Does Russell Westbrook Help or Hurt the Thunder?

Russell Westbrook, by plenty of traditional basketball measures, is one of the biggest superstars in terms of production that the league has ever seen.

But by a lot of those same measures, he’s also the most selfish stathound who ever cost his team wins by trying to do everything himself, like the rich man’s Lance Stephenson or, considering I’ve repeatedly called him “Dollar Store Westbrook” when writing about him, Lonzo Ball.

The question at issue here is whether everything Westbrook does right—and when you average a triple double in two consecutive seasons when only one player in league history, Oscar Robertson, so much as did it once in the 70 years before Westbrook did it (and nobody did it for 55 years after that), you’re doing a lot of things right—offsets all the stuff he does wrong.

Put another way, are all his rebounds and assists worth all his missed shots and bonehead plays turning the ball over?

And while the very short answer is of course it does, Westbrook took a G-League team to the playoffs in 2017 and dragged the corpse of Carmelo Anthony over the threshold in 2018, we need more than that.

Your Advanced Stats Do Not Work Here

Take Westbrook’s advanced stats and…well, actually, here’s where the first cracks appear in the armor.

In 2017, when Westbrook was the undisputed fulcrum of a terrible Thunder team that had just lost Kevin Durant, he led the league in VORP—12.4, equivalent to a mind-blowing 33.5 Estimated Wins Added, or “if they replaced him with Quinn Cook, the Thunder would’ve expected to win 13 games.”

Cook, incidentally, is going to be the guy I’m using to represent “replacement player”, because (a) he did exactly that when the Warriors fished him out of the G-League to replace Stephen Curry, and (b) he had a 0.0 VORP himself in 2017-18. Rather than say “replacement player”, I’m just going to have you all picture Quinn Cook.

Westbrook also led the league in Offensive Box Plus-Minus (10.9) and overall BPM (15.6) and had the best Defensive BPM (4.7) of his career.

Throw in a league-leading 30.6 PER and a 57.3 assist percentage, third-highest in NBA history and just 0.18% below John Stockton‘s record—speaking of Stockton, of the top seven single seasons for AST% in NBA history, Stockton has five of the top seven, with Westbrook third and Chris Paul fifth. Only three seasons have even topped 55, never mind 57.

Oh, and just for kicks, Westbrook shot 34.3 percent from three-point land, by far the best mark of his career and that on a career-high 7.2 attempts per game from out there.

In 2017-18, Westbrook’s stats were down across the board.

He had a 24.3 PER, .298 3PT%, 49.8 AST%, 5.1/3.1/8.2 BPM splits, and 7.5 VORP, all with a True Shooting that was his worst since 2009-10.

Still, advanced stats say he was worth 20 wins by himself compared to Quinn Cook, and on a 48-win team with the corpse of Melo stinking out the joint every night with the worst VORP season in the league by a player with 2500+ minutes, that speaks volumes.

The Core Point

Shout-out to Twitter user @evianwordflu for this:

The question about Westbrook then becomes one of if he’s really worth all those wins, and if so, is it because of his own talents or because his “gravity” creates opportunities for his teammates that lead to assists of the regular kind, “Kobe assists” when a missed shot creates an offensive rebound and immediate putback, and otherwise opens the floor and elevates the Thunder’s team performance.

On its face, this is patently absurd—how does a guy with an enormous usage rate make his teammates somehow better?

But look a little bit deeper, marvel at Steven Adams hitting 62.9 percent of his shots and setting a career high with 5.1 offensive rebounds a game, consider Paul George…actually, hold that thought. Let’s talk about Paul George.

The First Crack In The Theory

If Westbrook’s ability to draw the defense makes his teammates better by leaving them open for good looks, the biggest beneficiary should be PG13, who carried a gods-awful Indiana team to the playoffs two straight years and spent the 2016-17 season on a Pacers squad that didn’t force the defense to respect their shooters.

Playing with Monta Ellis and Jeff Teague as his safety valves, PG13 rarely got a good look at the basket, but he posted a career-best .587 True Shooting, hit 39.3 percent of his threes, and shot straight-up 46.1 percent total.

