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Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Numbers and Narratives

In my January 11, 2007 article Fun With Numbers we saw that the numbers put up by Mark Price in his prime are very similar to the numbers put up by Steve Nash during Nash's two MVP seasons. In my April 27, 2019 article Player Evaluation, Media Bias and False Narratives we saw that many media members draw vastly different conclusions from similar numbers posted by two different players. Here is another example of similar numbers resulting in different narratives:

Player A: 13 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, four turnovers, 4-17 field goal shooting (0-3 from three point range), 5-7 free throw shooting, -16 plus/minus number. Player A's team lost by nine points.

Player B: 10 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, seven turnovers, 4-15 field goal shooting (1-7 from three point range), 1-3 free throw shooting, -14 plus/minus number. Player B's team lost by eight points.

Neither player shot well, and both players' teams did better when they were out of the game. Both players rebounded well. Can we draw broad, career-defining conclusions about either player? Player A's poor performance has not received much media coverage, and no one is drawing sweeping conclusions about him--but if you run an internet search for Player B's name you will find many articles blasting this player, calling for his minutes to be reduced or even suggesting that he will be traded (presumably not during the playoffs, which would be against NBA rules). 

Player A is Kawhi Leonard, who struggled as his L.A. Clippers lost game two to Denver. That loss tied the series at 1-1. Player B is Russell Westbrook, who struggled as his Houston Rockets lost game two to the L.A. Lakers. That series is tied 1-1. The Clippers are favored to win their series, while the Rockets are the fourth seed facing the number one seed. 

Any reasonable person understands that we cannot yet draw broad conclusions about either of these series yet, let alone about the 2020 playoffs or these players' careers. Leonard bounced back with a strong performance as the Clippers won game three; we will see how Westbrook and the Rockets respond in game three of their series.
Game two was just Westbrook's fifth game back after missing six straight games--and eight of the previous nine games--due to injury. Just prior to the NBA season restart, Westbrook tested positive for COVID-19. Suffice it to say, Westbrook is not at 100% physically; that is not an excuse, but just a statement of what should be obvious. Despite those challenges, Westbrook had strong performances in the previous two games, both victories: game seven in round one (20 points, nine rebounds) and game one in round two (24 points, nine rebounds, six assists). The Rockets went 2-1 in round one with Westbrook and 2-2 without him, and he played a critical role in the upset victory over the Lakers in game one. From January through March--when Westbrook was healthy--he was not only Houston's best player but arguably the best player in the league. How can anyone rationally conclude that game two of the second round defines Westbrook in some grand and permanent way? 

In general, I disagree with the notion that a great player's career is defined by any one game, but if we are looking for defining games in Westbrook's career up to this point then let's look at his numbers from games when his team faced elimination:

2020 Game Seven, First Round: 20 points, nine rebounds, two assists (won)
2019 Game Five, First Round: 29 points, 11 rebounds, 14 assists (lost)
2018 Game Six, First Round: 46 points, 10 rebounds, five assists (lost)
2018 Game Five, First Round: 45 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists (won)
2017 Game Five, First Round: 47 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists (lost)
2016 Game Seven, Western Conference Finals: 19 points, seven rebounds, 13 assists (lost)
2014 Game Six, Western Conference Finals: 34 points, seven rebounds, eight assists (lost)
2014 Game Seven, First Round: 27 points, 10 rebounds, 16 assists (won)
2012 Game Five, NBA Finals: 19 points, four rebounds, six assists (lost)
2011 Game Five, First Round: 31 points, eight rebounds, five assists (lost)
2011 Game Seven, Second Round: 14 points, 10 rebounds, 14 assists (won)
2010 Game Six, First Round: 21 points, five rebounds, nine assists (lost)
Totals: 352 points (29.3 ppg), 107 rebounds (8.9 rpg), 108 assists (9.0 apg); 4-8 record; three straight 40 point games; three triple doubles.
Westbrook's career is still in progress, and there are many ways to define/quantify his accomplishments, but if we are going to single out one game or one set of games it makes more sense to look at how Westbrook has performed when his team faced elimination as opposed to how Westbrook performed in game two of a second round series after he played a key role not only in his team winning game seven in round one but also in his team scoring an upset victory in game one in round two. The stakes are the highest in elimination games, and Westbrook has performed very well in such games, including three wins out of four game seven appearances. Even when Westbrook's teams were outmanned and outgunned in series that did not go the distance, he left it all on the court and provided his team with scoring, rebounding, and playmaking.
Regardless of what happens in either series, one bad game--particularly a bad game early in a second round series--is not a career-defining moment. Perhaps Leonard gets more benefit of the doubt from some media members because Leonard has two titles and two Finals MVPs while Westbrook has yet to win a title, but unless Westbrook retires after this season without winning a title his championship legacy remains to be written. Further, if the Clippers lose to the Nuggets that is an upset, while if the Rockets lose to the Lakers that is not an upset. 

Long story short, and put more bluntly, we would all be better off if "Screaming A" Smith and other misinformed commentators were not provided with the privilege of shouting nonsense to large audiences.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:19 AM



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