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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Player Evaluation, Media Bias and False Narratives

Media coverage of the NBA is either amusing or pathetic, depending on your perspective and sense of humor (the same is true of media coverage of the world in a broader sense but that is a story for a different day and a different platform). For instance, here are the 2019 first round playoff statistics of two players, one of whom is portrayed as a clutch performer and the other of whom is portrayed as a player who did not perform well at all:

Player A: 21.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 7.7 apg, .8 spg, .2 bpg, .433/.333/.829 shooting

Player B: 22.8 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 10.6 apg, 1.0 spg, .6 bpg, .360/.324/.885 shooting

Player A is Lou Williams and Player B is Russell Westbrook. It should be noted that the above numbers represent, by far, the best playoff performance of Williams' 14 year NBA career; his brief 2019 playoff run is an outlier, not his typical level. This is not meant as a knock against Williams, who is a very good player and a top sixth man. The point is that many media members craft narratives that suit their purposes and biases, regardless of the truth. Williams is a soft-spoken, well-liked and well-respected player. It is understandable why media members like him. Williams had some strong performances as his L.A. Clippers battled valiantly against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors before losing, 4-2.

Westbrook is a brash, outwardly confident--if not arrogant--player who treats many media members with outward contempt. In the pre-internet days it used to be said that one should not pick quarrels with those who buy ink by the barrel. Westbrook is engaged in active combat with the people who write/tell the stories that define his career; those same people also vote for awards such as MVP and the All-NBA Team.

In his 2019 exit interview, Westbrook made it clear that he does not care what those people think, write or say:
If you want to determine my career and what I've done over two, three games, you go ahead. That don't mean [anything] to me. It doesn't. I'm going to wake up, like I told you before, three beautiful kids, I'm going to wake up and smile, be happy, enjoy my life. Doesn't change anything about--talk about if I'm playing bad or who's better, who's not. I know who I am as a person, and that's the biggest thing I can say about myself. I know who I am. I know what I'm able to do. I know my capabilities. I know what I've done. I know what I can and can't do. So I'm OK with that. I'm OK with who I am. I'll just be blessed to wake up every day and enjoy my life. The talk about--I don't even know what talk you're talking about, but whatever that is, you guys can keep talking about it, and I'm going to keep living my life...
There used to be conversations if I was a ball hog, but now I lead the league in assists for the past three years or whatever it is, that's getting squashed out. So now the conversation is about shooting. Next year I'm going to become a better shooter. After that it'll be probably [be] my left foot is bigger than my right one. Who knows. So that's why, back to your point, I don't really care what people say, what they think about me, because it doesn't really matter. I know what I'm able to do and know what I'm able to do at a high level every night, and nobody else can do what I can do on a night-in, night-out basis, and I truly believe that. If they could, I'm pretty sure they would. But I know for a fact that nobody can...
When you do so much at a high level, a lot of haters come. That's how life is, man. That's life, man. When you do so much, people going to try to pull and take away and try to take that away from you. But nobody can take away from me. I've been blessed, and I stay prayerful, stay thankful to be able to do what I'm able to do, and nobody can ever take that away from me, regardless of what it is, how many stories are written, how many stats are put up, how many numbers are put up.
Westbrook was asked if he has made the triple double "passé" by averaging a triple double for three straight seasons and he replied, "If it's passé, so be it. Let somebody else do it, or try to."

Here is Westbrook's resume:
Two notes:

1) Any attempt to suggest that the triple double is watered down now--or was watered down when Oscar Robertson became the only player to average a triple double in a season even once--is refuted by the simple fact that no one other than Robertson has come close to matching what Westbrook is doing. If the triple double were easy or watered down, then other players would be averaging triple doubles.

2) The NBA is designed to encourage and create parity--not to the extent of the NFL, but to a large extent nonetheless. Thus, 13 of the 15 Western Conference teams advanced to the Conference Finals at least once between 2000-2018 (only the Clippers and Pelicans failed to do so). However, just four teams made it that far at least four times: Spurs (nine), Lakers (seven), Warriors (four) and Thunder (four). The Thunder is the only team from that group that did not win a championship, but what Westbrook accomplished alongside Kevin Durant should not be blithely dismissed, because that is a level of team achievement that is rare in the NBA. The best and most dominant players from those teams--Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook--are a cut above just about everyone else who played in the NBA during that era. LeBron James, whose teams advanced to eight straight NBA Finals and nine NBA Finals overall while he played in the Eastern Conference, can be added to that list as well but few--if any--other players from that era combined that degree of high level team success with individual statistical dominance.


