A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Is Russell Westbrook’s talent level overrated?

with 2 comments

Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11

Wizards v/s Thunder 03/14/11 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I tried to make a list of the 30-40 most talented 25 and under players, using my talent grading system. I may not post it. My apprehension is that a large number of the players are too closely graded, making it hard to rank one over the other.

However I will say that if I do post it, Russell Westbrook will be ranked lower than you can imagine. Now, by making it onto the list, Westbrook is still a blue chip talent. Some other players I gave a similar grade include Chandler Parsons, Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday, Larry Sanders, Mike Conley, Jr. to name a few. All excellent talents, but in a tier below superstar, perennial all-star talent, which many believe Westbrook has.

As a talent Westbrook has a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. In what I call “physical impact talent”, Westbrook may be as gifted as any PG in NBA history. Westbrook is one of the most athletic specimens in all of sports, pairing that explosiveness with a strong body. Add in elite ballhandling and he’s as dynamic as it gets in the NBA, for skills attacking the basket off the dribble. In both the halfcourt and transition he puts relentless pressure on the opponent that defines the pace of the game.

However, the above only makes up 1/3 of what I use to rate talent. Where my doubts about Westbrook’s talent lie is the other 2/3.

My “skill impact (shoot, post, pass) talent” category treats shooting range as key, in addition to passing or post skills if a player has them. Westbrook is an average shooter at best for a PG. With a career 3P% of .302 and 0.6 3PM/2.1 3PA split, including .321 3P last year and 1.2 3PM/3.7 3PA, his outside shooters are weak – especially considering that with the defenses worrying about Westbrook’s slashing and Kevin Durant, those 3 point shots are likely to be open. Westbrook’s career 81.4% FT rate is respectable for a PG.

With that said, Westbrook is at least a decent passer and his size gives him post potential against smaller defenders.

In this category, I’d rate Westbrook from average to slightly above average.

The final category I look at is “feel for the game talent”, or to put it another way, instincts. Russell’s decision making and awareness of teammates has been criticized throughout his career. Fluidity and control is the biggest smoking guns I look for in feel for the game. Westbrook does not have fluidity that stands out and at times, can look out of control driving to the basket. I’d rate Westbrook from average to slightly below average in feel for the game.

In short, this combination – all time great physical impact tools, but average skill and feel for the game, does not rate as a superstar talent by my system. I do have Derrick Rose on that next level of talent because I see his feel for the game as elite, showing great fluidity and control – while his skills and physical talents are similar to Westbrook’s. Stephen Curry is an all time great shooter with an elite feel for the game, making up for a weakness physically. Rajon Rondo is an elite athlete with an elite feel for the game, but struggles to shoot, albeit making it up with exceptional passing skills. Those players are elite in 2 categories and average in another by my grading, while Westbrook is elite in 1 and average in 2.

Mike Conley, Jr. is obviously physically inferior to Westbrook, however he is a better shooter (.362 3P last year on 3.7 3PA) and is a more controlled, fluid and feel for the game friendly player. Jrue Holiday doesn’t shoot any better than Westbrook, but also has a high feel for the game, in addition to a great combination of speed and strength superior to Conley, but inferior to Westbrook. It makes sense to me that their feel for the game/fluidity talent, or shooting in Conley’s case, would make up for what Westbrook has over them physically.

Ricky Rubio is something of an inverse Westbrook. He has a feel for the game that is truly special – genius, arguably. However with just decent athleticism and serious shooting/touch problems, the “other 2/3s” for him is also a problem.

At other positions, Westbrook’s teammate Serge Ibaka compares favorably to him as a talent, for me. Ibaka has elite athleticism and length, helping him physically impact the game. Struggling to put the ball on the floor hurts his ability to attack the basket. He has a great jumpshot for a PF, better range than what Westbrook has for a PG. However, I likewise do not see more than average feel for the game. He at times can look stiff instead of natural and uses athleticism more than positional instincts to defend.

Now whether you take any of the above as meaningful is up to you. However it poses another question. How can I justify saying this, when Westbrook’s production can (seemingly) only be reached by a superstar talent? There are different methods of evaluating production of course, some may trust his 23.2ppg, 7.4apg, 5.2rpg as meaningful, whereas I’m more impressed by his combination of volume (25.08 possessions/game, using FGA+0.44*FTA+TOV) and above average efficiency (111 ORTG, league average 105.9). Others may point to that he helps spearhead one of the best offenses and teams in the league.

Either way, it’s hard to argue Westbrook isn’t a superstar talent, if he’s producing like one.

My argument against this is unreliable context. In other words, there could be a Kevin Durant effect. Durant is a rare type of superstar offensively, enough that it’s reasonable to present that Westbrook, among other Thunder players like Serge Ibaka, Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, may benefit in the efficiency category from it.

And certainly, if Westbrook had been traded to his own team last summer, my initial reaction would’ve been “watch out above for falling shooting percentage”. With the extra defensive attention on him, I’d have actively expected that efficiency to fall below the league average rate of 105.9. His TS% of .532 last year is already below average, it may have dripped dangerously to .50 on his own team. Both of this would have made it reasonable to call him a blue chip, but flawed talent.

This isn’t entirely fair, of course. To call out Westbrook’s efficiency for falling, when he’s never had the chance to prove that won’t happen. My point is more to present reasonable doubt. That just because Westbrook has star numbers, doesn’t mean he has to be a superstar talent.

And frankly, it’s not that big of a deal to be ‘only’ as talented as a player like Mike Conley, Jr. or Chandler Parsons or his teammate Serge Ibaka, if he is. Westbrook is an excellent talent and with Ibaka, Sefolosha, Collision, Jackson, etc., along with Jeremy Lamb, who I feel has superstar talent – the Thunder still have a stacked team around Kevin Durant.

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Written by jr.

September 14, 2013 at 8:41 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Interesting article. However, I have to disagree with where you rank him. Personally I feel he deserves to be up amongst the elite point guards. First and foremost is his PER. At 23.9 it is higher than Stephen Curry or Rajon Rondo. His stats have also improved every year, and 7.4 assists was good for 7th in the league. Finally, he clocked in at over 11 win shares this year, more than any of the players you chose to compare him with. Thoughts?

    spencerflynt

    September 14, 2013 at 10:49 pm

    • Yes, I agree Westbrook’s numbers are elite. The article is about his talent level being one tier below that

      julienrodger

      September 15, 2013 at 10:23 am


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