Apr 5, 2015; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) shoots the ball as Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) defends during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
A screaming comes across the court. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
It is too late. The defense still contests, but it’s all theater. There is no way to stop him. No player can keep up. The defenders strain and stall, steps behind the blur that goes through them. The rim shakes. And the backboard — glass — is contorted by his force: the threat of a shatter.
Defense is about having a few ordered states to stop certain movements and contain scoring. But there is nothing to stop him now.
Another figure thousands of miles away moves in deliberate, calculated paces, limbs rotating in precise arcs to maximize the chance of defender contact. The chaos of contact is now a harnessed medium. The defenders are part of his offense; they are one step behind spatially and two steps behind mentally.
He is the means for the end. He exploits the system of basketball and mines the rule-book for advantages. He is an extension of the court itself.
There are no cheers, yet the points matter just the same.
When they meet, will it be the entropy or will it be order? Hold still and watch the chaos unfurl. A screaming holds across the court. Will he bring an end to the system, or will he be enveloped by it? Will it end in darkness or in light?
The arena is now wrapped in twilight, hours after the two figures tangled. Nothing had been settled. The game had been close, and both forces fought hard — but what happened? And who were they?[1. This is all a reference to the Thomas Pynchon masterwork, Gravity’s Rainbow]
The Incredible MVP Race and Our Antithetical Foes
With Kevin Durant injured and a 30 year-old LeBron lagging behind the top of the field, needing a two week recovery period, there was a power vacuum at the top of the league, and a handful of young players fought for the crown. Stephen Curry is the likely victor as he’s led a truly great team — the list of best players on teams as great as the Warriors is pretty short and includes Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and either Jerry West or Wilt Chamberlain. Anthony Davis is playing like a young David Robinson and has been much better on offense than we expected; his team is just in shambles and due to a number of factors like coaching and the sad decline of Ryan Anderson, it’s absurd Davis has been as good as he has been and that they’ve even competed for a playoff spot. But two Durant teammates, one former, are on the shortlist too and have swayed a number of influential people.
James Harden has a solo act in Houston, propping up a disheveled cast that hasn’t had a fully healthy Howard and other pieces, and the team outside of Harden appears to be one very far away from a 50+ win season. Then there’s Westbrook in Oklahoma City who did everything supermanly possible to keep the team in the playoffs despite injuries to the former MVP Durant and Ibaka, among others — and he’s succeeding so far.
The similarities between Harden and Westbrook can only be sketched out vaguely. Both are MVP candidates; both were teammates; and both are high-scoring, high-assist forces on offense. Russell is a so-called “zero guard” as a scorer, or shooting guard, trapped in a point guard’s role, or so we’ve been told; the Beard is a nominal shooting guard with the role of a point guard on his own team, creating plays and open shots for others. Yet the two guys derive their value from different means and don’t really play alike. Both are valued because of their offense and are not in the race for their defense, but they arrived there differently: Westbrook was a defensive prospect in college who’s had his moments in the NBA but gambles too much and is clearly not a stopper, while Harden used to be a human highlight reel of defensive miscues but has curtailed many of his mistakes and by some measures has been decent. You’d never think to compare the two players at a surface level unless you were sorting through top guards or MVP candidates.
The difference between these MVP foes partly comes down to the old skill/athleticism dichotomy. Westbrook has a good case for being the most athletic player in the league and attacks the basket with great ferocity. He’s not a shooter, however, and can be too aggressive and will make mistakes. Harden’s a pretty good shooter, but his skill lies in what he’s able to do off the dribble and how crafty he is around the rim. He doesn’t need to jump over people to get points; he can just go into them and get to the line. Both guys are probably underrated, however, on the other side of the coin: Harden’s pretty athletic and Westbrook does have skill or else he’d just be a track star.
These different approaches can lead to the same net result, but a large portion of the basketball world doesn’t seem to think so. The schism might be due to philosophical issues. Harden isn’t a classical star, and some old-school stat-readers see his FG% and aren’t swayed. There’s a lot of negative discussion about how his game doesn’t count because his free throw trips are bogus — apparently. his “true” Platonic value is lower because in some ideal world he would never get to the line with the same frequency and, consequently, he would not be a star. And we toss out any information on his scoring efficiency because of its exotic nature — for years, teams won without any notion of true-shooting percentage.
