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Duncanized: Projecting Thunder guard Russell Westbrook using Tim Duncan's statistical career arc

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As Tim Duncan bids adieu, we're left to wonder what the Thunder's franchise player could accomplish with a similar career arc. Sure, Westbrook will probably slow down eventually. But what if he doesn't?

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Duncan finally retired. With all due respect to the many excellent writers who have since reflected on his immense success, influence, and legacy, true appreciation for Tim Duncan’s body of work can be found in a single place: the stat sheet.

It’s ironic, then, that the ultimate team player – the man who bucked every league-wide trend and yet emerged as the leader of 5 championship teams – can be most appreciated on a spreadsheet detailing individual statistics. But with Tim Duncan, there was never a need to match his work to any narrative. His work was the narrative. It still is. Few players in history (literally, maybe a few) have posted lines so meaningful for as many title-winning teams. There’s nothing else to say about numbers like this when they’re backed up by rings.

Perhaps the best Tim Duncan metaphor is that of a metronome. When you consider that it was being used 3 full years ago, and that it still applied as recently as the past season, only then can you begin to truly grasp how impossible Duncan’s career arc was.

As of today – July 12, 2016 – Russell Westbrook is still the face of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He is the franchise player and captain. His statistical output is unmatched in the modern league, and if he is donning a Thunder jersey come opening night, Westbrook is a mortal lock to post numbers unseen in his own lifetime – or at least die trying.

If Tim Duncan was a metronome, Russell Westbrook is Keith Moon reborn, here to keep a mostly steady beat with a double kick pedal – and entirely willing to scrap every bit of planning and rehearsal in favor of sheer power and energy.

With Duncan retiring, it’s interesting to consider what the Thunder’s franchise player might achieve with the same career arc. True, Westbrook would have to slow things down several (dozen) notches to even dream of a 19-year tenure at all. But what if he didn’t, and somehow lived to tell about it? Projecting Tim Duncan’s longevity onto Russell Westbrook’s general disposition is the kind of thing that results in a mathematical error, but hey – technology and treatment are advancing. And while we’ve never seen a 38-year old player like Russell Westbrook, we’ve also never really seen a 27-year old player like Russell Westbrook.

It’s blasphemous. It’s hilarious. It’s crazy. This is what happens when you do the unthinkable – the impossible. This is what happens when you Duncanize Russell Westbrook.

We’ll start with Duncan. It’s as crazy as you think.

The chart below details the following statistics for each of Tim Duncan’s 19 NBA seasons:

  • Games Played
  • Field Goal Percentage
  • Total Rebounds per 36 minutes
  • Assists per 36 minutes
  • Steals per 36 minutes
  • Points per 36 minutes

In addition, next to each column is a measure of the percentage by which each individual stat differed from the previous year. For example, Duncan posted 19.4 points his rookie season and 19.9 points in his second year, resulting in a 2.6% increase. Of note: Duncan played in 2 seasons that were shortened by work stoppages. For Games Played during those seasons, I gave him the benefit of the doubt by projecting out his total percentage of games played those years to a full 82-game season. For example, teams played only 50 games during the 1998-99 season. Duncan played in all 50 Spurs games that year, so I give him credit for 82 games in this chart. The 2011-12 season was also shortened, and Duncan played in 58 out of 66 games, projecting to 72 games over a normal season.

These, and all other stats in this piece, are from Basketball-Reference.com.

