Is Kevin Durant better off with Russell Westbrook or without him?
This is a question that has been bouncing around since the Seattle SuperSonics (pour one out) drafted Westbrook fourth overall in 2008 to put alongside Durant, their second overall selection from the year prior. The two have blossomed into superstars, earning several All-Star and All-NBA nods between them, but there is a portion of the NBA-following population that thinks the Thunder would be better off not having both of them.
The main problem with the pairing, according to “Westbrook haters” (let’s be honest, everyone’s cool with KD), is how Russ takes shots away from Durant, arguably the best scorer on the planet. The proposed solution to said issue usually includes some form of moving Westbrook for more of a “pass first” point guard, along the lines of a Rajon Rondo or what have you.
Both the Westbrook haters and the purveyors of #LetWestbrookBeWestbrook throw a lot of shade at each other, but don’t present a lot of data to back it up. Now, thanks to nbawowy.com, we can compare exactly how good each player was last season, both with and without the other on the floor. First, let’s look at how they played together.
The above table breaks down the 2,064 minutes of total playing time Durant and Westbrook spent together in 2013-14, spanning 4,152 possessions. In line with many complaints about Westbrook, he indeed did have a higher usage rate (33.6%) and took more field goal attempts (1,112) than his superstar counterpart (30.3% and 1,059), and still scored fewer points (1,420 to KD’s 1,519). Of course, being less efficient than KD doesn’t prove a whole lot, considering how just about everyone fits that description.
The remaining columns (effective field goal percentage, points per possession, and points per shot) become more interesting when you compare how each player was with and without the other. First, Durant with and without Westbrook:
|Durant with Westbrook||30.3%||1,059||54.3%||1.18||1.20|
|Durant without Westbrook||35.6%||1,048||55.9%||1.22||1.27|
Durant played a large sample of 1,880 minutes and 3,729 possessions without Russ last year, largely due to the 36 games Westbrook missed to knee surgeries and scheduled rest. According to the above data, Durant shot more efficiently and scored more per possession and per shot when Westbrook was off the floor than when he was on, while enjoying a sizeable bump in usage rate. That’s some fuel for Team Westbrook Hater right there.
As you'd expect, Westbrook was similarly more prolific (though less efficient) when he played without his star running-mate than when he played with him. The mere 78 minutes and 163 possessions that this happened in represents a fairly small sample size, of course, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
|Westbrook with Durant||33.6%||1,122||47.6%||1.02||1.08|
|Westbrook without Durant||44.6%||60||43.3%||1.17||1.12|
The sky-high usage percentage (seriously 44.6% would’ve led the league by over 11%) explains the far superior points per possession and points per shot marks, but the 4.3% dip in effective field goal percentage would be a problem extrapolated over a full season without KD.
The truth is, Westbrook benefits largely from being Durant’s teammate. The argument that they shouldn’t be together is usually for the benefit of Durant achieving otherworldly greatness and often ignores just how much more efficient Westbrook is with Durant and how important his success as arguably the best second option in the league is to the Thunder.
Besides, perhaps more important than individual achievement for either player is how the team plays with their two stars together.
|Durant + Westbrook||2,064||4,152||52.3%||1.129||1.146||57.5%|
|Durant without Westbrook||1,880||3,729||52.4%||1.107||1.137||53.1%|
|Westbrook without Durant||78||163||53.8%||1.172||1.224||49.2%|
The 78 negligible minutes and those crazy PPP and PPS numbers of Westbrook without Durant notwithstanding, the Thunder are simply best with the two together on the floor. OKC with KD and Russ only gave up 0.1% in terms of effective field goal percentage to the KD-only iteration, and they were notably better in points per possession, points per shot, and assist percentage with both on the floor (despite the belief that the ball sticks more in those situations).
For that matter, both players have far more of their buckets assisted when the other is on the floor than when they go at it alone.
|% of FGM assisted
|Durant with Westbrook||63.7%|
|Durant without Westbrook||35.6%|
|Westbrook with Durant||29.0%|
|Westbrook without Durant||18.2%|
And that’s probably the most important part of the debate. The Thunder had their last two title runs completely derailed by injury and Durant recently pulled himself off of Team USA, citing fatigue. If the Thunder want to contend with the title-defending Spurs and the up-and-coming Clippers and get their first ring together, keeping their players fresh is of the utmost importance. Running either star into the ground with usage percentages between 35 and 44 percent while they are consistently tasked with creating their own shot is certainly not the way to go. If you took one of these stars out of the equation, their respective workloads would likely get even bigger.
So, did we solve anything?
Not really. Westbrook haters have proof that KD performs better without Russ and the #LetWestbrookBeWestbrook crowd has evidence that the team performs better and Durant doesn’t have to work as hard when Westbrook is in tow. People who feel one way or the other about this generally feel strongly enough that they're not likely to change their minds anyway. Not to mention, the data with Durant and no Russ doesn't account for whatever the team would add in a trade, for whatever that's worth.
But it’s August in the NBA and at least now we are fighting with deeper data than simple shot attempt totals from a given game.