Westbrook, naturally, gets praised for his high-scoring and criticized for his inefficiency by others. But he’s undeniably a force for good for his team, so some people take this concept and run away thinking efficiency should hardly be valued at all. Yet there’s something missing.
Why Does Efficiency Matter?
One of the biggest shifts the statistics movement caused in basketball was a focus on shooting efficiency, especially one that’s adjusted for three-pointers and free throws. For decades, the common measure for “efficiency” was field-goal percentage, which just describes field goals and not points — remember, you win games with points, not field-goal percentage. The stat true-shooting percentage is basically just a points adjusted field-goal percentage and more accurately reflects value than pure FG%. Thus, people like John Hollinger ushered in an era where we lauded guys like Chauncey Billups and Kevin Martin for their ability to draw fouls and get to the line. Arguments on the internet soon switched to that dogma, criticizing past superstars like Iverson and even, unfairly, Kobe for their inefficiency. In some ways, this approach with TS% has gone too far, but it’s not something to be entirely ignored either.
There’s definitely value in looking at points produced per shot attempt (TS% is like points per shot except it’s transformed to look like FG% because that’s what we’re used to) as an efficiency measure, but we can’t stop the analysis there. For one, that doesn’t count turnovers, which are, obviously, a significant part of basketball. Dwight Howard’s shooting percentages look less impressive when you see all his turnovers and Chris Paul looks like a giant on offense when you consider his absurdly low turnover rates, which helps to explain LAC’s now annual dominance on offensive efficiency. Then there’s the playmaking issue of how certain players can raise the efficiency of their teammates by drawing defensive attention and passing, even if they are inefficient; this is the Iverson effect. By boilerplate standards of efficiency, Iverson was a harmful force on offense, but that’s misleading and his team did well when he shot more often[2. Of course, this doesn’t mean I think Iverson was a worthy MVP and was better than, say, Shaq. Individual efficiency still does matter, and there are other factors to consider than Iverson’s high PPG.].
When Westrook entered the scene, he encountered the same criticisms we applied to Iverson. In fact, he went up against another issue: in playing with one of the most efficient scorers ever, Durant. People stated he is “stealing” shots that would be better utilized elsewhere. This was compounded when Harden emerged as a scorer. By 2011, he was using over 30% of his team’s possessions (shot and free throw attempts with turnovers), and it was slightly more than Durant and significantly more than Harden. Thus, the complaints rained in from everywhere and his shooting efficiency tanked his value, according to some, despite some evidence that the Thunder play better when he shoots more often.
That called for a decent test of Westbrook’s value, and it came the season following Harden’s surprising trade. This was immediately after James Harden had finished one of the most efficient scoring seasons ever, posting a 66.0 TS% compared to Westbrook’s 53.8. Look at this list — few players have ever scored like that and it was a similar season in volume to a couple stellar ones from Nash and McHale, respectively, for two of the best offensive teams in league history. That Thunder team in 2012 was pretty special too, making the finals with a young core and winning the equivalent of 58 wins when you prorate the lockout season to 82 games.
Yet after Harden left, the Thunder improved (on both offense and defense) and Durant was electric; they were a Westbrook injury away from a serious run in the playoffs again. So what happened? How could the Thunder improve when an efficient player leaves and its lead shot creator is one of their least efficient?
Let’s get this one issue out of the way first: efficiency definitely matters. It’s better when your lead scorer is more efficient. This isn’t stat-wonkery — it’s just about producing more points with the same attempts. And points win games.
James Harden, by this measure, is a pretty special scorer. In the table below, I’ve posted the standard usage from basketball-reference as well as TS% adjusted for league average where a 0 means you shot at exactly league average. Westbrook started out as a very inefficient scorer, but has been at league average for most of his career. Harden, however, has been superb. His 2012 season was ridiculous, and now he’s shooting as often as Westbrook did when they were teammates but he’s still way above average on TS%.
For those who don’t follow USG% historically, Westbrook’s mark of 38.3 this season is astronomical. It’s roughly the same as Jordan’s best in 1987 and it’s a shade under the highest we have on record: Kobe’s 2006 season. He’s doing a tremendous amount of work and it’s as close to a one-man team as you can get in the NBA[3. Note: you can’t directly calculate Wilt’s USG%, but estimates place his USG% in the mid-30’s at their highest. His PPG stats were off the charts partly due to pace and extremely high minutes.].
