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Sounds of Thunder: The Year of Russell Westbrook, Part IV - Like the ball, those darn numbers don’t lie

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Lies, damn lies, and statistics

Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters. - Albert Einstein
box score via Basketball Reference

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.
-Buddha

Those that would pick at the triple-double’s statistical components to diminish it’s significance in this MVP race tend to start by depreciating the rebounds by over stressing the number of uncontested rebounds Russell is afforded each game and then move on quickly. There’s a reason for that.

Per NBA.com stats:

Contested rebound %

  • Westbrook - 20.2%
  • Harden - 21.6%
  • James - 24.1%

For all of Lowe and Cowherd’s harping about uncontested rebounds, it is plain to see that the majority of rebounds all the guards in this MVP race garner are uncontested, but let’s be fair. (and really put their lame argument in its place)

Lowe and Cowherd claim more of Harden’s rebounds are contested than Westbrook...true, 1.4% more. That number grows to 3.9% when comparing Westbrook to James, so screw it, let’s even the playing field and start by taking away that 1.4% advantage Westbrook has over Harden and see if the big pundits’ beef can hold its mud (at the time this section was written, Westbrook had accumulated 822 rebounds in 77 games):

822 X 1.4% = 12 rebounds (11.5 rounded up)
822 - 12 = 810
and 810 divided by 77 equals 10.5 rebounds/gm. Triple-double in tact.

Hmmmm.... well surely there must be some merit when Westbrook’s numbers are adjusted for “the King”:

822 X 3.9% = 32 rebounds (32.06 rounded down)
822 - 32 = 790
and 790 divided by 77 equals 10.3 rebounds/gm. Sorry boys, the triple-double is still there. Your claim the rebounds are insignificant was just barking at the moon.

Kawhi supporters don’t even have a gripe in this area. Their main is a front court player that comes in fourth in rebounding.... on his own team.

Suffice it to say, when Dub Reed said that tenacious rebounding is what set Oscar and Russell apart from all the guards from 1962 till now and why the triple-double record has stood so long, he was spot on.

More Numbers

When a player has a season like Westbrook is having, his name pops up during stats research seemingly everywhere.

From Basketballreference.com:

Westbrook leads the league in scoring at 31.8 pts/gm, at 6’3” he is the tenth leading rebounder in the league at 10.7/gm, third in assists at 10.4/gm, and 10th in steals at 1.7/gm. For those advanced stat lovers out there he leads the league in PER, 30.8 (the only player above 30 this season), asst %, 57.4, BPM, 15.6, OBPM, 10.8, and VORP, 12.0 (no other player is in double digits). Russell is in the top ten in defensive rebounding %, offensive and defensive WS, total WS, WS per 48 minutes, and sits second in the league in DBPM.

.... but stats, especially advanced stats, always seem to lead to some juvenile pissing contest about which stat it the most telling. All these various stats have their strengths and weakness and in a recent article Shane Young from newly formed 16 Wins a Ring sports website came up with the somewhat novel idea of combining the most popular production-based metrics with a simple 1 + 2 + 3 formula to come up with his MVP rating chart that was very similar to this:

Shane Young and nba.com

The difference in this chart and Young’s original is that nba.com’s catch-all metric PIE is added. It seemed odd to include Hollanger’s PER and ESPN’s RPM and omit the NBA’s new baby stat, PIE until the new result was tallied. In Young’s article, he eventually talks himself out of believing his own results, quietly rejoins the herd with Cowherd and Lowe, and hands the MVP trophy to Kawhi Leonard and based that conclusion primarily on the Leonard’s WS’s per 48 numbers, ironically the only metric Leonard led among the top 4 on Young’s chart. Including PIE on the MVP chart dropped Young’s favorite from the #3 spot to #4. (perhaps why it wasn’t included)

While Young makes a strong argument regarding WS per 48 and previous MVP winners, it must be noted that accounting for all players with each top MVP candidates team, including negative WS.

