Nba nerd

Why Don't Westbrook and Durant Have Chemistry?

The opinions almost always start like this:

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are wonderful players. So why aren't the Thunder at their best with both on the floor? 

The bolding is mine. We start with the assumption that both are great, but somehow they are not great together. Then, we spend tons of energy researching what could possibly be the reason that the Thunder don't perform well with both on the court. I have three things to say about this.

First, be wary of small samples. Last I checked, the Thunder won a lot of games with Russell Westbrook playing point guard. And yet, a lot of people are using the results of 5 playoff games (four of which went into overtime) as the basis for grand conclusions about the team's efficiency with Westbrook and Durant together. Furthermore, even if you are just using lineups and on/off data, you are talking about sample sizes that are often a few hundred minutes at best. Westbrook and Durant share lots of court time, sure, but other variables aren't held constant.

Second, many people are assuming the consequent here:

  • If Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are both great, the Thunder will win a lot of games.
  • The Thunder won a lot of games.
  • Therefore, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are both great

If a person who knew nothing about basketball read this, he'd say "Uh, there are other reasons why the Thunder could win lots of games, aren't there?" Furthermore, lots of people are begging the question (you might want to follow that link; it probably doesn't mean what you think it means (Editor Arturo's musical note: "Assumption junction what's your function") ); logic should start with the known, and try to determine the unkown. We know that the Thunder won a lot of games. Do we know that both Westbrook and Durant are wonderful players?

Which leads me to my third point: how many times do you try to pound that square peg into that round hole before you stop and question whether the damn peg is round? Maybe, just maybe, we should entertain the possibility that Russell Westbrook maybe just isn't a superstar-level talent? You want a good drinking game? Here's one: read all my past articles, and every time I bring up Occam's Razor, take a drink. Have a good long swig now because you can either follow Occam to the simplest explanation (Westbrook + Durant is not great because either at least one of them isn't "great"), you can just go on believing that an evil witch somewhere has cursed Westbrook and Durant, that both are the best players at their positions, but they will never win together because of chemistry. Whichever one helps you sleep at night.

We've been saying that Westbrook is overrated for quite some time. Note that we don't think Westbrook is a bad player -- that's not what "overrated" means. We just don't think he's so good that he should be on Olympic and World Championship teams ahead of other players, or that he should be in any all-NBA discussions, or that he deserves his max contract and special "franchise-player" 5-year extension (which each team is only allowed to use once).

Furthermore, when we look at why we think Westbrook is good, you'll see that it has nothing to do with scoring, even though this is why everyone else seems to think he's good:

  Russell Westbrook (2012-13) Russell Westbrook (2013-14) Average PG (2000 - 2014)
Position PG PG PG
Minutes 2861 1412 364
WP48 .144 .163 .099
POP48 1.4 2.0 0
Wins produced 8.6 4.8 .8
Points 31.9 34.1 20.2
Defensive rebounds 5.3 7.1 3.9
Offensive rebounds 1.9 1.9 .9
Rebounds 7.2 8.9 4.8
Assists 10.2 10.8 8.5
Turnovers 4.6 6.0 3.5
Blocks .4 .2 .3
Steals 2.4 3.0 1.9
Fouls 3.2 3.5 3.4
  Russell Westbrook (2012-13) Russell Westbrook (2013-14) Average PG (2000 - 2014)
Position PG PG PG
Field goal percentage 43.8% 43.7% 42.7%
Two point percentage 46.6% 48.2% 46.0%
Three point fg percentage 32.3% 31.8% 35.6%
Free throw percentage 80.0% 82.6% 81.0%
E field goal percentage 47.0% 48.0% 48.3%
True shooting 53.2% 54.5% 52.9%
Field goal attempts 25.8 26.9 17.1
Three point fg attempts 5.0 7.3 5.4
Free throw attempts 9.6 10.0 4.4

As you can see, relative to the average point guard, Westbrook is very good at steals, rebounds, and assists. he turns the ball over a bit much but his net possessions are positive.

