When Russell Westbrook went down in Game 2 of the Thunder’s series against the Rockets, many people thought that ended OKC’s chance at this year’s NBA championship. And they were right. Just not in the way that most people were expecting.
Russell Westbrook is good, not great
Over the course of the regular season, Russell Westbrook scored a lot of points. He finished 6th in the NBA in both total points scored and points per game. But Westbrook also required a lot of shots to get his points. He finished second in the NBA in field goal attempts and second in the NBA in field goal attempts per 48 minutes. All this despite the fact that he had a mediocre True Shooting percentage (TS%) of 53.2% — an average point guard shot 52.7% — and that his teammate, Kevin Durant, took fewer shots (3.7 fewer FGAs/48 minutes) despite being ridiculously efficient (TS% of 64.7%).
Of course, Westbrook was the point guard, so it was largely up to him to get Durant more shots. We can’t necessarily blame Westbrook for taking shots instead of passing to Durant — scoring points is what gets basketball players paid, so he was just responding to his incentives — but it certainly didn’t help his (or his team’s) productivity. Westbrook’s real strength this season was his ability to get and maintain possession of the ball. Taking his statistical strengths and weaknesses into account, Wins Produced assigns Westbrook a value of 0.144 wins per 48 minutes, which is good, but not great. So while the Thunder lost a productive player when Westbrook went down, the Thunder still had their top three players.
The Thunder have a good supporting cast
Of course, the loss of a good — but not great — player could still be tough blow if Oklahoma City didn’t have any decent replacements on hand. Fortunately for OKC, they had plenty of players capable of performing in increased minutes:
- PG: Reggie Jackson (WP48 0.106 in 993 minutes)
- SG: Kevin Martin (WP48 0.132 in 2136 minutes)
- SG/SF: Thabo Sefolosha (WP48 0.230 in 2229 minutes)
- SF: Ronnie Brewer (WP48 0.129 in 853 minutes)
- PF: Nick Collison (WP48 0.168 in 1583 minutes)
- PF: Serge Ibaka (WP48 0.222 in 2486 minutes)
With this group of players (not to mention Kevin Durant, but that goes without saying), the Thunder should have had no problem replacing Westbrook’s minutes. We would expect Reggie Jackson’s minutes to increase drastically; Martin, Sefolosha, and Brewer to see more time at shooting guard and small forward; Durant to spend more time at power forward; and Ibaka and Collison to increase their time at power forward and centre. Simply put, while losing Westbrook was a blow, it shouldn’t have been a fatal one. As long as the Thunder’s coach knew how to adjust for Westbrook’s absence, Oklahoma City would have been fine. Unless, that is, former NBA Coach of the Year Scott Brooks was planning on increasing the minutes of some of the team’s unproductive players, but what were the odds of that happening? Which brings us to our next point….
Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins are bad
Derek Fisher and Kendrick Perkins are unproductive players. For both of these players, there was a time when this was not the case, but those days are long past. The Thunder should have kept them nailed to the bench once Westbrook went down. And while this is somewhat true of what happened to Perkins, the same cannot be said of what happened to Derek Fisher. Take a look at how each player’s minutes per game changed from the regular season to the playoff games played without Westbrook:
|Player||Regular Season Minutes Per Game||Playoff Minutes Per Game||Delta|
As expected, Jackson saw the largest increase in minutes. Durant, Martin, and Ibaka also saw their minutes increase. And Perkins had the largest decrease among players who see regular playing time. But Sefolosha, Collison, and Brewer all saw their minutes decrease, and Derek Fisher had the second largest increase on that list. In the series against the Grizzlies, either Fisher or Perkins (or both) was on the court for virtually the entire game [Editor's note: thanks to reader John for the improved specificity of the preceding sentence!]. It’s very tough to win when one of your five players is so unproductive. Concerns about small sample sizes aside, that is the most likely explanation for why the Thunder lost.
Unfortunately, this result may lead many fans and members of the media to believe that the Thunder lost because they were missing one of the best players in the league. The truth is that Russell Westbrook is a good — but not great — NBA player, and Oklahoma City lost due to too much Perky Fish.