Tim Duncan
Yrs. In NBA Season G % Change FG% % Change TRB/36 MIN % Change AST/36 MIN % Change STL/36 MIN % Change PTS/36 MIN % Change
1 1997-98 82 0.549 11.0 2.5 0.6 19.4
2 1998-99 82 0.0% 0.495 -9.8% 10.5 -4.5% 2.2 -12.0% 0.8 33.3% 19.9 2.6%
3 1999-00 74 -9.8% 0.490 -1.0% 11.5 9.5% 2.9 31.8% 0.8 0.0% 21.5 8.0%
4 2000-01 82 10.8% 0.499 1.8% 11.3 -1.7% 2.8 -3.4% 0.8 0.0% 20.6 -4.2%
5 2001-02 82 0.0% 0.508 1.8% 11.3 0.0% 3.3 17.9% 0.7 -12.5% 22.6 9.7%
6 2002-03 81 -1.2% 0.513 1.0% 11.8 4.4% 3.6 9.1% 0.6 -14.3% 21.3 -5.8%
7 2003-04 69 -14.8% 0.501 -2.3% 12.2 3.4% 3.0 -16.7% 0.9 50.0% 21.9 2.8%
8 2004-05 66 -4.3% 0.496 -1.0% 12.0 -1.6% 2.9 -3.3% 0.7 -22.2% 21.9 0.0%
9 2005-06 80 21.2% 0.484 -2.4% 11.4 -5.0% 3.3 13.8% 0.9 28.6% 19.2 -12.3%
10 2006-07 80 0.0% 0.546 12.8% 11.2 -1.8% 3.6 9.1% 0.9 0.0% 21.1 9.9%
11 2007-08 78 -2.5% 0.497 -9.0% 12.0 7.1% 3.0 -16.7% 0.8 -11.1% 20.5 -2.8%
12 2008-09 75 -3.8% 0.504 1.4% 11.4 -5.0% 3.8 26.7% 0.5 -37.5% 20.7 1.0%
13 2009-10 78 4.0% 0.518 2.8% 11.6 1.8% 3.6 -5.3% 0.7 40.0% 20.6 -0.5%
14 2010-11 76 -2.6% 0.500 -3.5% 11.3 -2.6% 3.4 -5.6% 0.8 14.3% 17.1 -17.0%
15 2011-12 72 -5.3% 0.492 -1.6% 11.5 1.8% 2.9 -14.7% 0.8 0.0% 19.7 15.2%
16 2012-13 69 -4.2% 0.502 2.0% 11.9 3.5% 3.2 10.3% 0.9 12.5% 21.3 8.1%
17 2013-14 74 7.2% 0.490 -2.4% 12.0 0.8% 3.7 15.6% 0.7 -22.2% 18.7 -12.2%
18 2014-15 77 4.1% 0.512 4.5% 11.4 -5.0% 3.7 0.0% 1.0 42.9% 17.3 -7.5%
19 2015-16 61 -20.8% 0.488 -4.7% 10.5 -7.9% 3.8 2.7% 1.1 10.0% 12.2 -29.5%
AVERAGES: 75.7 -1.2% 0.504 -0.5% 11.5 -0.2% 3.2 3.3% 0.8 6.2% 19.9 -1.9%

Westbrook’s off to a good start, too

In the chart below, Westbrook gets credited with 82 games for 2011-12, as he played in all 66 Thunder games that season. That said, considering he played in every single Thunder game for the first 5 seasons of his career, the projected number seems more realistic for Westbrook than for Duncan.

Russell Westbrook
Yrs. In NBA Season G % Change FG% % Change TRB/36 MIN % Change AST/36 MIN % Change STL/36 MIN % Change PTS/36 MIN % Change
1 2008-09 82 0.398 5.4 5.9 1.5 16.9
2 2009-10 82 0.0% 0.418 5.0% 5.1 -5.6% 8.3 40.7% 1.4 -6.7% 16.9 0.0%
3 2010-11 82 0.0% 0.442 5.7% 4.8 -5.9% 8.5 2.4% 2.0 42.9% 22.7 34.3%
4 2011-12 82 0.0% 0.457 3.4% 4.6 -4.2% 5.6 -34.1% 1.7 -15.0% 24.1 6.2%
5 2012-13 82 0.0% 0.438 -4.2% 5.4 17.4% 7.6 35.7% 1.8 5.9% 23.9 -0.8%
6 2013-14 46 -43.9% 0.437 -0.2% 6.7 24.1% 8.1 6.6% 2.2 22.2% 25.5 6.7%
7 2014-15 67 45.7% 0.426 -2.5% 7.6 13.4% 9.0 11.1% 2.2 0.0% 29.5 15.7%
8 2015-16 80 19.4% 0.454 6.6% 8.2 7.9% 10.9 21.1% 2.1 -4.5% 24.6 -16.6%
AVERAGES: 75.4 3.0% 0.434 2.0% 6.0 6.7% 8.0 11.9% 1.9 6.4% 23.0 6.5%

Now the fun part: Applying Duncan’s arc to Westbrook’s numbers

Again, this is more than a little ridiculous. It’s like asking "what if ice was still ice, but as hot as fire?" The term "Duncanizing Russell Westbrook" may need to be trademarked to keep Game of Thrones writers from using it for an episode – or an entire season.