Westbrook is a 30 year old, 11 season NBA veteran who has already established himself as a first ballot Hall of Famer. He has also endured multiple knee surgeries that have clearly taken away some of his explosiveness and flexibility and those physical issues have affected his shooting percentages: he cannot finish at the rim like he used to, nor can he get the same elevation on his jump shot.

All great players need help to win a championship, and they need the right kind of help to mesh with their (many) skill set strengths and their (few) skill set weaknesses. The Warriors have dominated the NBA for the past four years by accumulating more star power than anyone else and then just overwhelming the opposition, though the Warriors have also featured good to excellent benches as well. LeBron James only won championships when he was surrounded by excellent shooters, plus big men who were willing to do the grunt work of setting screens and playing defense. Kobe Bryant won three championships alongside a dominant big man and then two more championships with a very good--but not great--big man. Tim Duncan won championships with ensemble casts containing a good mixture of shooting, defense and high basketball IQ.

Even when the Thunder had Durant along with Westbrook, there never was a season during which the team had the best or most suitable roster to complement Westbrook's game. The previous iteration of the Thunder was built around Durant and came very close to winning a title. The post-Durant version of the Thunder has been cobbled together year to year and is less than the sum of its parts because those parts, some of which may appear to be good in isolation, do not fit together properly.

Looking specifically at the first round series during which Portland beat Oklahoma City 4-1, Eddie Johnson of Sirius XM Radio correctly noted, "The Portland Trail Blazers have a better team around their two guards."

The Thunder's supporting cast is not well designed for the modern NBA playoffs. They do not shoot the three point shot particularly well, nor do they defend the three point shot particularly well. With each passing year, the NBA is becoming more and more like FIBA. As I have noted in many of my articles about Team USA's participation in FIBA events, it is not essential to shoot a high percentage from three point range to win at the FIBA level but it is essential to limit the opposing team's three point shooting percentage.

Portland made 12 more three pointers than Oklahoma City while shooting .405 from three point range compared to .331 for the Thunder. Paul George led the Thunder by a wide margin with 47 three pointers attempted but he made just 15 (.319). Meanwhile, Damian Lillard shot 26-54 (.481) from three point range and C.J. McCollum shot 17-38 (.447) from three point range. The Thunder could have survived George's subpar three point shooting if they had defended better.

NBA defense is not about one player or one matchup. It is about five players being, as coaches put it, "on a string." If that string breaks at any point, the whole string collapses. The Thunder put up good team defense numbers during the regular season but those overall numbers hid inconsistencies and flaws. The Thunder were prone to lapses and to giving up big runs; those things tend to be washed out when looking at 82 games' worth of numbers but they are magnified in a short series.

The Thunder either need a better defensive game plan, or they need players who are more committed to consistently executing the coaching staff's game plan.

At the other end of the court, the Thunder need an offense that consistently generates shots that are high percentage shots for the personnel that they have on the roster. That is largely on the coaching staff. The Thunder also need to surround Westbrook with a complementary supporting cast. That is the front office's responsibility for the most part, though the coaching staff plays a role in terms of developing the players who are on the roster to their maximum potential.

Ignoring the realities described above, it has become fashionable to blame most or all of the Thunder's problems on Westbrook's shot selection. It is true that his shot selection could be better. He does not shoot well from three point range but he attempts a large volume of three pointers.

Shot selection, particularly at the NBA level, involves a multi-factor analysis. The 24 second shot clock looms large. When teams pack the paint and the clock is ticking down, sometimes there is little choice but to launch a three pointer--and when that happens, the team's star player is stuck with the "hand grenade" (shot clock that is about to explode) more often than the team's other players (unless, like LeBron James and James Harden, he is skilled at ducking his responsibilities by chucking that "hand grenade" to one of his less-skilled teammates).

OK, one might answer, but why does Westbrook shoot them early in the clock? The point is that there is a chain reaction happening here; poorly run offenses often generate "hand grenades," and then the star may adjust by electing to shoot earlier in the shot clock because he knows that if he waits until late in the shot clock then he is going to end up with a shot from the same location that is more contested because the defender can crowd him, knowing that there is not enough time to drive.

Thus, while it is true that in an ideal world Westbrook would either (1) shoot fewer threes and/or (2) shoot a better percentage from three point range, the realities of the situation are more nuanced than most media members are capable of understanding and/or willing to report. On deadline, writing about a player who you don't like who just shot 6-20 (or whatever), it is much easier to write, "Westbrook is killing his team by shooting too much" as opposed to analyzing the game at a deeper level.

