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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Requiem for a Contender: Westbrook Injury Sealed Thunder's Fate

In 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:49 PM



At Friday, May 17, 2013 12:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The way Durant's efficiency plummeted and he simply ran out of gas over the course of this series is one of the most memorable lessons of these playoffs. You have been explaining the importance of understanding shooting percentages in the context of the overall team offense for years, and this was a perfect illustration. He is still the second best player in the league, yet without Westbrook, those 50-40-90 numbers disappeared... Which gives one much more appreciation of the significance of what players like Iverson and Bryant did even if they looked inefficient in the spreadsheet column

At Friday, May 17, 2013 1:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Thank you. It is a shame that it took Westbrook's injury to prove this point--and it is even more of a shame that many "stat gurus" will refuse to recognize this truth even now.

At Friday, May 17, 2013 9:47:00 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

Instead of using strawmen all the time, how about you actually name the people you generalize under "stat gurus", instead of hiding behind that childish, pejorative term.
Because as I see it, your entire counter argument attacks a minority opinion by such groups as the Wages of Wins or people who have no clue about stats, like Henry Abbott.
The APBR community on the other hand, which represents most advanced stats guys, has acknowledged the value of players like Westbrook and Kobe for a long time. Metrics like ASPM value both of them as top ~5 offensive players for example.
There are also numerous analysts and writers, like Zack Loewe or Matt Moore, who have been able to combine advanced stats with traditional writing and film study.

I hope you allow this comment to be posted, because I'm interested in your reaction and I value your approach using mostly matchups as well as the intricacies of each team.

At Friday, May 17, 2013 9:58:00 AM, Blogger Georgi Marinov said...

It's a shame indeed.

BTW, I am speaking as someone who really does not want to see the Heat win another championship (because of the way that team was put together) and therefore I am somewhat biased, but are we going to see an asterisk attached to it when they most likely win it next month, given how pretty much everybody who could compete with them fell apart due to injuries? Probably not.

At Friday, May 17, 2013 1:05:00 PM, Blogger Kion Stephen said...

David, you talk about making points without actual evidence - then, where is the evidence that Memphis's offense was demonstrably worse without Gay?

NBA Stats shows the splits per month for Memphis. Gay was traded at the end of January. There isn't any noticeable drop off offensively in February and March after the trade. Others have shown that their points per possession actually went up in the weeks following the trade.

If there is any evidence that Memphis was noticeably worse on offense since the Gay trade, I'd like to see it, because from the research I've done, that is definitely not the case.

Memphis couldn't score a ton before the trade, and haven't been able to score a ton after the trade either.

And you can't compare playoff numbers to regular season numbers because every team scores less in the playoffs because the defenses are better. Miami and San Antonio, two offensive powerhouses during the season, have significantly worse offensive numbers in the playoffs because they are facing better defenses.

At Friday, May 17, 2013 4:23:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am using the term "guru" in the sense that Mike Lupica used it many years ago, in a different context, when he said on the Sports Reporters something to the effect of, "It is time for the 'guru' to start 'guruing.'"

It is much more economical to refer to "stat gurus" than to name every single one each time I write about this subject. I have called out Abbott, Simmons and Berri directly on many occasions, so I am also reluctant to give more publicity to people who don't make sense and, obviously, are able to generate plenty of publicity on their own. When I am referring to a specific statement then I name names but when I am referring to a general concept--like, coaching does not matter or shot creation is not important--I don't find it necessary to call out every "stat guru" who holds that point of view.

I have also mentioned specific APBR people--like Dan Rosenbaum, Roland Beech and Dean Oliver--whose work I respect because they try to take a scientific approach.

At Friday, May 17, 2013 4:25:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


It is amazing that virtually every team that had even the slightest chance to beat Miami has lost one or more All-Stars to season-ending injuries; that list includes the Thunder (Westbrook), the Bulls (Rose), the Pacers (Granger), the Celtics (Rondo) and the Lakers (Bryant). Yeah, the Lakers are a stretch but if they had been fully healthy for the entire season then they could have potentially challenged the Heat with Howard and Gasol inside and Bryant and Nash on the perimeter.

At Friday, May 17, 2013 4:29:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Did you watch the Oklahoma City series? The Grizzlies struggled to score more than 90 points against a team that did not have Westbrook. It is hard for me to picture the Grizzlies scoring enough points to beat a full strength contender in a seven game playoff series.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the Western Conference Finals; if the result is not skewed by injuries/foul trouble/suspensions then we will see if Memphis is really as good offensively as you think.

