Russell Westbrook has a torn lateral meniscus and is out for the season. The Oklahoma City Thunder were without him for the first time since they were the Thunder. Because they’ve never been without him, it’s been easy to nitpick his game, ignore what he brings and diminish his value. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
Westbrook is not flawless. He will throw up bad shots when he should pass. He can be too reckless. He plays with a kind of brashness and confidence that can rub opposing fans the wrong way. However, because he has flaws, it’s important that he not be defined by his flaws.
He does a lot of good things, too. In fact he does so many good things that he’s one of the 10 best players in the league, and top-10 players tend to have a positive impact on their teams, even if the best player on their team is the second-best player in the world.
The media, in particular certain ESPN morning shows, need to invent controversies where there aren’t any, and one of their favorites is this supposed rivalry between Westbrook and Kevin Durant. It’s not there. They like each other and support each other as evidenced by this tweet from Westbrook after Durant’s 17-point outburst to start the first quarter of Game 3.
That’s part of the problem with the Westbrook analysis. Every bad shot he takes is viewed by some as a shot that Durant should have taken, and it is presumed that if Durant could have taken it, he would have made it.
This is overly simplistic for three reasons. First, it assumes that every shot Westbrook misses, Durant would have taken (and made). Second, it presumes that every shot that Durant takes is free of influence from Westbrook. Third, it negates every other player on the team taking the shot.
Viewing Westbrook’s impact on the team can’t be viewed just through a prism of “either” Westbrook “or” Durant. It has to be viewed as the team with Westbrook or the team without Westbrook, and when we look at that, it’s a startling difference in how much better the offense is while he is on the court.
The following chart, which shows the various traditional positive statistics per 48 minutes, reveals how much better the Thunder are while Westbrook is on the court.
Literally the only thing they don’t do quite as well is stealing. They score more, pass more, rebound more and get more blocks.
But some question the value of traditional statistics, so here is a comparison of the offense with Westbrook on and off the court.
As you can see, even with the advanced stats, literally in every phase of the offensive game, the Thunder are better while Westbrook is piloting the team. There simply is just too much valid data to even question that. There is no question as to whether they are better, only as to why they are better.
The reason is the way that Westbrook plays the game, which is a far cry from antiquated notions of what a point guard “should” do. He drives the lane and kicks the ball out or scores.
Even with advanced stats, there are problems because they still stick with pretty broad assumptions. For example, assist percentage can tell you what percent of a team’s field goals are made off a player’s pass, but they can’t tell you how the shooter got open for the pass. They don’t tell you why there was an assist.
Did he just lose his man? Did he just shoot over his man? Did he run through a screen? Did his man leave him to help defense? Those can be really different things, because it changes how much credit different players should get for that score.
I bring this up because there is a misconception concerning Westbrook. According to STAT LLC stats, which tracks every detail of the game, when Westbrook drives to the rim, he passes the ball out about half of the time. It also shows that the Thunder score more than 1.2 points per play when he drives.
Here, Westbrook goes for the dunk, but when he gets into the lane looks to both of the corner threes and sees how open the shooters are. This is a dribbler creating an assist opportunity. And while Westbrook doesn't pass here, he does half the time, and it's a big part of why the Thunder are such a prolific offense.
Let’s not confuse things here. The Thunder are not one of those offenses that are an offense by design. They are an offense by a pair of superstars, who in spite of a somewhat prevalent misguided notion, work very well together. It can be summed up in four words. “Westbrook drives, Durant shoots.”
Because they are both arguably the best in the league at those two things, they are highly successful. When Westbrook drives, defenses collapse in on him. When they do, they leave his shooters open, most importantly Durant. Westbrook then does one of four things.
He’ll take a good shot, turn it over, draw a foul or kick it out. The least frequent of those options is to turn it over. The most frequent is to kick it out. And this is validated by looking at the Thunder's shooting percentages by range when Westbrook is on the court.
Notice how much better the Thunder shoot while Westbrook is on the court? You could argue, accurately, they aren’t as efficient inside. That doesn’t take into account Westbrook’s propensity to draw fouls though. The Thunder score three more points per 48 minutes off of free throws with Westbrook playing. The majority of those come off of Westbrook being fouled on the way into the lane.
Will Westbrook's absence from the lineup vindicate Westbrook or prove he's been limiting Durant?
This even has an impact on Durant, as his three-point shooting falls from 42.2 percent when the pair are together to 37.8 percent when Durant is on alone. Westbrook’s driving thins the defense for the whole team, even Kevin Durant. In the postseason he’s been 2-of-11 from deep without Westbrook, and one of those shots took seven bounces to go in.
In the team’s first game without Westbrook, it was apparent they weren’t getting what he brings to the table. Yes, Durant scored 41 points, but it was the seventh-worst shooting performance in postseason history by a 40-point scorer. It was 41 points, but it wasn’t a pretty 41 points.
Overall the team shot just .379 from the field, their fourth-worst shooting performance of the season, which came against the defensively average Houston Rockets. After an impressive start with 49 points in just 15 minutes, they only scored 55 points over the last 33. The offense was floundering.
When the Thunder start facing better defenses, the game will not be as easy for Durant to generate points, albeit inefficient ones. And when they do, the silver lining will be that Westbrook finally gets the appreciation he deserves.
Unless otherwise linked, all stats are from NBA.com/STATS, media account required for access.