Russell Westbrook vs. Magic Johnson: Who Was Better At Age 26?

Magic Johnson is the all-time leader in assists per game, having notched 11.2 per contest over a total of 13 seasons (counting an abortive comeback attempt in 1996.) He flirted with averaging a triple-double in the 1981-82 season, averaging 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, and 9.5 assists a game that year. Indeed, the popularization of the triple-double as a stat worth reporting in the basketball news was thanks largely to the need reporters had to find a way to properly glorify Magic’s versatility.

Russell Westbrook will probably not be the all-time leader in anything by the time he retires except possibly for usage rate. He averages a triple-double and dishes out assists, but he is never seen as making his teammates better; indeed, he will never be seen as half the teammate Magic Johnson was. Yet his stats? They’re right out of the Magic Johnson collection.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar once said of Magic Johnson that “he could shoot three shots and still have a huge impact on the game”; indeed, Johnson was not a volume shooter, averaging only 13.2 field goal attempts a game for his career (on which he scored a remarkably efficient 19.5 points.)

But still, if you want historically great stat sheet stuffers, you’ve really only got two guys to haul out, Magic and Oscar Robertson, and enough ink’s been spilled comparing Russ to Big O. We’re going to take Westbrook’s best statistical season to date, the 2014-15 season, when he put up the second-highest usage rate in league history thanks to a Kevin Durant injury, and we’re going to compare it against Magic’s age 26 year, 1985-86. Whose cuisine reigns supreme?

(Note: This article originally appeared February 15, 2017.)

The Big Questions

How do you like your scorers? Volume (Westbrook’s 28.1 points on 22.0 FGA per game and 42.6 percent shooting)? Or super-efficient (Magic’s 18.8 on 12.8 and 52.6?)

Do you prefer a good assist-to-turnover ratio (Magic’s 12.6 assists and 3.8 turnovers a game, for 3.32 dimes per giveaway)? Or do you allow for the fact that Magic’s teammates weren’t dog crap shooters the way the 2014-15 Thunder without Durant were (Westbrook’s 8.6-to-4.4 but with a 47.0 assist percentage against Magic’s 45.1)?

And speaking of turnovers, do you care more about simply not committing them (Magic: 3.8 per game, Russ: 4.4) or committing them on fewer possessions (Magic: 19.8 turnover percentage, Russ: 14.3)?

How about free throws? Both guys were great at getting to the line (FT rate for Magic: .473, Russ: .445) but Magic shot them better (87.1 vs. 83.5 percent).

The Elephant in the Room

Magic’s Lakers were, with him as a key component, the best team in the 1980s (sorry Celtics fans, LA won five titles, including two head-to-head matchups out of three with the Celtics, and went to a total of nine NBA Finals during Johnson’s career; the Celtics under Bird won three titles, only one of which was against their nemesis (they beat the Houston Rockets in the other two Finals), and went to a total of only five championship series.

Westbrook’s Thunder went to one Finals (2012, losing to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in five games) and, thanks in part to the James Harden trade, no more. In their age 26 seasons, Westbrook watched the playoffs on television while Magic and company lost the Western Conference Finals to that same Rockets team that proved the difference between what happened in history and what would otherwise have been four straight years of LA and Boston going head-to-head in June.

THE VERDICT!

Look, we’re fans of what Russ is doing here at Pace and Space. Anyone who can rack up not only gaudy counting stats, but historically un-freaking-believable counting stats that, if scaled to 1962 pace of play, would be the greatest statistical season of all time, is our kind of player.

But c’mon, man. Not only does Magic gain a slight edge in just about every advanced stat you’d care to name, he also had the context of being the straw that stirred the drink on one of the greatest dynasties ever assembled, a team that was such a fixture come playoff time that they only failed to make the NBA Finals three times in Johnson’s pre-HIV-diagnosis 12-year career.

Russell Westbrook is good. He was very good in 2014-15 when it was mainly his team and he had his best statistical season prior to this year. But at age 26? He was nowhere close to Magic Johnson. This one really isn’t close.

THE WINNER: Magic Johnson, by a very large margin.