Looking at this issue even more deeply, there are many often repeated fallacies about shot distribution and about the capabilities of various players. A player's shooting percentage is affected by the defensive attention that is paid to the other players on the court. Thus, a player who shoots 4-8 on a particular diet of shots may not shoot 8-16 on a different diet, but media members love to count field goal attempts, look at field goal percentages and then draw broad (and wrong) conclusions. Think of Mike Wilbon and Jon Barry breathlessly counting Kobe Bryant's field goal attempts while also breathlessly ignoring everything else that happened during the game.

Put more simply, just because a star player shot 6-20 from the field and a different player on the same team shot 6-12 from the field one cannot necessarily conclude that the star should have shot less often and the other player should have shot more often. In many cases, those 12 "good" shots were created by the presence and skills of the star, while the star's 20 "bad" shots were a result of the overall functioning of the offense.

Perhaps the oddest thing about the coverage of the Portland-Oklahoma series is that George--a dark horse MVP candidate according to many media members during the regular season--shot worse than Westbrook on three pointers and free throws while also accumulating fewer rebounds, fewer assists and fewer blocked shots. If George is supposedly an MVP level player and supposedly the best player on the team then why do all of the media narratives blame only Westbrook for the Thunder's loss?


All of this overreaction to one playoff series is reminiscent of the hack who wrote, 10 years ago, that game seven of the Lakers-Rockets series would be the defining moment of Kobe Bryant's career. That hack was no doubt eagerly anticipating that the Rockets would beat the Lakers; the media's decade-long love affair with Daryl Morey and the Rockets had just begun, while the media also loved to take unwarranted shots at Bryant.

Not surprisingly, after the Lakers beat the Rockets and went on to capture the first of their back to back titles in the second half of Bryant's career, that hack had nothing to say about the Lakers' game seven win over the Rockets or Bryant's subsequent Finals MVP.

Prior to the Houston series, Bryant had won three titles and had distinguished himself numerous times in postseason play. That game seven against Houston was important--all elimination games are obviously important--but by no stretch of the imagination would that one game define his career, win or lose.

Bryant won two of his five titles at the back end of his career with some of the weakest championship team supporting casts in recent memory, but the media consensus is that LeBron James--who has won three titles during his entire career--not only surpassed Bryant but is on par with Michael Jordan.

Perhaps the funniest thing about all of these comparisons is that the media purports to be ranking players by championships and then selects Jordan, who won six, as the standard, ignoring other all-time greats who won at least six titles. Bill Russell won 11. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won six. Neither of those players had losing records in the Finals, let alone a mark as bad as James' 3-6.

If putting up elite individual statistics while winning the most championships are the benchmarks for being the greatest player of all-time, LeBron James is not even close to the top of the list; after Russell, Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan, there is Bryant (five), Tim Duncan (five), Magic Johnson (five) and Shaquille O'Neal (four), not to mention players who also won three titles and have to be in this conversation as well (Julius Erving, Larry Bird). There are also players who, while not quite individually on par with James, were great players in their own right who made significant contributions to multiple championship teams; that list includes John Havlicek (eight championships) and Scottie Pippen (six championships).

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:49 PM



At Monday, April 29, 2019 2:14:00 PM, Blogger Kyle Falls said...

Excellent article as usual David. Bravo!

The double standards for Westbrook are ridiculous. People love to hate him. While I consider myself to be an open-minded person, I really question the basketball knowledge of anyone who cannot understand why the Thunder hasn't succeeded. It's funny - there are a lot of people calling Russell overrated. It's hard calling a former MVP underrated, but he is a close as you can get to an underrated superstar.

Russell has always been hated. You can go as far back to before OKC even made their first conference finals in 2011. He was the national whooping boy to protect the golden boy, Kevin Durant, from criticism. I remember it clearly.

I say it all the time. People dislike Harden because of his style of play. People dislike LeBron because of how protected he is, some decisions he's made off the court, his passive aggressiveness, and how he can disappear in important games. People dislike Durant because he chose the easy way out and people see how thin skinned he is.

Here's the difference with Russell: people have NEVER liked him. He never got a fair shake. In some ways more than others, those other guys had controversial actions on or off the court that earned some "hate". What controversial off-the-court incident has Westbrook ever been part of? None. What about on the court? OK, his shot selection is not the best and he does make silly frustration fouls. The dude is a living legend. It's very similar with Kobe. People just don't like him and never will. Westbrook could shoot 60% from the field next year and more reasons will be found to criticize him.

I'm happy that he has the ability to ignore the naysayers. I just hope that he can be appreciated like other players are before he hangs them up.


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