Russ has 12.4, all other Thunder have 29.5 total, amounting to 29.6% of entire team WS.

Lebron has 12.1 WS, all other Cavs have 35.1 total amounting to 25.6% of entire team WS.

Harden has 14.2, all other Rockets 39.1. 26.6 % of all team WS

Kawhi has 13.2, all other Spurs have 44.9. 22.7% of all team WS (again 4th)

Ironically, Young seems to almost talk himself back into the light and believing what his MVP chart revealed in his summary of Westbrook’s season when he noted that on a per minute basis, Russ has had a much stronger offensive season than Oscar’s 1962 campaign, is posting a career best DBPM rating of +4.7 (second in the league) even though his team will not win 50 games, AND what may very well be what get voters to leave the herd of those, like Young, who believe only a top contender can contain the MVP... Westbrook’s performance in the clutch this season.

His [Westbrook’s] strongest argument [for MVP] perhaps comes down to something Oklahoma City was often criticized for during the Durant-Russ era: Clutch-time performance. Ironically, it’s what haunted them in the Western Conference Finals last May. Now, it may help Westbrook win the MVP.

During the Thunder’s 130 minutes of “clutch time” this year — which is defined as the game being within five points either way, with five minutes or less remaining — OKC has a ridiculous +21.7 net rating. For most of the year, that was leading the league. The Spurs have since eclipsed it, but Westbrook’s individual numbers in the clutch are only rivaled by one other candidate:

In the clutch:

Westbrook: 115.2 offensive rating, 93.5 defensive rating = 21.7 net rating

Leonard: 114.5 offensive rating, 93.2 defensive rating = 21.3 net rating

The fact that Oklahoma City is just as good defensively with Westbrook on the floor during clutch time as the Spurs are with Leonard … is a bit of a shocker.

Perhaps it would not have been such a shock with just a bit more digging.

Per NBA.com, Westbrook leads the league in clutch-time (the last five minutes of a game in which the point differential is 5 or less) points, and, as we see in the chart below, leads his closest MVP competition in the same areas Cowherd and Lowe accuse him of stat padding:

Stats via Basketballreference.com and NBA.com, 4/7/2017

What immediately jumps out is Westbrook’s increase in both FG and FT% when the pressure is on. Other than LBJ’s 0.2% jump on his pitiful 67% FT average, every other average dropped, with Harden’s most notably. Not surprisingly, the newly crowned triple-double King also leads the competition in both assists and rebounds, but what must never be overlooked is that Westbrook has had no one to hide behind, he has done this with every defensive eye on the court trained on him and him alone...and not just for a game, a week, or a month, Westbrook has done it for an entire season.

Final Thoughts: There is great and then there is historic

“Heroes are remembered but legends never die.”
-George Herman Ruth

When I realized that Russell truly had a shot at breaking Oscar Robertson’s record, it shocked me to realize how many writers and pundits were willing to discredit that record so they could cling to a standard of voting for the MVP award that pigeon-holes voters options and has excluded many great seasons in the past from any real consideration.

What sets Westbrook’s 2016/17 campaign apart from the great overlooked seasons in the past is that it isn’t just great, it’s historic and historically significant for the very fabric of the history of the NBA. Webster’s defines historic as having great and lasting importance, which basically means that Westbrook’s season was not only great, but will be remembered for generations to come. Players and coaches, past and present, who have experienced this league first hand, recognize the significance of what they are seeing and are stepping forward to voice their opinions in overwhelming fashion that Westbrook is this season’s MVP..... and then there are the Cowherds.

They want to change the narrative on this season and find a way to downgrade it from historic to merely great and have chosen the double-digit rebounds as their target. As was clearly shown earlier, their argument doesn’t hold up under closer consideration, but now it’s time to bury that unsubstantiated narrative once and for all.

Overemphasizing the uncontested rebound context by not acknowledging that their favorite, whoever that may be, also enjoys their fair share of uncontested boards, is disingenuous to say the least. With a simple look at the real numbers we saw that Westbrook still produced a triple-double season but there is something much bigger that wasn’t said.

