Requiem for a Contender: Westbrook Injury Sealed Thunder's FateIn the wake of the Memphis Grizzlies' victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals, many theories and explanations have been offered for--depending on how you look at it--why Memphis won/why Oklahoma City lost. It has been suggested that Oklahoma City made a mistake choosing to keep Serge Ibaka while trading James Harden for Kevin Martin. The Thunder had a .712 winning percentage in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, finishing with the second best record in the Western Conference (47-19); in the 2012-13 season, the Thunder had a .732 winning percentage, finishing with the best record in the Western Conference (60-22). The Thunder did not miss a beat without Harden and, in fact, proved to be a better team without him over the course of the grueling 82 game NBA season. Ibaka has led the NBA in blocked shots per game the past two seasons and in total blocked shots the past three seasons. He finished second in the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year voting and third in the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year voting. Ibaka is a very valuable player but he should not be expected to replace Harden's scoring; that is Kevin Martin's job and Martin filled that role very well, averaging 14.0 ppg on .450 field goal shooting in 2012-13.
The Thunder took a 2-0 lead over Harden's Houston Rockets in the first round but Russell Westbrook--one of the top five players in the NBA--suffered what proved to be a season-ending knee injury in the first half of game two, though he limped his way through the second half of that contest. Without Westbrook, the Thunder struggled to finish off the Rockets--going 2-2 the rest of the series--and then lost 4-1 to the Grizzlies; that adds up to a 3-6 record sans Westbrook in 2012-13 after going 62-22 with him. It should be obvious that the Thunder's problem is not the Harden trade but rather the Westbrook injury. Harden performed markedly worse in the playoffs than the regular season in both 2012 and 2013, so the idea that he could have filled Westbrook's role in the 2013 playoffs is speculation not supported by facts--and if the Thunder had elected to keep Harden then, for financial reasons, they likely would have been without the services of Ibaka, one of the league's top defensive players. Under those circumstances, the Thunder would have been worse off than they are now; without Ibaka they would not have posted the West's best record and they would have been even less equipped to deal with Westbrook's freak injury.
Westbrook has been one of the NBA's most durable players. He will return to action fully healthy next season and the Thunder will most likely once again be the best team in the Western Conference. Barring a major move, Harden's Rockets will again struggle to make the playoffs before losing in the first round.
From the Memphis perspective, it has become popular to suggest that the Grizzlies have benefited from the Rudy Gay trade but that assertion is a major exercise in denial. Gay is an 18 ppg scorer who is also one of the top rebounders at the small forward position; the Grizzlies traded him for Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis. Daye and Davis rarely play at all, while Prince--who has taken over Gay's starting role for Memphis--averaged 8.8 ppg while shooting .429 from the field during 37 regular season season games wtih the Grizzlies and he has been even less productive during the playoffs: 7.5 ppg, .354 field goal shooting. Yes, Prince is a better defender than Gay but you would have to believe that Prince is by far the best wing defender in the league in order to suggest that he is not having an overall negative impact in light of his total lack of offensive production. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have dominated in the paint but replacing Gay with Prince has made their job tougher, because opposing teams can leave Prince to trap in the paint--something that opponents would be reluctant to do with Gay on the floor. The Grizzlies beat the overrated L.A. Clippers in the first round and then had to work very hard to defeat the Westbrook-less Thunder in the second round; the Thunder won the first game of the series before the Grizzlies took the next four games, but the Grizzlies achieved three of their victories by just six points each (including one overtime contest) and they won the other game by four points. The offensively challenged Grizzlies averaged 93.6 ppg versus the Thunder but, without Westbrook, the Thunder only averaged 89.6 ppg versus the Grizzlies after ranking third in the league with a 105.7 ppg scoring average during the regular season. In the game five series clincher versus Oklahoma City, Memphis scored 88 points on .370 field goal shooting; Prince contributed eight points on 3-13 field goal shooting and he had a plus/minus number of -21, which is hard to do when you play 31 minutes in a game that your team won by four points! Yet Bill Simmons is gloating that he was right to support trading Gay.
The reality is that if Russell Westbrook had been healthy then the Thunder would have defeated the Grizzlies; he would have changed the result of most if not all of the games that the Grizzlies barely won. The Grizzlies would not have been able to survive while posting low scoring totals with poor shooting percentages--and those scoring totals/shooting percentages would likely have been even worse if Westbrook had been on the court, because the Thunder not only missed Westbrook's scoring and playmaking but also his defense: Westbrook would have slowed down Memphis point guard Mike Conley. This series debunked the theory that Westbrook shoots too much and that he negatively impacts Kevin Durant's game; it should be obvious that without Westbrook on the court it is much more difficult for Durant to post his typically efficient numbers. A good analogy for this is how Kobe Bryant improves the Lakers' overall offensive efficiency even though his field goal percentage is usually "only" in the .450 range. What "stat gurus" fail to understand is that Bryant and Westbrook distort opposing defenses to such an extent that they create many scoring opportunities for their teammates; shot creation is something that the "stat gurus" are not able to quantify, so they don't believe that it matters or even exists (which also may partly explain why the Grizzlies traded Gay).
The best thing that can be said about the Gay trade is that even though it left the Grizzlies offensively challenged it did not damage their team more than the absence of Westbrook hindered the Thunder. It will be interesting to hear what Simmons says when the Grizzlies struggle to score 40 points in a half in the Western Conference Finals--and they are trailing instead of leading because in that round they will be playing a full strength contender.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 PM