With Westbrook feeding him the ball, he regressed to the level he’d bottomed out at in 2015-16 with the Pacers, his first year back from injury, a year where he had terrible shooting numbers with all the same problems he’d face a year later (41.8 FG%, 37.1 3PT%, and the highest full-season Usage Rate of his career.)

Then again, it’s hard to blame George for that; Oklahoma City had no other options with Anthony rotting like a zombie and guys like Andre Roberson and Terence Ferguson starting games at shooting guard. Defenses could close out any pass to PG13, leaving him no better off than he was in Indiana because Westbrook can’t shoot for beans and Adams tends to score most of his points on putbacks and short jumpers after Russ finds him when he’s drawn Adams’ defender on a drive.

The Bigger Points Added Question

When Russell Westbrook takes a shot, there are a few ways of figuring out how many points it’s worth.

For one thing, there’s basic eFG%, and that says that for every 100 shots Westbrook takes, assuming a typical distribution of twos and threes, he’s going to score 95.4 points.

But there’s also free throws to consider; Westbrook shoots 33.6 free throws for every 100 field goals he attempts and makes 73.7 percent of them, good for another 24.8 points.

So “Westbrook takes a shot” (including and-ones, free throws, and all that jazz) scores the Thunder 120 points per 100 possessions.

Or, since we’ll be relying on counting stats for most of this, let’s just call it what it is—his actual scoring average was 25.4 points per game.

What about assists against turnovers? In other words, how many points is an assist worth compared to a turnover, allowing not just for the obvious made vs. missed shots on assist-opportunity passes but the value of a possession lost to a turnover?

Well, according to NBA.com, Westbrook’s teammates averaged 20.3 shots per game on assist chances; Westbrook averaged 10.3 assists.

If we goose the numbers a little, using FiveThirtyEight’s estimate of the value of different kinds of outcomes to overall team output, they say an assist is worth 2.2 points (it’s probably higher than that now since teams are shooting and making a lot more three-pointers than they did in 2014), so let’s call it 2.3 instead, reflecting OKC’s 10.7 made threes a game last year compared to four years ago.

That gives Westbrook an added output of 23.7 assists, raising the grand total of points added to 49.1.

But Turnovers

On the other hand, Westbrook gives back 4.8 turnovers per game, and that same 538 source pegs a turnover at 5.4 lost points per instance.

Which means he lost 25.9 points per game for his team by coughing up the ball. Which busts his contribution right back down to below his scoring average, where he lands at 23.2 points added per game.

In essence, he undermines 10 percent of his own scoring efficiency by giving the ball away for a greater value of lost points than he’s generating by doing good things with the ball.

And do you really want a guy with a .477 eFG% taking 30 shots per 100 possessions on your team? That seems an awfully poor use of the ball in terms of who’s shooting it.

Circling Back to the Point…

Right. Does Westbrook’s stardom stem from his ability to use those secondary basketball skills to elevate his teammates?

Well…yes and no, but mostly no.

Steven Adams absolutely benefits from having Russ as a teammate; few other players in the entire league are as good at hoovering up Kobe assists and putting them back for points; Adams is probably if not the best in the league at it then deserving of being in the conversation with the likes of DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond.

But Paul George is having a worse time of it shooting-wise in Oklahoma City than he did when the defenses-don’t-fear-him chucker on his own team was Monta Ellis, and even though Westbrook’s role is different, that’s still a damning condemnation of the poor shot quality that George ends up with even with Russ passing him the ball.

And Melo’s decline, while mostly a case of an aging player in a terrible system for his iso-heavy personal Dark Ages style, still can’t have been helped by having to work with Westbrook’s offensive flow.

Throw in a ton of turnovers—the surest sign of selfish-assist stat padding on Westbrook’s part—and you’ve got a guy whose sole purpose in basketball is to put up gee-whiz counting stats without really helping his team in the process.

The Bottom Line

Westbrook might be the best bad player in the league…or the worst good one. You just have to ask yourself if his myriad flaws are worth the effect he has of folding defenses in on him to try and create opportunities for his teammates.

If so, then he’s great, and if you give him a Kevin Durant and a James Harden, well…we saw what happened in 2012.

If not, then the Thunder will never be more than a 45-50 win second-round out for as long as Westbrook and Paul George are the Thunder’s two best players.

Maybe fans in Oklahoma City are OK with that. But their chance at a title looks like absolute zero.