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OKC Thunder: Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Pluses and Minuses

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I have been an avid reader of the NBA blog "Behind the Basket" this year, and I hope you have had the opportunity read it as well. I first discovered them when I started aggregating team rankings, and they were one of the handful that were great about staying up to date. I also like them because, similar to John Hollinger, they have been critical of the Thunder this season (mostly fair, I would say), so it helps me balance out the more glowing perspectives. Today they posted this piece:

Round Two After Two: Some Facts You May Not Know | Behind the Basket

Within this post, they write the following (emphasis mine):

Despite everything they bring to Oklahoma City, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have a combined -15 plus/minus through two games against Memphis. In the Game One loss, they were -6 (RW) and -10 (KD), and in the Game Two win, they were 0 (RW) and +1 (KD). For comparison's sake, James Harden is -5, Serge Ibaka is -1, Nick Collison is +1, Eric Maynor is +2, Thabo Sefolosha is +6, and Daequan Cook is +10. The only Thunder player to have a worse plus/minus than either All-Star is Kendrick Perkins at -15. How could that be? Although Durant has shot well in the series (49% FG, 5-for-7 from deep), Westbrook has been pedestrian (42% FG), neither has been consistent on the glass, together they have 15 turnovers and 15 assists, and it's not like Westbrook-the better defender of the two-has been slowing down Memphis' Mike Conley (39 points, 54% FG, 3-for-7 from deep, 15 assists to only 4 turnovers). During the regular season, the duo had only the team's 6th best plus/minus for a player pair despite playing by far the largest amount of minutes together.

A few points of discussion after the jump.

  • The numbers speak for themselves, so we cannot get around them. If you follow this link (which Mr. Blott also refers to in his post) you can see that Durant/Westbrook only add up to 6th place for OKC. The top three spots are occupied by Nick Collison and some other guy. On top of that, if you switch the view to the entire league, you will see that Durant/Westbrook do not even make it into the top 50. If you peruse the top of that top 50 list, you can see that it is dominated by another two-man attack, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and the rest of that list is filled up with various combinations of the Spurs, Celtics, and Lakers. So based on this first glance, you might conclude that the high scoring OKC duo is a little bit better than Golden State's own high scoring duo of Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis. If we trust the +/-, the Thunder should not be a very good team. They should be somewhere between average and slightly above average.
  • Here is the disconnect though - the Thunder finished the season 55-27 (by contrast, the Warriors finished 36-46). While the Thunder duo's combined +/- was only 154, Curry and Ellis' combined +/- was so bad that it doesn't even register. So by the same argument, you could say that Golden State would have been much better off playing their two best players, Ellis and Curry together, well, never. 

    For another comparison, if you look at the Grizzlies' Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, they have a similar combined +/- of 157. Memphis won 46 games, nine fewer than the Thunder. 
  • How do we explain this apparent contradiction? Well, it could mean one of two general things: either the Thunder bench is much, MUCH better than we think (see the Collison rankings) and make up for Durant/Westbrook's shortcomings,  or the +/- is not telling us everything that we need to know.
  • Let's check in with a dead Russian atheist philosopher:
"Whenever you think you are facing a contradictioncheck your premisesYou will find that one of them is wrong." - Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

I actually think that both of the explanations hold merit.

  1. The Thunder bench. I've argued many times in this space that the Thunder bench is the best in the league. The only other teams that I think are in contention are the Mavericks (witness their recent Game Two against the Lakers) and the Nuggets. We may yet find out how the Thunder bench stacks up against Dallas, but I think the Nuggets question was answered rather definitively. If you have watched a majority of the Thunder games this season, you would likely concur that it was the play of their bench that either a) extended leads; or b) recovered from deficits. So during the extended periods when both the Thunder and the opposition were featuring a majority of their benches, the Thunder bench continuously demonstrated that it was incrementally better.

    This fact manifested itself most recently in the first seven minutes of Game Two's 4th quarter. With a line-up that featured Eric Maynor, James Harden, Nick Collison, Daequan Cook, and Serge Ibaka, the Thunder turned an eight point lead into a 20 point lead, effectively ending the game. 

  2. The value of the +/-. The way most teams win games in the NBA is not through having their best player be staggeringly better than the opponent's best player. Rather, it is by the team's collection of talent be incrementally better than the opposition. If the bench players don't do their jobs, you end up with Thunder losses like the ones against the Clippers. Blake Griffin is always going to throw up stats as impressive as Kevin Durant's. However, the reason why the Thunder won 23 more games is because their collective talent that comes after Durant is so much better. 

    Intuitively and observationally, what I think is going on is that when the Thunder play against some of the better teams in the league, the role that Durant and Westbrook play is merely an early maintenance role. Since they were the chief offensive components of the starting five (they average almost half of the Thunder's total points), they carry the load when all the starters are in and the games are close. Are the two really good? Yes, they are. Are the two really much better on offense than another good team's starting five? That's more of a stretch. 

    We also have to keep in mind that, for 2/3 of the season, the Thunder defense was bad. It was often really bad, like in the bottom third of the league. The starters frequently ended the first quarter in a hole, and often had to rely on strong 3rd quarters to get back in the game. The early stretch of the season is going to skew the final numbers a bit. If we look at the most recent spate of games, we still see the Thunder giving up a lot of points in the 1st quarters. After that point, the bench comes in, the defense ratchets up, and the team pulls away in the second half. So while the game is still early but competitive, the opposing team is more likely to be ahead against the Thunder while Durant and Westbrook are on the court.

    Of course, the counter-argument to this position is, that is how every team plays, and we don't see LeBron and Wade finishing with so many negatives in games. This is true. What I think it indicates though, and to the Thunder's credit, is that Durant and Westbrook actually get better as the games go on. They're still working on getting the beginnings of games right, but after those rocky beginnings, the Thunder figure things out and excel and win. At the end of the day, 55-27 is the +/- that really matters.
The hidden answer: The pessimist would say, "the Thunder's two best players are significantly worse off together than any of the other dominant all-stars in the game." This is true.

However, the optimist would counter that, of the top player duos in the league, the guys who have a chance of leading their teams to championships, the average ages are:

Player Combo +/- Avg. Age
James/Wade 552 27.5
Garnett/Pierce 543 33.5
Nowitzki/Terry 488 32.5
Kobe/Gasol 418 31.5


Durant and Westbrook are both 22. They are both approximately five years away from even reaching their physical apex. They are nowhere even close to maximizing their future potential, as the +/- indicates. In other words, what you see these two guys doing right now? They are merely warning shots.