If, after the playing field was leveled, a 6’3” player like Westbrook could still average over 10 boards a game, then why didn’t a 6’5” Harden, or a 6’8” beast like Lebron James do it?

Robertson’s old teammate Hub Reed gave some insight to the answer:

In my opinion, if Russell doesn’t get the MVP this season there is no justice left in the world. Now I know there is a lot made about the easy rebounds Russell gets every game, but that leaves the ones that he has to go in there and get and he does it better than any guard since Oscar.

Namely, offensive rebounds, few of which are uncontested, and yet another stat Westbrook leads his closest competition by a wide margin.

Conclusion

Many of those 2 “little” rebounds are earned among the giants in the NBA and either lead to second chance points for the Thunder or deny other teams from scoring. On a team that averages 106.7 pts/gm and gives up 105.9, that “little” extra has meant the difference in winning and losing this season, this entire season. Denying their value is ridiculous in the first place, but when the motive is to discredit something as special as this incredible season just to give one licence to ignore history is tragic.

It’s tragic because it distracts voters from the other two facets of the triple-double season: Scoring and assists. In a CBSSports.com report last month, Matt Moore had this to say about this season’s MVP race:

He’s on pace to average a triple double -- the first player to do so since Oscar Robertson -- and doing it while leading the league in scoring. That’s unheard of. That’s crazy to even say. If I had said “a player will average a triple-double while leading the league in scoring” last summer, you would have said, “Oh, they’re the MVP, what are we talking about? Let’s go get snacks instead of even debating this.”

If averaging a triple-double while leading the league in scoring is crazy and unheard of and would have ended the debate last summer, what if on top of that you added that same player would lead the league in ASST % on a team with 3 rookies and 5 others playing on rookie contracts in the regular rotation?

Shane Young added some perspective on Westbrook’s scoring and assists this season:

He is going to be the first player in NBA history to finish a season scoring over 40 points per 100 possessions AND holding a 50% or greater assist percentage. What assist percentage reveals is the percent of teammates’ field goals that are assisted by a player, when he’s on the floor. So, not only is Westbrook scoring at a rate similar to Stephen Curry’s second MVP year, but he’s dishing the ball at a rate higher than any of Chris Paul’s seasons. Now, it should be noted that Westbrook isn’t a better passer than a lot of the all-time point guards … he’s just spreading the wealth at one of the highest rates.

Chris Paul? meh! No offense to Paul fans, but Westbrook’s 57.2% assist rate is 7% higher than John Stockton’s career average and would qualify as Stockton’s 3rd best ASST% season topped only by Stockton’s career best 57.5 in ‘90/’91 and 57.4 in ‘89/’90 which also happen to be the top two ASST% seasons of ALL TIME!

Yes ladies and gents, that is what the Cowherds and Lowes out there are desperately trying to avert your attention from. Russell Westbrook is leading the league in scoring while simultaneously producing the 3rd highest ASST% season...... EVER!! He’s doing it with every defensive eye on him and without anything near a Karl Malone to pass to and to hear Cowherd or Lowe tell it, he’s just throwing in breaking a 55 year old record just for grins.

In any other year, the great seasons produced by Harden, Leonard, and James would all warrant strong consideration for MVP, but this isn’t just any year. What Westbrook has produced isn’t just a “great year”, he has put together a masterpiece, a magnum opus that will be remembered long after this season’s eventual champion has been forgotten.

Great seasons are special, but historic seasons live forever... Russell Westbrook IS the 2016/17 MVP....

And if you decide to try and make a numbers argument of it again because you think you have seen it all, Russ gives you magic:

2017 was truly the year of Russell Westbrook.

#WhyNot

Part V - The Myth Unveiled

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Special thanks to Hub Reed and my stats man, Dominic Flaim, for their invaluable insight and contributions, and to the Jordan Brand for allowing us to air their new tribute video to Russell and his new record.