Lawson or Westbrook?

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In his last two seasons Russell Westbrook has made it to the All-Star game, the All-NBA team and last year he even got some MVP votes. That’s especially impressive as he was playing next to Kevin Durant. Many believe Westbrook to be an elite player. This includes the Thunder, who signed him to a five year $78 million dollar deal.

Many will agree Lawson is a good point guard. However, it’s hard to get people, including the Nuggets, to see him as elite. In fact, apparently their first contract offer was a four year $44 million deal that Lawson rejected.

The simple fact is that Westbrook has been an above average and even good point guard but he has never been elite. Ty Lawson on the other hand has played amazingly well his entire career. Let’s do a quick breakdown.

Lawson vs. Westbrook – Stats from the NBA Geek

Season Lawson WP48 Lawson Wins Westbrook WP48 Westbrook Wins
2009 N/A N/A 0.044 2.5
 2010  0.178 4.9  0.121  7.1 
 2011  0.193 8.5  0.153  9.1 
 2012  0.182 8.1  0.102  4.9 

On a per-minute basis Lawson has been a superior player his entire career. Under George Karl his minutes have been lower than you’d expect from a player of his caliber — which isn’t surprising from Karl. Last year he finally got enough minutes to overtake Westbrook in terms of total wins. Now I realize calling Westbrook’s performance last year “average” seems crazy. So let’s do a quick breakdown as to how Westbrook’s individual stats translated into Wins.

2012 Westbrook vs. Lawson Stat Comparison (In Wins Above Average)

Stat Lawson Westbrook
 Free Throws 0.4  2.5 
 Two Point Shooting 2.6  -0.1 
 Three Point Shooting 0.4  -0.6 
 Offensive Rebounds 0.5  1.7 
 Assists 0.1  -1.6 
 Turnovers 0.4  -2.2 
 Defensive Rebounds 0.1  0.5 
 Steals 0.0  0.8 
Blocks -0.2  0.1 
 Personal Fouls 0.9  0.2 

Now, the reason Westbrook is considered elite is because he puts up a high point totals. Last season Westbrook finished 4th in the league in points scored behind Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. The issue is when we examine Westbrook’s amazing offense it falls apart quickly. His shooting costs his teams wins. His free throw shooting keeps his scoring positive. However, he’s still half as effective at scoring as Lawson. When it comes to offense, Westbrook is bad at everything except for free throws and offensive rebounding. And those can’t make up for the his terrible passing and high turnovers. Westbrook actually keeps himself positive with his defensive skills. It’s not often I hear Westbrook praised as a defensive powerhouse.

Ty Lawson does not beat Westbrook at every skill. That said, Ty is only below average at blocks. All other aspects of his game are above average. In terms of looking for well rounded and talented players Lawson is a perfect find.

Shooting?

Good thing we don’t get more shots.

Ok so Westbrook shoots a lot. Maybe that’s a good thing though. Maybe he isn’t on a talented team.

Westbrook TS% and Better Thunder Players (minimum 20 MPG)

Player MP/G FGA/G TS%
 James Harden  31.4 10.1 66.0%
 Nick Collison  20.7 3.2 62.2%
 Kevin Durant  38.6 19.7 61.0%
 Thabo Sefolosha  21.8 3.7 58.4%
 Serge Ibaka  27.2 7.4 55.6%
 Russell Westbrook  35.3 19.2 53.8%

The Thunder finished second last season in offense behind the Spurs. And it’s not surprising why. The Thunder had five players putting up great true shooting. In fact, Durant and Harden are downright amazing. Westbrook though, managed to shoot just above average. However, he did manage to shoot more shots per-minute than Durant. That’s right, on a team with Kevin Durant, Westbrook took the most shots per minute!

Lawson TS% and Better Thunder Players (minimum 20 MPG)

Player MP/G FGA/G TS%
Kenneth Faried  22.5 6.7 61.8%
 JaVale McGee  20.6 7.6 58.8%
 Arron Afflalo  33.6 11.3 58.4%
Ty Lawson  34.8 12.6 57.9%

The Nuggets do have better shooters than Lawson. However, it’s not by much. That’s because Lawson is actually good at shooting and unlike Westbrook, he’s able to distribute the ball.

I will bring up a final note on usage curves. Westbrook gets 7.2 more points a game. Of course, he also takes 6.6 more shots a game. How well would Lawson have to shoot with those additional shots to match Westbrook? This isn’t that hard to solve. Here’s a break down assuming Lawson got to the line at the same rate:

TS% = 7.2 / (2 * (6.6 + 0.44 * 1.8))

The solution? 48.7%. Here’s some perspective, Lawson is currently ranked 34th in TS% among players with 500+ minutes. Westbrook on the other hand is ranked 132nd. To match Westbrook, Lawson would have to shoot as well as Wayne Ellington on his remaining 6.6 shots. The question is if a top 50 player in the league could muster the ability to shoot as well as the 262nd ranked player in terms of TS% (500+ minutes). Of course, even without shooting,  Lawson is still helping his team win. He’s good at distributing the ball on a team with good scorers. Westbrook on the other hand is terrible at passing on a team with many better shooters.

Summing Up

At the end of the day, it’s hard to say Westbrook is a better player than Lawson. Yes, he scores more points. But given how poorly he does it, and the talent he’s surrounded with, it’s hard to say this is a good thing. Lawson on the other hand does virtually everything well. Sure, we can fall back on the superlative test and point out that Westbrook is more aggressive than Lawson. Except, player attitudes don’t win games, playing well does. And when it comes down to the game of basketball Lawson plays very well. The plus side for me is that as a Nuggets fan, I can be happy as a very good team potentially falls apart by letting Westbrook take a large chunk of their cap space and shots.

-Dre

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