A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

Looking at Russell Westbrook’s talent imperfections in the wake of Kevin Durant’s injury

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It was announced today Kevin Durant has a foot fracture and will be out 6-8 weeks. The first thought for many is what it means for Russell Westbrook’s season. Last year Kevin Durant thrived statistically with the increased responsibility while Westbrook was injured, now the situation is reversed. Another historical comparison is when Shaquille O’Neal missed the first month and a half of the 1995-1996 season, which Penny Hardaway responded to spectacularly including averaging a 27ppg, 5.8reb, 6.5apg on 51% shooting in the November to open the season.

Westbrook’s supporters feel giving him the ball as a #1 option will unleash an MVP-caliber stat line that proves him as one of the best players in the league. The pessimistic side is wondering if defenses guarding Westbrook as a #1 option will cause him to shoot his way to poor %s from the field.

I’ve had the belief for a while Westbrook’s talent level is not as high as his reputation. He is still a very very talented point guard and gets the most out of his talent with effort level. But when it comes to talent I put him in a similar tier as players like Mike Conley, Jr. and Kyle Lowry mores than a Chris Paul or Stephen Curry.

Westbrook’s strengths as a talent are clear. He is either the most athletic point guard in history or close to it. He is one of the best ball-handlers in the league, which in combination with his athleticism makes him the most unstoppable at the point guard position at driving to the basket. Westbrook is a bigger than average point guard in both length and strength, which makes the physical domination created by his speed and ball-handling even more unfair.

However, that players like Paul and Curry can dominate the PG position more offensively with not close to his physical tools, shows that the position has other crucial requirements. First of all, when it comes to skill level Westbrook is a mixed bag. On one hand in addition to his ballhandling, he’s a good midrange jump shooter and is a skilled passer. However his career 3 point% of .305 is subpar for the skilled point guard position. This both hurts his efficiency and hurts his ability to space the floor for teammates. 3 point efficiency and spacing is massive in today’s game for a perimeter player and is a black mark on Westbrook’s game. Westbrook’s touch finishing in the paint has also long been average at best. Westbrook shot 57.9% at the rim last year, as a comparison Paul 69.3% and Curry 62.6%. Kevin Durant shot an amazing 78.5% at the rim.

The biggest problem however may be Westbrook’s erratic decision making or feel for the game. While it’s hard to pick apart how much of this is talent or an overaggressive mentality, when evaluating perimeter players feel for the game I use a specific method based on their fluidity and control driving to the basket. Westbrook does not pass this visual test well with my method. In fact of all the players widely considered superstars in this league, he passes the test the worst. When added to the evidence of out of control decision making, it makes me confident saying he has a talent-based flaw when it comes to feel for the game. And this is a huge part of evaluating him as a talent. Think of it as the difference between Westbrook’s career statistically and Dwyane Wade’s. Wade’s size, athleticism, ball-handling, shooting and passing skill is very very similar to Westbrook. Why hasn’t Westbrook matched his dominance statistically? Because in his prime Wade’s feel for the game gave him a fluidity, craftiness and ability to probe defenses in his prime that Westbrook appears to lack. This has allowed even Dwyane Wade in his physical condition now to remain as productive as Westbrook in the games he plays. It’s why Tony Parker arguably has peaked at a higher level statistically than Westbrook has, despite not being any better a 3pt shooter than he is and having far worse raw physical tools. When looking at players I would consider as impressive talents as Westbrook like Mike Conley, Jr., Kyle Lowry, Goran Dragic, or current Tony Parker, feel for the game is the biggest area they make up ground on Westbrook, despite their physical inferiorities compared to him.

Another way to put it is this. When Westbrook is on your team he makes you vastly more physically dominant offensively and defensively. However he doesn’t make you a more spacing/3pt shooting friendly team and he doesn’t make you play smarter, in fact he may make you play dumber. The reason a player like Conley may be as valuable is even if his physical impact on the game isn’t nearly the same, he makes you a better 3pt shooting team more-so than Westbrook does and most importantly, he makes you a lot smarter on both ends. Put Mike Conley on the Thunder and they may not drive in the half-court or transition as much, but suddenly the ball is moving to open shooters more, there’s more spacing when other players drive, he’s finishing baskets in the paint at a higher percentage, the defense is more positionally sound. All of a sudden by doing these new things, the team may be as good or better than when having Westbrook’s dominance slashing.

It doesn’t mean Westbrook isn’t a very talented player, just that there are reasons he may be too imperfect to be deserve serious consideration as a top 5 player and talent in the league. Westbrook helps the Thunder contend, but they would be an even more dangerous team if not a champion already if either his shooting or feel/decision making were as strong as other superstars in the league. And likewise when Durant is injured to start the season, some of Westbrook’s weaknesses like 3 point shooting, touch at the basket and feel for the game, may prevent him from putting up a prime Dwyane Wade-like elite stat line or impact as a #1 option.

Written by jr.

October 12, 2014 at 5:20 pm

Posted in Basketball

One Response

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  1. When I heard the news of Durant’s injury this morning, I was wondering how long it would take the Thunder haters to come out of the woodwork. Fortunately Bill Simmons is suspended for a few more days, but I see others like yourself have risen to the challenge of filling his void.

    Every year haters like yourself rip the Thunder, usually for ridiculous reasons. Will Westbrook and the Thunder be getting an apology when they play at a 50 win pace without Durant, and their young guys like Adams, R.Jax and Roberson step up as starters? I doubt it. Thunder haters are all the same, they’re still salty about the Harden trade and like to misrepresent it, but like I’ve told you it wasn’t the mistake you portray it as (the details of it are certainly distinct from the ones critics refer to). Westbrook is awesome, the OKC front office (rightly) preferred to keep him and Ibaka over Harden. Get over it.

    The one who knocks

    October 12, 2014 at 7:14 pm

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