The mathematical process here is simple: using Westbrook’s just-completed 8th NBA season as the baseline, I applied Tim Duncan’s percent differences for each year to the same Westbrook stats. For example, in Year 8, Westbrook averaged 8.2 Total Rebounds per 36 minutes. In Duncan’s Year 9, his Total Rebounds per 36 minutes decreased by 5%. The Duncanized Model would then indicate that Westbrook’s Total Rebounds per 36 minutes will also decrease by 5% in his Year 9, giving him 7.8.

Before any additional thoughts, here are the obscene numbers:

Westbrook, Duncanized
Yrs. In NBA Season G FG% TRB/36 MIN AST/36 MIN STL/36 MIN PTS/36 MIN
8 2015-16 80 0.454 8.2 10.9 2.1 24.6
9 2016-17 82 0.443 7.8 12.4 2.7 21.6
10 2017-18 82 0.500 7.6 13.5 2.7 23.7
11 2018-19 80 0.455 8.2 11.3 2.4 23.0
12 2019-20 77 0.461 7.8 14.3 1.8 23.3
13 2020-21 80 0.474 7.9 13.5 2.5 23.2
14 2021-22 78 0.458 7.7 12.8 2.8 19.2
15 2022-23 74 0.450 7.9 10.9 2.8 22.1
16 2023-24 71 0.459 8.1 12.0 3.2 23.9
17 2024-25 76 0.448 8.2 13.9 2.5 21.0
18 2025-26 79 0.468 7.8 13.9 3.5 19.4
19 2026-27 63 0.446 7.2 14.3 3.9 13.7
TOTAL AVERAGES: 76.1 0.449 7.1 10.9 2.4 22.0

Of note:

  • 31-year old Russ is definitely getting MVP in 2019-20, putting up 23.3 points, 14.3 assists, 7.8 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per 36 minutes.
  • Like Duncan, Westbrook also will post career highs in key stats during later stages of his career. In 2017-18, Russ will finally make half of his field goal attempts. He will post a career high 14.3 assists per 36 minutes in not only the 2019-20 season, but again in 2026-27
  • Speaking of 2026-27, Westbrook will have an absolute monster final year. At 38 years old, his per-36 averages will be 13.7 points, 14.3 assists, 7.2 rebounds, and a career-high 3.9 steals.
  • This model projects CAREER AVERAGES of 22.0 points, 10.9 assists, 7.1 rebounds, and 2.4 steals for Westbrook.
  • Westbrook’s strongest season probably comes in 2017-18, when he averages 23.7 points, 13.5 assists, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.7 steals per 36 minutes, while also shooting exactly 50% from the field.

Westbrook’s assist numbers are certainly skewed by Duncan’s relatively small per-36 numbers. For Duncan, a mere 0.8 assists per 36 minutes increase in his Year 12 gave him a 26.7% bump. Adding 0.8 Assists per 36 is nothing crazy. You want crazy? The same 26.7% bump adds a full 3 Assists per 36 minutes for Russ, getting him to his aforementioned career high. I was prepared to argue that things even out because of Duncan’s unbelievable rebounding averages, but Russ posts far more rebounds than Duncan posts assists.

Total rebounds for Russ are likely to dip further than Duncan’s assists. The physical toll rebounding takes on a point guard is immense, while Duncan’s savvy veteran instincts helped him rack up assists even in his final seasons.

Other numbers here are just impossible. Far be it from me to question Russ’s intensity or drive or even future athletic ability, but if he ever gets 3.9 Steals per 36 minutes, it is going to come well before his 19th NBA season.

These numbers, more than anything else, are a testament to Tim Duncan’s career. Russell Westbrook is an unquestioned superstar, yet these numbers are comedic. TIM DUNCAN ACTUALLY DID THIS. Even if his numbers look like actual NBA numbers than Westbrook’s Dio guitar solo tab, Duncan actually achieved these peaks and valleys. We haven’t even gotten to the part yet where it’s pointed out that Duncan played 9,370 career playoff minutes. Or, you know, over 3 additional full 82-games seasons at an average of 36 minutes per game.

It will be weird to watch the Spurs without Tim Duncan. I hope we get the chance to say the same about the Thunder after a gray-haired Russell Westbrook finally retires in 2027 with five championships. Or, at the very least, 10 All Star MVP trophies.