Thanksgiving is over, but it’s not to late to give thanks to Russell Westbrook. The Oklahoma City Thunder “point” guard is one of the NBA’s most talented stars and his play needs to be appreciated.
Westbrook’s unique style of play is challenging the status quo, changing what it means to be a point guard. Some have even tried to create a new label for players like Westbrook, such as “power guard.”
What makes the fourth overall pick in 2008 so unique is that he fills up the stat sheet in a way that not many players can. He can score with the best of them, be an elite playmaker by dishing out assists and rebounds better than most guards. This is to say nothing of his defensive prowess.
Westbrook is a physical specimen. He is 6’3 and a solid 200 lbs. of lean musle, making him bigger than a lot point guards. He takes that frame and combines it with crazy explosiveness, so he’s a nightmare to guard. Whenever Westbrook is playing, the national commentators seem to bring up “fast-twitch” muscles. He can stop and start on a dime; the best example of this is when he speeds up the court and pulls up for a jumper, turning all that horizontal momentum directly into a vertical movement, giving him a high release on his shot in traffic. When attacking the rim with reckless abandon, Westbrook is also able to contort his body to easily make what seem like unmake-able shots.
However, there are a lot of players in the league with better measurables than Westbrook – except for maybe the explosiveness – that flame out and don’t have the success he has already enjoyed. That’s because Westbrook also has the necessary work ethic, attitude and basketball IQ to be great.
Tenacious. Relentless. Ferocious. There are just a few words that seem to encapsulate what the former UCLA product mentally brings to his game. He doesn’t typically take plays off; he plays all-out every second, whether he’s looking to score or facilitate. He’s rarely out of control. He used to be and that got him in trouble on the court, but now he is more patient and measured when running Oklahoma City’s offense. Westbrook is now a better version of the 1B to his teammate Kevin Durant’s 1A. Westbrook is able to control the pace and help his team win most games when OKC’s core is healthy.
When Westbrook misses a few shots, he has the appropriate “amnesia” to still have the confidence to take that next open jumper. However, he still has the awareness to go to the rim when his shot isn’t falling.
Two players who are similar to Westbrook are Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. All three have that scorers’ mentality and the drive for greatness. Iverson was also technically a point guard like Westbrook, but is even smaller, listed at 6’0. Weighing in at a slight 165 pounds, the 40-year-old Iverson, who retired officially in 2010, has been heralded by many as the best pound-for-pound player in NBA history. Although Bryant is a shooting guard and stands at 6’6 and 212 pounds, he has the same mentality as Iverson and Westbrook. After a recent Thunder-Lakers game, Bryant compared Westbrook to himself.
How does Westbrook, who just started his eighth season, stack up against these NBA greats through their first seven years in the league? For reference, Westbrook’s first seven years were from 2009-2015, while both Iverson and Bryant started in 1997 and were entering their eighth season following the 2002-03 season.
First off, how does Westbrook stack up in the scoring column against Bryant and Iverson? On a per game basis, Westbrook and Bryant are nearly identical while Iverson is a bit ahead of them. Westbrook and Bryant averaged around 21 points in 34 minutes per game, while Iverson was at 27 points in 41 minutes a night. The numbers cluster closer together when you look at the per 36 and per 100 possession stats, though Iverson still has the slight edge as his massive amount of time on the court allowed him to put up big numbers.
Does any of this change when it’s playoff time? In postseason play, Iverson scored the most points since he had the ultimate green light as he played even more minutes and attempted more field goals. He also didn’t have as talented teammates, so he was relied on more by his team. Westbrook did edge out Bryant in scoring across all three categories (PPG, PTS/36 MINS, PTS/100 POSS) in the playoffs.
What about efficiency? Westbrook is sandwiched between Bryant (on the high-end) and Iverson (on the low-end) in overall field goal percentage with all of them in the low to mid 40s. From behind the three-point line, Westbrook’s percentage is only slightly behind both of them with all of them in the low 30s. Westbrook’s 81.9 percent free throw percentage is just behind Bryant’s 83.1 percentage, but they both beat Iverson who was at 76 percent from the charity stripe through seven seasons.
What do the advanced stats say about these three players? Westbrook beats both of them in offensive and defensive rating in the regular season per 100 possessions. The same is the case in the playoffs, except Bryant ties him with an offensive rating of 108. Westbrook had a higher free throw rate than either Bryant or Iverson.
A testament to the greatness of these players is their PER (player efficiency rating) over their first seven seasons. PER is a metric that takes a somewhat overall look at a player to determine relative value. The average NBA player has a PER of 15. Over their respective first seven seasons, Bryant leads the way at 22.2, with Westbrook just barely behind him at 22.1. Iverson is right there with a PER of 21.
Filling Up the Stat Sheet
Westbrook hangs with these all-time greats in scoring, but comes out on top in both the rebound and assist departments. On a per game basis, Westbrook averages more rebounds with 5.2 than either Bryant (5.0), who should have more as a taller shooting guard, or Iverson (4.1). Westbrook is also a better facilitator as he averaged 7.2 assists per game, while both Iverson and Bryant were under five assists per game.
Westbrook really is a stat-stuffer. And making his numbers even more impressive is the fact that they aren’t coming in garbage time or losing efforts. He’s putting up these monster stats as part of a legitimate contend (and while often taking the backseat to Durant). With each dominant, stat-stuffing performance, the legacy of Westbrook continues to grow.
Even though Westbrook has had only a little over seven seasons to accumulate stats, he is already ninth in NBA history in triple-doubles with 25 (including the two he already notched in 2015-16). LeBron James has 53 in 13 seasons and is third on the all-time list. Westbrook might not catch number one on the triple-double list (Jason Kidd at 118), but he will probably catch Magic Johnson, who is currently second with 78. Bryant has 21 so far, while Iverson had only one triple-double in his career. This season, Westbrook will probably pass Michael Jordan’s 27 triple-doubles.
Westbrook is tied with Larry Bird for the highest scoring triple-double, as both players finished with 49 points. And Westbrook did it nearly a decade younger than Larry Legend.
Westbrook can score with Bryant and Iverson, some of the best scoring guards in the previous era. However, he is a more complete player – averaging more rebounds and assists – and is also at least as good or better than both of them on the defensive side of the ball. The scary thing for the rest of the league is that Westbrook is still improving. In the 14-game sample size in 2015-16, Westbrook’s averages of 28.7 points, 10.2 assists and 7.6 rebounds are all career-highs, which is why triple-doubles are becoming relatively frequent for the “point” guard. Also, keep in mind that Westbrook just turned 27 years old this month, so it’s possible that he has several years remaining in his prime.
Westbrook doesn’t have an MVP award like both Iverson and Bryant, but if he ever has a season apart from Durant, MVP honors would probably be soon to follow as well as some insane stats.
Add in Westbrook’s fashion sense, intriguing personality and community outreach and we really need to appreciate what we are seeing from one of the game’s best and most interesting players.
Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective
The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.
The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?
While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.
Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.
The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.
The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.
As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.
Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.
And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.
But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.
Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.
High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.
On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?
Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.
Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.
But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
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