The Oklahoma City Shakeup: Should We Have Seen the Breakouts Coming?
It's not often we get to see three former teammates (turned MVP candidates) lead their teams into battle the way we did last night.
All three players -- Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden -- took center stage on their respective teams just four years and three months removed from the trade that set them on their personal NBA fates.
Ironically, two of the three -- Durant and Harden -- lost last night, while Westbrook hit a game-winner to take victory from the clutches of defeat. But, last night was a rarity for the duo of Durant and Harden. This year, their teams -- the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets -- have lost a combined 21 games and rank first and third in the NBA's Western Conference a little over halfway through the 82-game regular season.
Westbrook's Oklahoma City Thunder aren't much worse for wear. They're 26-19 through 45 games and are currently the 6 seed in the West, despite the offseason withdrawal of Durant.
July 7th, 2016 -- the date Durant officially signed with Golden State -- is the day that what could've been a dynasty officially came to an end. And October 27th, 2012 -- when Harden was traded to Houston in a blockbuster deal -- is the day that demise truly began.
Successful Solo Careers
As sad as it was to see all the opportunity go out the window along with Durant and Harden, all three seem to have found their place as the best player on their individual teams. A la the Beatles of yesterday and the One Direction of today, they're all so good that they're quite alright without the rest of the band.
Their numbers this season say it all.
|2016-17 Per Game||Points||Rebounds||Assists|
About five years removed from the initial break-up, all three players are averaging at least 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists per game. In addition, Durant, Harden and Westbrook rank 1st, 3rd and 14th in our own power rankings, respectively.
At number one, Durant has earned a 13.8 nERD. This player ranking -- which measures a player's overall contributions over the course of a season, based on efficiency -- means that, if he were on a league-average team, Durant would make that team an estimated 14 games above .500. How?
On a 27.5% usage (a percentage of how many of his team's possessions he uses while on the floor) -- by far, the lowest among the three -- Durant is converting his 17 field goal attempts per game at a career-high true shooting (a measure that takes into account two-point field goals, three-point field goals, and free throws) rate of 65.6%. His block percentage of 3.9% and his defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 100 are also personal-bests for his 10-year career.
Harden is having a career year in his own right, with highs in usage (33.9%), rebounds per game (8.2), and assists per game (11.6). In fact, Harden's assist percentage of 51.5% is 16.1 points higher than his mark of 35.4% a year ago. As a result, his 11.3 nERD not only ranks third in the league but also puts him on pace for a career-high rating of 19.3.
On the other hand, Westbrook isn't having the most efficient season of his career. His nERD of 6.6 has him on pace for a final score of 12.0, which would fall 3.4 short of his best rating achieved a year ago. But, his 42.1% usage rate is the highest of his career and the highest in the NBA this season.
So, for what he's lacking in efficiency, Westbrook has made up for in pure production. He leads the league in box plus-minus and value over replacement player with estimates of 14.0 and 6.3, respectively.
Yeah, so what? We know how good all three were in Oklahoma City, but could we have expected them to be this good?
Superstars in the Making
Together, the three generated more than respectable per-game numbers.
|2011-12 Per Game||Points||Rebounds||Assists|
In 2011-12, the only season that all three played at least 30 minutes a game, Durant led the charge with 28 points on 38.6 minutes per game. Westbrook followed suit in 35.3 minutes per game while Harden played an average of 31.4 minutes, with just two starts and primarily appearing as the first man off the bench for head coach Scott Brooks.
In terms of usage, at 32.7%, Westbrook used the most of the Thunder's possessions while on the court. Durant followed close behind at 31.3%, and Harden ranked third on the team at 21.6%. Unfortunately, there isn't much to look at as it pertains to changes in usage and production with one another off the court.
In the league's shortened season (66 games), only Harden missed four games while Durant and Westbrook played a healthy regular season. In the set of games absent the league's Sixth Man of the Year, the two did, as expected, average higher usage rates and points per game.
Durant averaged 31 points per game on a 35.7% usage rate, and Westbrook tallied 24 points per game on a slightly higher usage rate of 33.4%.
As you can tell, we have nothing on Harden without Durant and Westbrook. How did the Rockets' front office gauge just how valuable he was then?
Using numbers per 100 possessions -- a much bigger sample size, in essence -- we get an idea of what the Rockets were looking at.
|2011-12 Per 100 Poss.||Points||Rebounds||Assists|
This doesn't just account for playing time and how the workload was commonly distributed between the three. It actually gives us a glimpse of what they were doing individually at a heightened pace.
The Thunder's pace was 93 possessions per game that year, so this is seven possessions faster (meaning more time for production) and considers what each player would do in that same timeframe, if you will, when isolated.
The only issue here is usage. There's no changing each player's usage rate. These numbers are based off of their existing usage rates at the time, just over more possessions than a normal minutes load would allot.
Fast forward to today, and you get to see what each player is doing in the same amount of possessions at their current usage rates and in their current roles on their separate teams.
|2016-17 Per 100 Poss.||Points||Rebounds||Assists|
Naturally, Harden's and Westbrook's points have gone up along with their other triple-double threatening stats. Durant, on the other hand, as a part of the Warriors' loaded offensive attack, has maintained about the same point yield per 100 possessions with a usage rate nearly four percentage points lower than that of his 2011-12 season.
It's actually quite impressive that he's managed to produce more assists in the same amount of time in using fewer possessions.
In his new role as "point guard," Harden has drastically increased his assists numbers while his rebounds have gone up proportionally. Westbrook's numbers are surely above where you would've expected them to be even given the subtraction of the two, but his usage and the lack of help around him has forced him to greater heights.
I'm not sure we could have foreseen this type of production from Westbrook and Harden. In fact, we haven't seen it since the days of Oscar Robertson. What we should have seen, however, is the success of these three players absent one another. The proof is in the crystal ball that is advanced stats.
And for that reason, all three are having career years and are doing great things in their own unique ways for their own teams.
Appropriately, the Warriors, Rockets and Thunder rank 1st, 5th and 11th in our power rankings, and each of them have at least a 99.2% chance of making the 2017 playoffs, according to our algorithms.
By oddsmakers' standards, the former Thunder buddies make up three of the top five choices for NBA MVP, to this point. Bovada, as of January 5th, has Westbrook first at 1/1 odds, Harden second at 3/2, and Durant fifth at 11/1. The odds are pretty good that one of them will take home the hardware.
Some five years ago, we wouldn't have guessed that these three would be competing for the MVP against one another. But, knowing what we know today, we should have expected it.