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).