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Thursday, December 20, 2018

Oklahoma City Thunder: Refuting False Narratives

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the second best record in the Western Conference (20-10, one game behind the 21-9 Denver Nuggets). There are over 50 games left to be played and many twists/turns that could happen but it seems like the Thunder are well on their way to refuting three false narratives:

1) Russell Westbrook is a bad teammate and is not capable of leading a team to a title.

2) Paul George would prefer to play with LeBron James than to play with Russell Westbrook (which is part of the larger false narrative that LeBron James is a great teammate, as George is merely the latest name on a growing list of prominent NBA players who do not want to play with James).

3) High percentage three point shooting is essential to being successful in the "modern analytically-driven" NBA.

Westbrook's statistical productivity is unprecedented, validating a prediction that I made four years ago when I compared Westbrook to Kobe Bryant: "One player seems poised to fill both of Bryant's roles--best guard in the NBA and vastly underrated superstar: Russell Westbrook." Bryant won five championships while setting individual records that may never be broken, but his numerous critics always found some way to denigrate his accomplishments.

Westbrook has followed a similar journey, though he has yet to win a title. Westbrook became the only player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double in a season (league-leading 31.6 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 10.4 apg in 2016-17)--and then Westbrook surpassed Robertson by becoming the first player to post back to back triple double seasons (25.4 ppg, league-leading 10.3 apg, 10.1 rpg in 2017-18). Rule changes and style of play changes have made the game easier for perimeter players, but Westbrook is still the only player to accomplish these triple double feats and no one other than Robertson has come close to matching Westbrook's across the board three-way productivity. Yet, Westbrook is derided as an allegedly inefficient player who (1) players supposedly do not want to play with and (2) supposedly cannot lead a team to a title.

Until Westbrook set triple double standards that may never be matched, it was inconceivable (1) that someone would equal Robertson as a triple double performer and (2) that if someone equaled Robertson then that player would be considered as anything less than the game's best all-around player, as Robertson was viewed during most of his career. Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd did not match Robertson's prowess as a triple double specialist but they came close enough that during their respective primes they each were often described as the game's best all-around player.

However, once Westbrook began amassing a record number of triple doubles this feat suddenly became unimportant, which is among the most mystifying developments that I have seen during a lifetime of following the NBA and becoming educated about the sport's history.

Westbrook is averaging a triple double this season as well, scoring 20.6 ppg while leading the league in assists (10.4 apg) and averaging 10.7 rpg. He is also leading the league in steals with a career-high 2.7 spg. Westbrook has notched a triple double in eight of his 22 games this season and he recently passed Jason Kidd to move into third place on the NBA's career triple doubles list (112, trailing only Oscar Robertson's 181 and Magic Johnson's 138).

Westbrook had knee surgery just before the season began and the Thunder went 0-2 as he missed the first two games of the season. The Thunder then lost the first two games after Westbrook came back before winning five in a row. Westbrook missed the next six games and the Thunder feasted on weak competition, going 5-1 with wins against Cleveland, Phoenix (twice), New York and the underachieving Houston Rockets. The Thunder are 10-5 since Westbrook returned to action.

Westbrook's numbers are hard to criticize--which does not stop some people from trying--but Westbrook has been tagged with a variety of negative labels in terms of his mindset, personality and playing style, centering around the idea that he is a bad teammate who cannot lead a team to a title.

Paul George provided the best, loudest refutation to the contention that Westbrook is a bad teammate, while also shooting down the idea that everyone wants to play with LeBron James. George is from Los Angeles and it was widely presumed that when he became a free agent last summer he would return home to play with LeBron James. Instead, George did not even take a phone call from the Lakers before he committed to re-signing with the Thunder. George publicly stated that his connection with Westbrook played a major role in his decision.

The developing narrative that most media members tiptoe around--because they are deathly afraid of losing access to James--is that many NBA players, particularly stars, do not want to play with James. In other words, the very accusation that the media lobbed at Kobe Bryant--and now Russell Westbrook--without any basis is in fact true of James!