At Friday, May 17, 2013 10:06:00 PM, Blogger Kion Stephen said...

Yes, i watched the OKC series. I also watched a number of their games this year. And that's how Memphis' offence looked all year (including with Rudy Gay)... painful most times, except when Zach goes into God Mode.

I never tried to imply that Memphis were good offensively. I'm just saying that their ability to score points over the course of a game hasn't changed much since the trade.

They were bad before. They are similarly bad after. The Gay trade did not move the needle much at all.

At Friday, May 17, 2013 10:16:00 PM, Blogger Kion Stephen said...


Almost every year, a major injury or two possibly affects the outcome of the playoffs.

Does LA win in 2010 if Perkins doesn't go down with a knee injury?

Does LA win in 2009 if Garnett doesn't blow out his knee?

Does San Antonio win in 2005 if Wade doesn't go down with a shoulder injury?

Does Dallas win in 2011 if Lebron doesn't go down with a mental breakdown?

Almost every year, there's a major injury or two that can potentially sway who comes out as the champion. That's the reality of sports.

What's even more ironic is that Miami, in their rocky first year, beat a better, full strength Chicago team 2 years ago.
They beat Indiana last year, while Bosh was injured.
They beat OKC when they still had Harden.
Maybe the injuries have made their path a bit easier, but Miami proved itself capable of beating those teams before. So, why the asterisk now?

At Saturday, May 18, 2013 12:14:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


As I explained in a different comment thread, my philosophy is that if a 45-plus win team is going to make a move then that move should increase its chances of winning now. Trading Gay for spare parts did not make the Grizzlies a better team; their record for half a regular season without him does not prove anything about the correctness of the trade and/or their ability to win a championship. I believe that not having Gay will hurt them in the WCF; for that matter, it hurt them last round, but the Grizzlies overcame it because OKC was missing a much more valuable player.

The long term future is hard to predict, so a team that has a reasonable chance of contending now should not be dumping salary in the middle of the season. The Grizzlies should have played this season out and then perhaps consider trading Gay if circumstances warranted such a move; they would not have gotten anything less than what they got in February and--the way things look now--perhaps they could have squeezed a championship out of that roster.

Maybe Memphis will win a championship anyway and "stat gurus" will have a parade while burning Rudy Gay in effigy for his "sins" against efficiency but--for the reasons that I have very clearly stated--I do not think that the trade was a logical basketball move.

At Saturday, May 18, 2013 12:20:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


LeBron's "mental breakdown" is not quite the same thing as Kobe rupturing an Achilles or Westbrook blowing out his knee.

Some of the injuries you cited only affected one game or a handful of games but Rose missed the entire season, Kobe missed the entire playoffs, Granger missed the entire playoffs and Westbrook essentially missed the entire playoffs; this has been an unusual season in terms of contending teams losing key players for extended periods.

That is another reason why I think that a team that is in the 45-plus win category should be trying to make a move or moves to win now, because such a team may be one player or one injury (to another team's player) away from a championship. The Mavericks broke up a championship team with "long range" thinking and right now they appear likely to suffer in both the short and the long term. The Grizzlies dealt Gay for "long range" reasons but if they lose in the WCF because they can't score 90 ppg then it would be right to suggest that the Gay trade potentially cost them at least a trip to the Finals, if not a championship. If Memphis' owners cannot afford to pay Gay for half a season more to try to win a title then perhaps they are in the wrong business.

At Sunday, May 19, 2013 2:55:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Westbrook is a very good player and Oklahoma City's chances plummeted when he went down, but that doesn't mean that it "validates" his status as an NBA legend or that Oklahoma City would've won the championship if he didn't get hurt.

It's a tough break but they're hardly alone. The Lakers also had a tough season and so did many others. Injuries are part of sports.

The only way Westbrook can "validate" his status is to play a leading role in a championship squad. Until he does, it doesn't matter whether the Thunder win 70 or 10 games without him.

At Monday, May 20, 2013 4:12:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I never called Westbrook a "legend" but I did call him one of the top five players in the NBA and what we saw after he got hurt confirms the correctness of that notion; the Thunder went from being the best team in the West to a team that could barely beat Houston after getting a 2-0 lead.

Westbrook has already "validated" his top five status in many ways.


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