Is Russell Westbrook Really Holding Kevin Durant Back?

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Is Russell Westbrook Really Holding Kevin Durant Back?

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are arguably the best paring of stars in the NBA right now. Together they’ve guided the Thunder to the NBA Finals. Yet, in spite of their success there are remarkably polarizing differences between them.

The two have very different personalities. Durant is soft-spoken and humble. He wears a backpack.

Westbrook is loud and arrogant. He wears clothes that would make Craig Sager cringe.

Generally speaking, soft-spoken and humble is more likable than loud and arrogant. Durant is inherently more likeable than Westbrook, and the vivid contrast makes the distinction even more pronounced.

So when things happen like last season’s tiff between the two, it was easy to make Westbrook the target of the criticism.  When the Thunder struggled against the Heat in the Finals, Westbrook bore the brunt of the criticism.

Because of his exuberant personality, critics' antiquated notions of what a “pure” point guard is and their failure to even show a cursory interest in what the stats indicate, Westbrook has been unfairly labeled as “the problem” with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

One of the big criticisms is that Westbrook is shooting more frequently than Durant, and that since Durant is the leading scorer in the NBA, he should be taking more shots than Westbrook. This is exacerbated by the notion that, as the point guard, Westbrook should be more concerned with distributing the ball than shooting it.

While both of these criticisms are sound in their logic, does the evidence support the thesis?

Basketball is both a nuanced game and an evolving one. One can’t assume that had Durant taken the shots that Westbrook misses, the Thunder would fare better. Nor does it automatically follow that if Westbrook were more of a “passing point guard,” the Thunder would be a better team.

What happens when you test the thesis against the reality? Do the suppositions hold up?

Since the biggest criticism is that Westbrook shoots more than Durant, let’s start by looking at what happens when Westbrook shoots more than Durant. 

This season, when Westbrook shoots more than Durant, the Thunder are more likely to win than when Durant shoots more than Westbrook. But is this season an anomaly, or is it the rule?

If you go back through the last three seasons combined, including the regular season and postseason, the duo have played 259 total games together. Here is how they break down by results.

The surprising thing here is that while Durant has taken the greater number of shots slightly more frequently, the Thunder have more wins when Westbrook has been the more aggressive shooter.

One possible explanation for this is that Durant is prolific both at getting to the line and making shots once he’s there. This means that shots he would have taken aren’t accounted for. So if we look at who scores more, and not just at who shoots more, will that make a difference?

The chart on the left reflects the winning percentage of the Thunder when both players shoot more. The chart on the right reflects the whole numbers. As you can see, while Durant is far more likely to be the leading scorer, surprisingly, the Thunder are slightly more likely to win when Westbrook is the leading scorer.

Add to that the fact that the Thunder are 21-3 this season when Westbrook has outscored Durant, and it makes it very difficult to vilify Westbrook for being a scorer.

The notion of a point guard whose sole role is to distribute the ball is antiquated. The rules have changed, and the role of the point guard has changed with it. As the league has slowly changed the rules to allow for a more open game, the point guard has become more of a scoring position.

Over the first 50 years of NBA history, 48 guards managed seasons when they averaged 20 points and seven assists per game. Since the 1995 season, the first year without legal hand checks, it’s been accomplished 47 times.

You can’t judge a 2013 point guard by what was expected from a 1963 point guard. The question isn’t whether the Thunder can win with Westbrook scoring. Obviously they can, because they have. The question is whether he sometimes gets so caught up in scoring that it detracts from his passing.

In order to determine that, let’s break his games up into four areas: when he has more and less than five assists, and when he has more or less than 15 field-goal attempts.

Here are the raw numbers and the results in those games.

He is far more likely to take 15 or more shots, and he is even more likely to accrue five assists in a game. In both cases when he does, the Thunder have a very good chance of winning the game. It is interesting that the Thunder are more likely to win when he takes 14 or fewer shots and are far more likely to lose when has fewer than four assists. That would seem to validate the criticism.

However, of the 70 games in which he had fewer than 14 shots, the Thunder won by double-digits in 33 of those games. In other words, it’s more likely that he took fewer shots because they were winning than that they were winning because he took fewer shots. Oklahoma City is 23-11 when he takes fewer than 15 shots in games decided by single-digits, which is consistent with what he does with more than 15 shots.

Also, what this does not reveal is what happens when you combine factors—i.e. when he takes a lot of shots and gets fewer assists, which would be an indication of whether he is falling in love with his shot and not passing the ball.

Here’s what happens when we look at the integrated factors.

What we see here is that the most frequent occurrence is Westbrook both shooting and passing the ball with frequency; in fact, he’s taken at least 15 shots and completed five assists in 150 of the Thunder’s games, a total of 58.6 percent of the time.

There is some fodder for the Westbrook critics to seize on here. The Thunder are “only” 19-19 when he takes 15 or more shots and has fewer than five assists. Of course, that only accounts for 14.8 percent of the Thunder’s total games over the span.

Based on the Thunder’s overall winning percentage over the last three years, this suggests Westbrook has “cost” the Thunder about four games in that span. At most, you can blame about 1.3 losses per season on Westbrook. He easily accounts for more wins than that.

This suggests that Westbrook is not hurting the Thunder by his shooting—in fact, it shows he’s helping them.

But is Durant taking a hit in his scoring because of Westbrook’s shooting? Surprisingly, the opposite is true.

No fancy charts are needed here. Over the last three years, when Westbrook takes 14 or fewer shots, Durant averages 25.18 points per game. When Westbrook takes at least 15 shots, Durant averages 28.8 points.

It’s counterintuitive, but it is at least statistically true. Westbrook’s shooting makes Durant a better scorer.

When you consider the types of scorers the two players are, it shouldn’t be surprising. Westbrook is a player with tremendous speed and explosiveness. He’s arguably the fastest player in the game from the three-point line to the rim.

Kevin Durant is a tremendous jump shooter. Over the last three years, according to basketball-reference.com’s Shot Finder, he has the most assisted jumpers made of any player in the NBA: 760.

He’s a tremendous offensive player, but the general convention on guarding him is to body him up and play him close off the ball. His slight frame works against him, and if he can’t get open, he can’t get the ball, and even Durant needs the ball to score.

When Westbrook is being aggressive, it commands defensive attention. Defenders have to cheat towards the rim because of Westbrook’s explosiveness, which in turn forces them to leave Durant. And when they do, Westbrook finds Durant, and the result is lethal.

Watch exactly that happen here, as Westbrook creates an open shot for Durant, then hits him for the three to complete a triple-double.

But if Westbrook never takes that shot, never dunks the ball or never pulls up and hits the jumper, opponents aren’t going to leave Durant to defend a player who isn’t going to score. Westbrook needs to be a threat to make Durant a threat.

The reality is that Durant actually gets the ball more when Westbrook is shooting. The fallacy the critics have in their thinking is in assuming the “extra” shots Westbrook is taking are being taken “from” Durant. The reality is that they are being “taken away” from the other, less prolific scorers on the team.

Numbers don’t always tell the whole story. But they always tell a big part of the story, and they certainly tell a large part of the Westbrook and Durant story. They show that the players make each other better; the team thrives because of it. 

 

Note: All data used in charts is from analysis compiled from standard game logs. 

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