Meanwhile, George is arguably playing better than he ever has and is emerging as a fringe MVP candidate (I would not vote him MVP but if he continues to be the leading scorer on the first or second seed in the West then he will receive at least some consideration from the media voters). George is averaging career highs in scoring (25.5 ppg), rebounding (7.9 rpg) and assists (4.4 apg). When Victor Oladipo emerged as an All-Star in Indiana after struggling in Oklahoma City this was widely trumpeted as an indictment of Westbrook as a leader, but the reality is that Oladipo was an immature and out of shape young player who finally committed himself to excellence only after landing on his third team in five years. Some guys just take longer to mature. George, on the other hand, is an established All-Star whose game is reaching new heights while playing alongside Westbrook. That is a much more difficult and unusual accomplishment, yet the most that is said about Westbrook in this regard are backhanded compliments suggesting that George is thriving only because Westbrook is doing less, which is an odd thing to say about a player who is averaging a triple double for the third straight season. If any other player were accomplishing what Westbrook is doing while playing for one of the top teams in the West that player would be a landslide choice for MVP.

As for whether or not Westbrook can lead a team to a title, he has already been an All-NBA level performer on four Western Conference Finalists (2011-12, 2014, 2016) and one NBA Finalist (2012), which is a strong indicator that he could be the best player on a championship team; many teams make the Conference Finals once or twice, but few teams go there four times with a Finals appearance to boot. A star player's ability to lead a team to a title will almost inevitably be questioned unless/until he actually wins a title; even Michael Jordan could not avoid that criticism, as many commentators asserted that as long as Jordan was determined to win scoring titles his teams would not capture a championship. Kobe Bryant was an essential member of three championship teams and yet he still was doubted as a leader until he was the unquestioned best player on back to back championship teams (well, some "stat gurus" asserted that Pau Gasol was the best player on those teams but some statements are so foolish that they do not even deserve a reply).

Regarding the third false narrative listed above, Golden State's four straight NBA Finals appearances and three NBA titles have been misinterpreted in some quarters to mean that in order to win a championship a team must shoot a lot of three pointers while connecting on a high percentage of those long range shots. The reality is that efficient three point shooting is helpful but not essential in a title run. It is more important to be able to shut down opposing three point shooters than to be a great three point shooting team. This has been repeatedly proven by Team USA in FIBA play and it applies in the "modern NBA" (which increasingly resembles the FIBA game in many ways) as well. The Houston Rockets' record-setting three point shooting did not matter in game seven of the 2018 Western Conference Finals when they set a record by missing 27 straight three pointers. To win a championship, you have to be able to defend. The Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen led Chicago Bulls typically had a high-powered offense but during key moments of their six championship runs those teams were able to lock down and defend even when they were not shooting well. The classic example of that is game seven of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals when the Bulls beat the Indiana Pacers 88-83 despite shooting just .382 from the field (Jordan shot 9-25 in that game, while Pippen shot 6-18); the Bulls played good defense and they did a great job of retrieving their misses, grabbing 22 offensive rebounds (Pippen led the way with six, while Jordan had five and Dennis Rodman had three).

The Thunder are a very poor three point shooting team but they nevertheless have the statistical profile of a team that can be a championship contender. The Thunder rank 30th in three point field goal percentage but they are fifth in defensive three point field goal percentage. The Thunder also rank first in offensive rebounding, steals and turnovers created, which means that they generate a lot of "extra" possessions. The Thunder rank just 18th in scoring but they are fifth in points allowed and they have a robust point differential of 6.8 ppg, fourth best in the league.

Point differential is one of the best indicators of future championship success; between 1990 and 2007, the average ranking of the NBA championship teams in point differential was 3.1, with eight of them ranking first, 15 of them ranking in the top five and 17 of them ranking in the top ten. Updating that research to include data from 2008-18, we find that the average ranking of NBA championship teams in point differential was 3.0, with four of those 11 champions ranking first, nine of them ranking in the top five and all 11 ranking eighth or better (the lowest ranked champion of the past 11 years is the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, who upset the top-ranked Miami Heat).

