The Truth behind Russell Westbrook’s Greatness

This post was supposed to go up earlier in the week but things like a crazy Harden trade and Arturo projecting the entire 2013 NBA season took precedence! Also, in case you didn’t notice, you can add tweets to our live feed using the tag #wagesofwins in your tweets!

I’ve gotten into a few arguments about my claim that Ty Lawson is not only an elite point guard but that he’s much better than Russell Westbrook.

Welcome to Loud City (a Thunder blog) presented my argument and added a few thoughts:

Westbrook has something that Lawson does not, and it is difficult to see it in things like PER, which are dependent on large sample sizes.


For Westbrook, I think he possesses a top end gear that he can crack into when his team needs it, and that ability distinguishes him from many other players who may possess better pure PG skills.

There are two good points in here. First, by using totals we may be missing if Lawson comes up big when needed. After all, our recent post showing why Stephen Jackson wasn’t that great revealed that four great games kept his average high in San Antonio. Second, it is possible that Westbrook is providing extra in important games. Unfortunately though, the data just doesn’t bare this out.

Break Down of Games

For this exercise I used the data from and the Points over Par metric. This tells us how many points a player is earning us a game. For example, an “average” player would earn us 0 points a game (no gain or loss) where a good player would earn us closer to 3.0 points a game (a margin of 3 points over our opponent)  I did a quick breakdown of how many games each player had in give range. So how do Lawson and Westbrook compare?

Regular Season Breakdown

PoP Range Lawson Nuggets W-L Westbrook Thunder W-L
-15.0 to -10.0 1  0-1 4  2-2
 -10.0 to -5.0  4  2-2 7  4-3
 -5.0 to 0.0  16  4-12 20  11-9
 0.0 to 5.0  20  13-7 23  17-6
 5.0 to 10.0  16  14-2  8  7-1
 10.0 to 15.0  4  3-1  4  4-0

Alright, so quick tally. Westbrook has more bad games than Lawson by a wide margin (31 to 21) He slightly edges him in the 0.0 to 5.0 range (20-23) but then loses 20-12 when it comes to truly great games. What’s more Lawson had just as many top games as Westbrook.

Now here’s the real kicker behind all of this. When Lawson played poorly, the Nuggets lost. When Westbrook played poorly, the Thunder won! In games Lawson played below average, the Nuggets went 6-15. In games when Westbrook played terribly the Thunder went 17-14. (And that means roughly 1/3 of Lawson’s games fell in the below average territory as compared to roughly 1/2 of Westbrook’s)

Playoffs Breakdown

PoP Range Lawson Nuggets W-L Westbrook Thunder W-L
-15.0 to -10.0 1  0-1 0  0-0
 -10.0 to -5.0 2  1-1 3  1-2
 -5.0 to 0.0 2  0-2 5  3-2
 0.0 to 5.0 1  1-0 10  8-2
 5.0 to 10.0  0  0-0  1  0-1
 10.0 to 15.0  0  0-0  1  1-0
 15.0 to 20.0  1  1-0  0  0-0

Now the playoffs are harder to measure. Westbrook played 20 games compares to Lawson’s 7. This is a bit of a mixed bag. Lawson had two good games compared to 5 sub-par games. Westbrook had 8 sub-par games and 12 above average games. In fact, in the middle of the playoffs, I recall being surprised by the turnaround (he reverted to form) But here’s where it all comes together. The Nuggets were down down 3-2 when Lawson put up an amazing 32 point perfomance that earned him a PoP of +15.4. I’ll admit he faded down the stretch of game 7 but the Nuggets were also in it until the Lakers’ bigs exploded on us. However, in his final two games he had three quarters where he scored 13 or more points! Thus the claim Lawson can’t come up big seems ridiculous.

It should also be noted that Westbrook managed to keep a 0.500 record in sub-par games (3-3). Also, the Heat’s victory game had Westbrook put up an abysmal -9.3 PoP game. This was right after he put up a great game where he scored 43 points, which also resulted in a loss. So the idea of winning when it matters seems relative.

The MVP Test

Dean Oliver summed up how MVP voting happens “Top scorer on a winning team.” Now, we can pretend the formula is more complicated. I wish it were. The reason Westbrook is considered great is he scores a lot of points on a winning team. Does he have a lot of ability? Sure, but unless it translates into wins, it is not useful! Westbrook has taken whatever amazing skills he has and turned himself into an average player that shoots a lot. Luckily, he’s a on team where this type of behavior is rewarded.

The simple fact is the perceived difference between Lawson and Westbrook entirely breaks down to the team they play on. I’ll note that the Nuggets and Thunder only differed in Offensive Rating (points scored per 100 possesions) by 0.6 points. You are welcome to choose whichever of the following explanations you want to explain it.

1. Lawson is better, especially in the areas of offense, than Westbrook.

2. Westbrook is much better than Ty Lawson and therefore Arron Afflalo, Danilo Gallinari, Al Harrington and Nene/JaVale McGee are better than James Harden, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins when it comes to offense. (Editor’s Note: Of course Westbrook will now have to plan sans Harden!)

Take your pick!



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