However, when we look at scoring, we see a different picture: he's very close to average at scoring, but makes up for this by shooting a hell of a lot of shots per game. In fact, he leads all point guards in field goal attempts per 48 minutes by a large margin (Kyrie Irving is next at 23.8, and Stephen Curry follows at 23.3). Forget point guards, he's second in the NBA overall, behind only LaMarcus Aldridge (another very overrated scorer) and just ahead of Carmelo Anthony and teammate Durant.

Now, this is just idle speculation on my part, but maybe when you have the MVP on your roster, and his true shooting percentage is an astounding 64%, then it's a really bad idea to have an average-shooting point guard take more shots than he does. But then again, maybe I'm wielding Occam's Razor too broadly, and I'm oversimplifying.

The Second Opinion: Arturo makes a counterpoint

Nobody has ever really let Russ be russ. Let me quote myself here:

The Oklahoma City Thunder are a terribly coached team. Scott Brooks goes beyond doing the bare minimum on offense -- he actually runs sets that are detrimental to the team.

My counter-argument is that Russell Westbrook is in the worst possible situation for his mindset and skill set. People are forgetting that he was a shooting guard in college, and the Thunder converted him to a point guard. He is not a distributor or creator by nature. The natural best use for him is in a Kobe/Wade/Manu shooting guard role, where occasionally the team runs the offense through him.

Were I advising this team, I'd recommend putting a true traditional point guard out there (like say, oh, Reggie Jackson, perhaps?), and playing Russell as a two guard. It's not like we've seen KD thrive with a traditional point guard and earn the nickname Slim Reaper while doing it, right?

Russell has the mindset of a ball-dominant two guard. Having a coach that looks at that and says, "Go ahead, you run the point and make it up as you go along," is a bad idea for both him and the Thunder.

We should be amazed that even in this terrible situation, Westbrook is putting up excellent numbers. This makes me feel that if he ever actually plays with a coach who actually knows what he's doing, Russ could become what everyone thinks he already is. Unless of course, he's spent too long doing things wrong, and the bad habits are permanently embedded in his game (the clock is ticking, Mr. Presti).

In the end, I agree with Patrick, but interpret the record differently. Russell Westbrook has the potential to be a great player... but he's not (and that looks to be on his coach). 


You had me until you wanted to put Westbrook 2.0, Reggie Jackson,
at point. Jackson was recruited out of high school as a shooting guard and plays the same way as Russ. Been saying Westbrook should play shooting guard for awhile. A lot of these scoring guards from college are forced to play point in the NBA because of their size. Size matters until it doesn't.
Reggie has been able to play past his ego and distribute. He's not ideal but he did a great job when RW was down. The other option is Fisher and down that path lies madness.
Pretty sure free agents are out there. Be it in the D league, international, or just a former/recent player to plug in at point. But here is an idea play Russ away from Durant. Let Russ start since that matters to these guys for some reason but given him minutes while Durant is on the bench. Russ, Lamb, Butler, Collison, Adams could be the second unit while Jackson, Roberson, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka is the first unit. Say no to Perk and Fish.
Podcast is coming where I make this point. Use Russ like Manu.
Russ is a great player and I agree he is playing in the wrong role. I'd love too see him play in sets where he gets the ball in his prefered spots and in position to hurt the defense with his speed and power and take away the ball off his hands while setting the play up. I think okc needs a PG who can secure the ball, set up the system, and put KD, and Russ in the best spots for them. The thing is that R-Jax maybe it is overqualified for this role, leading to him making plays for his own that may be ineffective.
A lot of Westbrook's advantages are lost moving him to SG. Right now he's one of the strongest, biggest, fastest guys at his position. But at SG he's undersized (well not as much now that the SG position is so depleted). And changing his position nominally isn't going to change his tendencies on the court. So you are going to have the same player but with less mismatch potential.