Westbrook's supporting cast is much better than it has been for several years. In addition to George, Steven Adams is playing at an All-Star level, averaging 16.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg and 1.6 bpg while shooting .591 from the field. It is worth remembering that the Thunder acquired the draft pick that became Adams in the deal that shipped James Harden to the Houston Rockets. The Thunder's current Big Three of Westbrook, George and Adams have complementary skill sets, unlike the failed attempt to create a Big Three with Westbrook, George and Carmelo Anthony.

It will be an uphill struggle for any team to beat a healthy version of the Golden State Warriors in a seven game playoff series but the Thunder have assembled a nucleus that could make a run to the Western Conference Finals and at least compete with the Warriors.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:34 PM



At Sunday, December 23, 2018 5:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It seemed that many people in the media were panicking in 2016-2017 when Westbrook was averaging 30-10-10 towards the end of the season because it put them in a very awkward position; they either had to swallow a bitter pill in acknowledging his greatness by awarding him the MVP or lose any shred of credibility by denying it to him. Thankfully, Westbrook went on an absolute tear down the stretch of that season and comfortably won the MVP that year but it was troubling how quite a few people were actively looking for reasons to not give him the award.

His 25-10-10 campaign in 2017-2018 was treated as an afterthought as he barely finished fifth in MVP voting and his current 20-10-10 season seems to be met with dismissive contempt as his detractors fixate on his three point struggles. While his abrupt decline at the free throw line is a legitimate concern it seems unthinkably petty to trivialize a triple-double average for a season, even one of the 12-10-10 variety. The reality is that Westbrook could average 40-10-10 for an entire season, 40-10-10 for the playoffs while leading his team to a championship and the usual suspects would still have nothing but snide, backhanded remarks.

I think that Westbrook could average 25-30 ppg/10 apg in any era although I don't think he could average 10 rpg in a more physical, center-dominated era but that shouldn't be held against him. If 6-3 point guard Westbrook can get 10 rpg under the current rules then 6-8 PF LeBron, who many people consider the greatest physical specimen the game has ever seen, should have no problem doing it. If Wilt can average 30.1 ppg/22.9 rpg for an entire career it isn't asking too much of James to have one single 20-10 season.

At Sunday, December 23, 2018 5:49:00 PM, Blogger Tristan said...

Hello David,

The only sensible way to nullify the mainstream sports media's undue influence on the coverage of the sport and the perception of all-time greats such as Westbrook, is to return the official league MVP voting back to the players. Westbrook could be a 2x winner by now, and Kobe should have won the award three or four times in his prime.

As you mentioned, if any other star / media favorite (e.g Lebron, Harden) had done what Westbrook has actually accomplished (let alone for THREE straight seasons!) then that player would have been the runaway selection as MVP.

Long-time fan of 20 Second Timeout. Your informed and accurate observations about the NBA's current and historical eras provide much needed context and difference from the overwhelming muck on TV and the Web. Keep up the good work.

At Monday, December 24, 2018 11:57:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


That is a good point. Many media members seemed like they were looking for any reason real or imagined to not vote for Westbrook as the MVP. Westbrook was so great down the stretch that they had little choice but to give him his due.

What Westbrook has done the past two and a half seasons is unparalleled but the media largely ignore it to fawn over Harden and other players.

It really is a shame, because Westbrook plays hard, plays well and has never had a hint of off-court controversy.

At Tuesday, December 25, 2018 12:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you for your kind words.

Perhaps player voting for awards would help, but keep in mind that the players also often have their own biases. In 1974-75, Rick Barry had a dominant regular season that culminated in a championship but he finished fourth in the regular season MVP voting (the players did the voting until 1980-81) in no small part because he was so unpopular. Bob McAdoo had a great, MVP caliber season as well but Barry should not have been a distant fourth in the voting.

At Wednesday, January 02, 2019 5:31:00 PM, Blogger Tristan said...

Barry’s ‘75 title year may be the greatest single season effort by one superstar / all-time great who did not have another All-Star / franchise player alongside him (Silk Wilkes was still a rookie), comparable to Doc’s ABA valedictory the next year, Moses for the ‘81 Rockets, Hakeem in ‘94, and Kobe’s second run of Finals appearances.

I think that the press voting for MVP ultimately flipped the script on true basketball technicians and warriors such as Kobe and Westbrook, which is a real shame.


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