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Russell Westbrook Does Everything Fast, For Better And For Worse

Welcome to Four-Point Play, our weekly NBA column that pieces together four statistical trends from around the league and lays out what they tell us about where a team has been or where it’s heading. Find a stat you think should be included here? Email or tweet me at chris.herring@fivethirtyeight.com or @Herring_NBA.

Is Russell Westbrook too fast for his own good?

Between his freakish athleticism and the sheer fury with which he plays, Russell Westbrook — the closest thing we have to a human cannonball in pro sports — is the most entertaining player in the game today. Unlike smoother players like LeBron James or Chris Paul, who have a signature ebb and flow to their games, the Oklahoma City star is unpredictable from one play to the next. Because of his game-changing speed — when going full bore, he’s one of the NBA’s five fastest players, according to the league’s high-level tracking data — Westbrook’s capable of making plays that most other athletes can only dream of pulling off.

More often than not, though, when Westbrook’s talent backfires, it’s because he’s trying too hard to make something happen, particularly when he’s outnumbered during fast-break situations.

Oklahoma City, after forcing a live-ball turnover, is finishing its possessions in just over eight seconds on average, which is by far the fastest rate in the league, according to Inpredictable, a site that specializes in calculating win probabilities and other advanced sports metrics. Westbrook, as the team’s point guard and best player, is an enormous part of that speed. But the quick trips down the court aren’t necessarily paying off: As of Wednesday afternoon, the Thunder were tied for the second-worst efficiency after live-ball turnovers. That’s a steep drop-off from last year, when Kevin Durant was still in Oklahoma City and the club had the NBA’s eighth-best offense in those scenarios.

Perhaps Westbrook’s speed-demon tendencies have something to do with that inefficiency.

In transition, Westbrook’s reliance on his speed means he’ll often experience the same dichotomy as Sonic the Hedgehog: He either sprints triumphantly across the finish line or crashes painfully into an obstruction, losing all his golden rings.

Westbrook is involved in an NBA-high seven transition plays per game. And according to an analysis run at FiveThirtyEight’s request by Brittni Donaldson of SportVU, which tracks nearly everything that happens on an NBA court, there have been 413 instances1 this season where, following a turnover or a defensive rebound in the backcourt, Westbrook took at least three dribbles and covered at least 20 feet with those dribbles. For context, John Wall, the next closest player, has done that 257 times.

SEASON SCORE TURNOVER
2016 49.9% 21.7%
2015 57.1 15.2
2014 53.3 12.1
2013 53.3 15.0
2012 54.8 11.1
2011 54.5 15.5
2010 54.8 15.1
2009 54.1 13.2
2008 47.2 15.7
Outcomes of Russell Westbrook possessions when in transition

Source: Synergy Sports

Given the aggressive way he challenges multiple defenders at once and the energy he expends in doing so, it’s not all that surprising that Westbrook’s turnover rate is spiking. At the same time, he’s scoring in transition just under 50 percent of the time, which is his lowest success rate on such plays since his rookie season in 2008.

There’s also been a major shift in the kind of turnovers Westbrook has been committing since he took on an unprecedented share of his team’s offense in the absence of Durant. The share of his miscues that stem from losing the ball — as opposed to throwing a bad pass, for instance — has more than doubled this season, according to Basketball-Reference. (In fairness, fellow MVP candidate James Harden, who has also been asked to take on a far greater role in his team’s offense, has struggled with many of the same turnover issues.)

In Cleveland on Sunday, I asked Thunder coach Billy Donovan about Westbrook’s aggressive, coast-to-coast sprints, and Donovan said he’s careful to not try to change the player Westbrook is, especially considering how much his star is asked to facilitate on offense.

“When he does make a mistake, or doesn’t make the right decision and it results in a turnover, nobody is harder on him than himself. So there’s a line for me: I don’t want to take away a guy who, in my opinion, is the best open-floor player in the world,” Donovan said before his team lost to the Cavaliers. “After he makes a mistake, he does a good job of regulating and pulling back so that he can make better decisions.”

Westbrook, who’s faced questions for the majority of his career about whether he sometimes plays too fast, has said in the past that he doesn’t feel his play is out of control.

“I don’t think I play reckless at all,” he said. “I just think I play at a high level that other people may not be used to seeing.” That much is almost impossible to disagree with.

Kawhi Leonard’s little fundamentals

It’s challenging to illustrate how good Kawhi Leonard is on defense with numbers alone, but one metric offers us a glimpse: How often his blocked shots end up in the Spurs’ hands as opposed to the other team’s. It happens way more often than it should.

On average, defensive teams come up with the ball about 57 percent of the time after they block a shot. But San Antonio has gotten possession of the ball on 75 percent of Leonard’s blocks this season, the highest rate in the NBA among players with at least 25 swats, according to information from BigDataBall, a database that logs the league’s play-by-play data. (San Antonio is still somewhat above-average at recovering blocks if you take Leonard’s numbers out of the mix, but the Spurs’ 61 percent recovery rate without Leonard doesn’t stand out from the rest of the league nearly as much.)

It’s unclear whether this speaks solely to Leonard’s ability to guide blocks with his oversized hands, or whether it’s more a function of the Spurs being in a good position to field the swats once they occur.

In any case, Leonard had a great mentor for this sort of thing. Recently retired Spurs legend Tim Duncan saw his teammates recover almost 74 percent of his blocked shots last season, per BigDataBall; the highest rate of any NBA player with 70 blocks or more.

Paul George, all of a sudden the NBA’s best free-throw shooter

Across the board, from his three-point stroke to his solid efficiency in the last four seconds of the shot clock, Paul George has improved considerably as a shooter this season. He has also become a surprisingly great free-throw shooter — he’s hitting almost 93 percent from the charity stripe and is leading the league in free-throw percentage.

That might not seem all that surprising — after all, he shot 86 percent from the free-throw line last season. But the Pacers star was very slightly worse than league average from the line as a rookie, making 76 percent of his shots that year. If he keeps this up, George would be the first player in more than 45 years — and just the second player in NBA history after Chet Walker — to lead the NBA in free-throw percentage after shooting worse than league average from the stripe during his rookie season.

The Memphis Grizzlies’ defense is just for kicks

The Grit ’n’ Grind Grizzlies have long been known for their tough, bruising style of old-school basketball. But at certain points over the years, Memphis looked like it was doing its best impression of a soccer team instead.

The Grizzlies, fourth in the NBA with 35 kicked-ball violations, are on track to rank among the NBA’s top 10 in the category for the sixth time in nine seasons, according to rare-stat site NBA Miner. Leading the charge for the Grizzlies is Marc Gasol, who tops the league with 13 kicked-ball violations this season, per BigDataBall.

Of course, there are practical reasons for a team like Memphis — which has also ranked among the top 10 on the defensive end of the floor for six of the past seven seasons — to kick the basketball. At a minimum, it forces a team to reset its offense with less time remaining on the shot clock. And at a maximum, it prevents an opposing player from catching an interior pass in a prime scoring area. (We’ve seen Tony Allen accidentally go a bit too far defending with his feet before.)

That said, it’s more fun to try to connect the dots between Gasol’s kicked-ball violations and Gasol’s love for soccer. He hails from Spain, and he is an FC Barcelona fan. Plus, who could forget the time he nearly headed the basketball into the hoop during a pause in the action?

Additional research assistance by Neil Paine.

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Footnotes

  1. As of January 29.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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