Thus, comparing Westbrook and Harden means you have to have some way to equate that higher usage to actual points. There are a number of ways to do this, which I’ve explained about before and there are a lot of articles that look at the trade-off of usage and efficiency. One method from the metric BPM, which factors in usage, loves Westbrook and gives him a +1 advantage over Harden. Another popular metric, RPM, has Harden over Westbrook with a +0.5 point advantage. However, the problem with all-in-one metrics is that they apply average estimates for different variables — in other words, a high usage from one player isn’t the same as a high usage from another. RPM adjusts for this a bit with ridge regression, but obviously it’s not perfect; nothing is. So let’s dive into the real numbers to see what changes when Westbrook and Harden play.
Using NBAWOWY, we can look at how the Thunder do when Westbrook plays versus when he’s off the court, even splitting lineups with and without Durant. Looking at the past two seasons, lineups with Durant, the reigning MVP, and without Westbrook have an offensive rating of 110.4; vice versa, where it’s just Westbrook, that changes to 111.3. So yes, the offense has been better with the so-called “chucker.” You can look at this at the player level too. On average, a player in a Westbrook-only lineup will score 0.076 points per possession worse than in a Durant-only lineup; in terms of TS%, the difference is 3.5%[4. Note: the average is weighted by the geometric mean of true shot attempts in both situations, meaning that a player who got 100 attempts alongside Westbrook but only 1 attempt with Durant has little influence.]. The team gets even better when the two join forces too, even though Westbrook’s efficiency actually goes down — he just has a positive effect on his teammates.
|Player||PPP: Westbrook||PPP: Durant||Difference|
What’s telling is that the Thunder without either of those two superstars had an offensive rating of 100, which is something you’d only see on cellar-dwelling teams. The Thunder don’t have any creative forces outside of Westbrook and Durant, and the role players strain under the weight of this extra burden. When Durant is solo, Durant “only” has a usage rate of 35.5. And when the two play together, Westbrook’s usage drops to 33.6. Westbrook is some malleable force who can take as many shots as needed, hitting a usage rate of 42.4 without Durant. It’s not appropriate to suggest Westbrook is stealing shots because the team operates well when he’s taking them — it’s part of the plan.
Harden, meanwhile, has the same gargantuan effect as a solo Westbrook. When he’s on the court, looking at the past couple seasons, the Rockets have scored at a 112.8 rate; when he’s off, they score at a pedestrian 100.8 rate. Even though Harden doesn’t have the same young Jordan/Wilt usage rate that Westbrook does, he has the same huge effect on his team’s offense and the magnitude of the effect is strangely similar too[5. Holding Howard on the court in the analysis, and the results are pretty similar but the numbers were shifted up a bit, if you were wondering.]. Harden makes up the gap with a higher efficiency, and yes, those free throws count — we’re not rating players based on some imaginary ideal game only you can see. What’s interesting is that the trade was best for both guys because it allowed them to separately evolve as pseudo-point guards. It’s why both OKC and Houston improved; neither guy was a negative and they could fully unwind and make their impression on the game[6. One might argue that efficiency is more important because it’s more useful for a great team, but Westbrook was a dominant shot creator and passer on that exquisite 2013 offense.].
Beyond the Beard
If you want to make more adjustments, you can, but you inch forward into creative something like RPM and other metrics. The truth shouldn’t be particularly revelatory and there are a number of respected analysts who believe this without stats — both players are really good and have a fairly similar value per minute — but there’s still a couple subsets of people out there who don’t believe in either player. It should be easy. But if you explain the value of efficiency, then Westbrook looks worse, and when you tackle the importance of usage (and passing), Harden looks inferior. Either concept will throw people off, but the conversion for equating the two is a tougher issue.
What you’re left with is nuances. It’s the shading of life. Harden isn’t the worst thing to happen to basketball ever. He’s not worthless without the free throws. Westbrook isn’t a chucker. He’s clearly not some vampiric entity, stealing shots from worthy guys; they need him. The world does not exist in the extremes. Truth, sadly, is boring. Efficiency doesn’t make Harden untouchable, and inefficiency doesn’t condemn Westbrook. They’re both great players. They just take different paths to get there.