Before last Thursday night’s game (broadcasted on TNT) between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Charles Barkley made a comment about something that has become a rather popular sentiment among NBA watchers on the Thunder’s star duo – and in particular Russell Westbrook.
The Thunder lost the game in a rather disparaging fashion, making a few questionable plays both offensively and defensively at the end of the game after holding the lead (and the ball) in the final minute of the game.
Similar to the Scott Brooks days, the Thunder still suffer from late-game execution woes, so-so decisions in crucial moments, and their go-to sets aren’t the stuff of basketball dreams. Those issues, however, can be separately tackled, examined and fixed with a mix of better decisions all the way from the coaching staff to the players on the court.
The crux of the question is… Do Westbrook and Kevin Durant make their teammates better? By looking at the on/off-court data, we can see how their teammates perform with and without them on the court to try and answer this question.
First, it should be noted that the Thunder have been an incredible team and a heavyweight candidate, if not the favorite at times, to win the NBA championship when Durant and Westbrook have been together on the court and healthy at the same time. It’s almost impossible to imagine a team that is so good that they can trade James Harden for a role player (Steven Adams), and almost nothing else (some minutes of Kevin Martin and Jeremy Lamb) and still check every box a title contender statistically typically does.
In their first season without Harden in 2012-13, the Thunder ranked first in net rating, outscoring opponents by 11.0 points per 100 possessions – net rating being the best simple predictor of future success and championship odds – and a mark on par with last season’s Warriors. Oklahoma City was eliminated in the second round that season after losing Westbrook to a torn right meniscus.
In 2013-14, the Thunder ranked third in net rating, despite Westbrook missing half the season. And after the All-Star break, when Westbrook and Durant were on the court, the Thunder outscored opponents by 9.9 points per 100 possessions, which would have been the best mark out of any team for the full season. Once again they ran into bad luck, though, as Ibaka’s injury derailed them in the Western Conference finals against the eventual champ San Antonio.
And we all remember Durant’s injuries last season.
The point is the Thunder have been awesome with their top guys healthy, and there isn’t a team in the NBA that could withstand an injury to one of its Top 3 players and still win the championship. Over the past five or six seasons, there have been four teams who, over a span of multiple years, have had statistical profiles that scream ‘NBA championship’ – the LeBron-era Heat, Spurs after getting Kawhi Leonard, the last two seasons of the Warriors, and the Thunder.
The Thunder are the only team not to win a chip.
This season, the trend has continued. Oklahoma City is amazing with Durant and Westbrook on the court, outscoring teams by over 12.0 points per 100 possessions with either one on the floor. Without the oft-criticized Westbrook, they’ve been outscored by 8.7 points per 100 possessions, a differential that is equivalent to the difference in net rating between the San Antonio Spurs and the Philadelphia 76ers.
Westbrook and Durant make the team better because they are both incredible players. Superstars, however, need to transcend just the value they create with their own production and elevate others around them.
One way to look at this is to answer the question “Are they making the game easier for their teammates?” by looking at shooting percentages with Durant and Westbrook off the court. If teammates are being more efficient, it means they’re getting better looks and are in better positions to succeed.
The results are generally positive, though a bit of a mixed bag. It should be noted that some players haven’t played huge minutes together, leading to some issues with sample size. True shooting percentage takes into account both free throws and the value of three-pointers, added on top of a player’s typical efficiency numbers.
Five of the nine Thunder players with the most minutes have been more efficient with Durant and Westbrook on the court, and two have been pretty much the same. Serge Ibaka has been inefficient with Durant and Westbrook, which isn’t a great sign and something to look at further.
The answer here probably is that Durant and Westbrook generally help their teammates get better looks and make the game easier for them on offense, but the Thunder can do more to make them even more effective. Just running high pick-and-rolls with the star duo is deadly, and because defenders are scared to death to leave Durant on the perimeter, Westbrook gets open driving lanes where teammates can find openings either at the three-point line and at the baseline for dump-off passes.
There’s no reason for the Thunder to go away from this late in games, and it was disappointing to see them not run anything in the final minutes against the Heat.
Whatever complaints you can have about Westbrook, it should be made clear that they’re around the edges and that 95 percent of analysis about him should highlight how he changes the game in positive ways.
However, there are 3-4 possessions Westbrook torpedoes every game by taking ill-advised contested jumpers early in the clock or by barreling into the lane without a plan. Every edge you can get counts, and if you want to challenge the Warriors this season, it really is a “no mistakes allowed” situation.
Most of the critique thrown Westbrook’s way is about his offense, but defensively is where he needs to improve the most. Westbrook plays with incredible effort and intensity, but smart teams are able to turn that aggressiveness against him for back cuts. On pick-and-rolls, head fakes can get Westbrook to overcommit and jump in the wrong direction. Westbrook makes too many mistakes and simple mental lapses that allow easy scores for the opponents.
Westbrook allows Wade to leak out in transition
NBA analysts often talk about “putting players in positions to succeed”. Often that saying is used for offense, but defensively it’s just as important – knowing where you’re supposed to force your man towards the help man and playing within the team concept so that everyone is a on a string and knows how to execute rotations. Westbrook has been more a part of the problem than the solution defensively during the past few seasons, and that’s where he can make the biggest difference right now.
Barkley isn’t wrong when he says that both Westbrook and Durant can do more, but it’s also wrong to say that they absolutely can’t win a championship. And in many ways the Thunder have been profoundly unlucky to have not made it back to the NBA finals.
Unfortunately, the 2015-16 NBA season is a different beast for any team trying to win a championship, and even if the Thunder are the best version of themselves they can be, and it may not matter. The best team in NBA history is playing right now in the league, and it’s the Warriors’ world and we’re all just living in it.
* Statistical support provided by the wonderful tools at nbawowy.com.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.