Russell Westbrook Is Better This Season Despite Durant Leaving, Not Because He Left
Given how well he'd played the last time he didn't have to share the court with Kevin Durant, you could've guessed that Russell Westbrook's first season as Oklahoma City's sole superstar would be especially memorable. But what we've seen from him in the last month has been beyond even the most fantastic of expectations. The dude is putting together one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Objectively. There is no arguing about this. But there seems to be some question regarding the reason for his historic pace, so let's address that.
Is Russell Westbrook just filling the stat void left by Kevin Durant? Is he eating the scraps K.D. left at the table?
Let's consider the numbers: in the final 27 games of the 2014-15 season, when Durant was sidelined with a foot injury, Russ managed 31.8 points, 9.9 assists and 8.7 rebounds per game -- all well above his career averages. Upon Durant's return last season, those same numbers dropped by eight points and one rebound per game, respectively, while his assists increased by .6. Similarly, in the first 17 games of the 2016-17 season, Westbrook is averaging 31.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 11.5 assists. The obvious conclusion here is that he scores and rebounds less when playing with Durant. However, his usage rate during both Durant-less stretches has remained virtually the same, meaning he necessarily doesn't get more chances to pad his offensive stats by virtue of being the only go-to guy on the court. He's getting more or less the same amount of touches as he had with K.D. around, yet with a higher yield.
Is it possible that Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double this year because he's gotten that good at basketball? Yes.
How about his jaw-dropping rebounding numbers that make him seem six inches taller than he actually is? Sure, one could reasonably argue that Westbrook's getting more boards because he's no longer competing with a supremely athletic seven-footer for 35 minutes every night. After all, Durant finished with the 25th highest RPG average in the league last season, so it makes sense to think that there are more rebounds to be had now that he's gone. But once again, Durant's absence does not appear to be the boon for Russ's stats in the way you may have thought.
Westbrook is grabbing more boards right now despite fewer opportunities. Not only is he taking more of the team's shots this season (despite what your high school coach said, you can't really rebound your own shots), his opponents are making more of their shots -- their highest field goal percentage since 2010. Why? Because no Durant means one less lockdown defender who can guard every position on the court to create misses (misses are typically what you rebound, remember?) Moreover, his teammates are actually taking and missing fewer shots than they did last year, which makes Westbrook's current 10.5 RPG average even more impressive, because no Durant has meant he no longer has a reliable source for eight or nine rebounds from missed perimeter jump shots every game. MISSED JUMPERS = LONG REBOUNDS = REBOUNDS GUARDS GET.
Now consider this: no Durant means more 6'11" role players on the court whose sole purpose is to catch misses. Andre Roberson, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis and Joffrey Lauvergne average a total of 17 boards in 22 minutes per game, so it's not like Durant left and the Thunder told Westbrook, "Hey man, you've gotta get us three more rebounds every night now, thanks!" They started playing way more glass cleaners who should, in theory, be stealing rebounds from Westbrook, but they're not, because he's currently 11th in the NBA in that stat category.
Is it possible that his mind-blowing numbers aren't some statistical illusion and actually indicative of his growth as a player? It sure looks that way.
For more proof that his insane output this season isn't the inevitable result of becoming the default best player on an otherwise mediocre roster, take a look at his assist numbers (he's second in the NBA in that category right now, by the way). Westbrook is dishing more passes that lead to scores with exponentially less offensive talent around him to receive those passes. How do your assist numbers manage to go up after losing a five-time scoring champ as an option to pass to?!?! No Durant means no more "drive and kick to the second-best shooter in the NBA" assists. No Durant means no more "drop it off to a former MVP trailing on a fastbreak" assists. No Durant means no more "throw it up near the rim and wait for a 6'11" spider demon to descend from the clouds" assists.
Westbrook's monster 2017 campaign has been so monstrous DESPITE losing Kevin Durant. That's scary, because it essentially means he'd being doing this even if Durant was still there.
Russell Westbrook had 7 triple-doubles in November, tying himself & Michael Jordan for most in a month since '85-86. https://t.co/0TkeMujJfx
— StatMuse (@statmuse) December 1, 2016
Believe it. Russ is that good (and his best may be yet to come).
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