No. 43 Plymouth Belvedere competed in 48 races at Nascar’s top level that year, and won more than half of them — 27 in all.
He and his blue monster had 40 top-10 finishes and 38 top-fives, astonishing achievements considering that sometimes even the most skilled drivers don’t win. Racing can be unpredictable. Crashes happen. Engines blow. Tires puncture. Gas tanks run dry. Once, a sea gull even smacked into a car at the Daytona 500. (It didn’t end well for the bird or the car.)
Despite the odds, Petty, who holds the record of 200 career wins, put together a dazzling, if inexplicable, 1967 season that helped establish him as a legend.
In the same boxy car, he won on short dirt tracks and on long paved tracks. He even won 10 races in a row, a record that still stands — as does his single-season record of 27 victories.
After all this time, the King still reigns. — JULIET MACUR
It’s in the history books now: June 6, 2015, the day American Pharoah turned for home in the Belmont Stakes to a thunderous roar to complete what is considered thoroughbred racing’s holiest of grails: the Triple Crown. American Pharoah was only the 12th horse ever to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and the first since Affirmed did so in 1978.
The son of Pioneer of the Nile, American Pharoah would go on to capture the Haskell Invitational and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in dominating performances. But perhaps the colt burnished his reputation in a narrow but noble loss in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, a track known as the “graveyard of champions” for humbling such seemingly immortal horses as Affirmed and even Secretariat. American Pharoah was retired after the Classic with a record of nine victories in 11 starts and more than $8.6 million in purse earnings.
The two humans associated with American Pharoah put together a remarkable run of achievement as well. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, had won two-thirds of the Triple Crown the previous year riding California Chrome. And his trainer, Bob Baffert, followed American Pharoah with a colt named Arrogate who has won seven races in a row including the Travers, the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup. And, like American Pharoah the year before him, Arrogate was named the world’s best racehorse. — JOE DRAPE
I’m a great admirer of Westbrook’s, but I’ve seen Michael Phelps compete, and Westbrook is no Phelps. Averaging a triple-double over a season, while impressive, does not rise to the insane degree of difficulty of what Phelps pulled off at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Covering 3,300 meters in 17 races over nine days, Phelps won eight gold medals and set seven world records. All without taking a day off.
And Phelps did it against competition that was equivalent to squaring off against the Warriors every day. There were no Lakers or Suns in his path to immortality.
Phelps’s feat was so fantastic, he carried swimming out of the boondocks, where it had long presided as, well, an Oklahoma City on the sports map. He made the Water Cube feel like the capital of the entertainment world, attracting high-profile fans like President George H.W. Bush, President George W. Bush and Kobe Bryant. — KAREN CROUSE
Sorry, Folks, Westbrook Wins
Easy peasy. Westbrook has just put together the most impressive season in sports history. Consider his teammates (not one elite teammate). Consider the conference (a brutal Western Conference). Consider the era of basketball. Heck, consider the sport.
He didn’t just average a triple-double, which is impressive in its own right. He made it look routine, to the point that fans began undervaluing it. Very few professional athletes are elite in one skill. Westbrook showed that he was an elite scorer, passer and rebounder in a game in which he’s required to play both sides of the ball for, on average, 73 percent of each game over a full season.
Westbrook is the only guard to average 10 rebounds a game this season. He is one of three players to average more than 10 assists. And even if he didn’t have any of that, he’d still be leading the league in scoring.
This was more impressive than Oscar Robertson’s triple-double average in 1962, when the N.B.A.’s pace was much faster. Westbrook was accused of chasing stats this year. For the sake of conversation, let’s grant that. Who cares? Understand this: When one player gets a triple-double for one night, it’s a headline. No player in more than 50 years has been able to chase a triple-double average over a whole season.
Yes, Westbrook wasn’t that efficient. His true shooting percentage is .555. That’s not great. But he was a superstar terror in other parts of the game. Actually, in pretty much every single other part of it. — SOPAN DEB