Is Russell Westbrook going to play for the Oklahoma City Thunder the entire 2016-17 season? I have no idea. Should Westbrook be traded? Again, I have no idea. Is it time for #0 to be the unquestioned alpha on an NBA team? Absolutely it is.
Nonetheless, before explaining my thesis, I need to briefly address the first two questions. The answer is, in fact, quite simple: if Westbrook signals he will not stay in Oklahoma City past 2016-17 then the Thunder must trade him. Nevertheless, David Aldridge wrote a masterful piece regarding the Oklahoma City Thunder and Russell Westbrook. I will detail the important aspects below.
It’s important to note, Russell Westbrook will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason, and he has been linked to the Los Angeles Lakers since he was drafted. Westbrook loves Los Angeles, and more importantly, would have quite the homecoming if he went to the Lakers. Secondly, there are a plentiful amount of rumors suggesting that part of the reason why Durant departed Oklahoma City is because he knew that Westbrook may want to leave next offseason. This is why the Thunder must do their due-diligence regarding Russ. Yet, as Aldridge notes, the Thunder believe Westbrook’s bulldog mentality will result in him letting Sam Presti and the rest of Oklahoma City’s management know ahead of time if he plans to depart. The full quote is below:
Consequently, the Thunder do not believe Westbrook currently wants to leave, and sources inside the organization have faith that he will let them know if he begins leaning towards eventual departure. Thus, one final question. Should the Thunder trade Russell regardless if he wants to stay or leave in an attempt to rebuild? My answer, as will be explained in the rest of this article, is a resounding no.
To begin to prove why Westbrook is a solid piece to build around, I will begin by sharing parts of an article I wrote during the Thunder’s first round series versus the Mavericks. Afterwards, I will add more analysis.
Let’s begin the analysis by looking at just how good Westbrook has been this season. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN recently wrote an article on this very topic. In one chart he compares Westbrook’s season to that of triple-double machine Oscar Robertson.
Figure 1 via Tom Haberstroh of ESPN.com
What Figure 1 shows, consequently, is that Russell Westbrook’s 2015-16 season – when adjusted for possessions played per game – is actually more impressive than Oscar Robertson’s 1961-62 “triple-double” season.
Furthermore, Westbrook happens to be arguably the best playmaker in the NBA. He creates shots for himself and for others.
Figure 2 via Nylon Calculus
This means that in plays which he contributed to the end possession, Russell Westbrook scores on 47% of these plays, passes on 43%, and turns the ball over on 9.6%. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, Westbrook ranks in the top-12 wing players in playmaking true-shooting percentage. This is in comparison to Durant, who predominantly benefits his team by scoring.
Because of this, the Thunder’s best five-man lineup during the 2015-16 season, in terms of pace adjusted box score, is Westbrook-Morrow-Roberson-Ibaka-Adams. Coincidently, no Kevin Durant. This is because, when Westbrook is given ample time to develop with three-and-D players, the team can be very effective. Moreover, in the twelve lineups given in the link above, Kevin Durant only appears without Westbrook in one: the worst. Westbrook makes his teammates better, and perhaps even does so without Durant.
Arguably, #0 is the best playmaker in the modern NBA. Yet, many have levied the criticism that Russ can do this because of Durant, and would be unable to do so without him. Therefore, I attempted to look at Russ’s numbers during the 2014-15 season, of which he played primarily without Durant, in an effort to examine how good this superstar can be without his sidekick.
First, it is important to examine if Russ’s playmaking ability still exists without KD. Let’s look at his assist percentages during the 2014-15 season:
Figure 3 Stats via NBA.com/stats
What this table shows is the top-five point guards in terms of the percentage of a team’s assists that they create. For example, Chris Paul was responsible for 44.6% of his team’s assists during the 2014-15 season, the highest in the NBA. Here, Russ ranks third, at 43%. Additionally, when consulting assist-to-pass percentage, or the amount of passes a player makes that result in assists, #0 also ranks third. However, out of the five players listed, Westbrook scored the highest percentage of his team’s points by over thirteen percent. Consequently, while Westbrook may not be as great of a playmaker as Chris Paul, he still was beyond effective at it without Durant. And moreover, Russ was a significantly better scorer than any of the players mentioned in the aforementioned chart.
Essentially, when Durant was injured in 2013-14, Westbrook maintained his role as an elite playmaker and scorer. Nonetheless, we must ask if Russ’s on-court dominance resulted in success for the Thunder?
Put simply, there have only been eight players in NBA history to average over twenty minutes per game, a usage percentage – or the amount of plays that are run through/via a specific player – over 35%, and a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) over twenty-five (or the amount of efficiency required to be “elite”). Out of those eight players, Russ has the highest Box Plus-Minus (BPM), or a box score-based metric for evaluating basketball players’ quality and contribution to the team via regression analysis. Let’s examine the chart below for further validation:
Figure 6 via Basketball-Reference
Consequently, by BPM, Russell Westbrook produced the greatest season of all-time in 2014-15, which was the one season he played mainly without Durant. Moreover, due to the nature of regression analysis present in this metric, he provided more for his team than players such as Dwyane Wade, Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and Kobe Bryant did during their greatest individual seasons.
Thus, this narrative that Westbrook is an inefficient chucker who has benefited due to being partnered with a historically great player is false. #0 is a superb talent whose talent is deserving of being an NBA alpha. And consequently, the best thing to come out of Durant’s decision to go to Golden State may, in fact, be that we get to watch Russell Westbrook play as the unquestioned leader of whatever team he is playing for.