BTW Team USA Westbrook was absolutely great because he stuck to just his strengths of steals, rebounds and dunking. Easy to do so when you have a team of stars who take the offense creation out of your hands.
At SG he is not undersized at all. He's 6'5" and has crazy hops. This puts him at a similar height to guys like Kobe, Manu, Tyreke Evans, Harden, Afflalo, Matthews...uh, like most of the two guards in the league.

Westbrook is 6'3". Also, are people saying Westbrook and Durant don't do well together? Maybe this season's small sample where Westbrook was coming back from injury and took a while to get going, but in the past they've been great together. I'd still like to see Durant play with a less selfish PG though, preferably away from oklahoma city...
So...RW isn't really a great player, but could be? When Brad Stevens was hired he remarked that analytics could tell us where a player is but doesn't tell us where they could be. Maybe we can get a post about tweaking a given player's game to change them from average-to-good-to-great. For example, Kendall Marshall's A/TO ratio was stellar but WOW tells us he's middle of the pack. Is he a diamond in the rough?
He's 6'3" but I still agree with Patrick. He can guard twos well enough and his physical gifts are enough to give the vast majority of two guards a lot of problems.
Marshall is young though so...
.150 WP/48 seems pretty good, I've got to side with the anti-Brooks folks.
Maybe Russ just isn't coachable enough, maybe he plays poorly when he doesn't get to jack up so many shots, but we've got no idea, because Brooks doesn't seem to have tried reigning him in at all.

I can't imagine many other coaches allowing any player to take more shots than KD.
Didn't we have a similar discussion a few years ago when Westbrook got a max and some of us were saying that it should have been saved for Harden because he was a better facilitator? Of course, Harden used to play defense in those days but oh well. I agree that Westbrook is playing out of position mostly because I don't think his shot is good enough to take advantage of a simple pick and roll like Curry or Harden are able to. I'd say a comparison to Wade is a very good one. Of course, Wade/Bryant have never really been able to overcome their bad impulses to shoot bad shots except for Bryant in brief sessions when the Zen Master employed an army of hypnotists to convince him to play intelligent basketball.

The one thing you didn't mention as a major positive that Westbrook brings is his ability to draw fouls (I suspect his shooting numbers would look much worse if they actually included shots that don't go in after a foul). This ability is what has made some players like Kobe/Wade/Harden successful and it is one of the reasons that I think Westbrook could be much better if they ever installed a semi-competent offense. Move him off-ball for more possessions with lots of backside screens and cuts to the rim. If a Durant/Collison pick and roll is occurring strong side and you had Westbrook being active weak-side, then I think you would see more of this team's potential.
Harden's defense is the cool thing to say nowadays but his offense is really bad. Small samples...
After some thinking...

1 - I agree with the anti-Brooks comment. Westbrook is not being used properly. I'm not convinced he can't run the point. I am convinced he is not being coached properly to run the point. He might also be a better 2-guard.

2 - More to the point regarding Brooks, however, is this: Carlisle has shown, in Dallas, how far you can go by intelligently distributing the minutes of players (this may be Carlisle's greatest strength). Brooks is the anti-Carlisle in this respect. If you drew up the least efficient minutes distribution possible, ignoring the outlier cases that would immediately get coaches fired (like don't play Durant at all), I suspect Brooks' lineups come much closer to them than Carlisle.

When your coach is playing lineups that look like what you would put together as a bad joke (let's play all our offensively challenged guys at the same time; let's play our best two offensive creators together but only allow one of them the ball; let's overplay Perkins, especially when the other team doesn't have a monster low-post offensive player; finally, just to really piss people off, let's give serious minutes to a PG who is eligible to join AARP this offseason), I suspect a lot of the problem is coaching.

3 - What this leads me to, however, is this: Westbrook, in his "ideal" form, is probably a much different player. More like a combo-guard who can wreak havoc on teams than a primary ballhandler, so either you play him at the point but need another exceptional creator to run the offense through (pair him with Noah or some such?), or you play him at 2-guard with a traditional PG, but stagger minutes such that you maximize the time you have one of Durant/Westbrook on the floor. In fact, in most games which are contested, there should not be a single minute where one of those two players is not on the floor for OKC.

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