NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder

Paul George and Russell Westbrook have found a new balance

With 25 games remaining in their season, the Oklahoma City Thunder are 37-20 and sitting in third place in the Western Conference. Their plus-5.2 point differential is the fifth-best mark in the NBA, and with a pace adjustment, it ranks tied for fourth. They even look the part of a contender, with an elite defense (105.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, third in the NBA) and an offense that sits just outside the top 10 (110.4 per 100, tied for 12th).

At this exact point of last season, the Thunder were considered a bit of a disappointment. Oklahoma City had a record of just 32-25, and was sitting at fifth place in the West after early dreams of challenging for a top-two seed. But the record masked the fact that the Thunder were a stronger unit than they appeared: their point differential at the time was fifth-best in the NBA, and with a pace adjustment, it ranked fourth. They also had an offense and defense that ranked inside the top 10.

They just couldn’t seem to get the wins their talent suggested they should be getting. Even with a 16-9 close to the season, the Thunder ended the year under-performing their point differential by two wins, finishing 48-34 rather than 50-32. Had they won those two extra games, they’d have faced the Pelicans in the first round rather than the Jazz, and they might have advanced to play the Rockets rather than being sent home early.

This year has been different. The Thunder’s 37-20 record is exactly what would be expected given their point differential, and puts them on track for 53-54 regular season wins. Oklahoma City has the toughest schedule in the Western Conference the rest of the way, but with a home-heavy slate, an elite defense, and a strong record against quality opponents to this point, they have a good chance to maintain their position as the No. 2 or 3 seed and thus avoid the Warriors in the second round.

This performance profile, coupled with his spectacular play, has thrust Paul George into the inner-circle MVP conversation. George is averaging 29 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists per game on 45-40-83 shooting splits while also leading the league in steals and emerging as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate. But George has been even more ridiculous after breaking a late-November slide with an absurd 47-point, 15-rebound, 4-assist tour-de-force against the Nets in early December.

via Basketball-Reference

George is doing just about everything better, scoring-wise, since that Nets game, but he’s also getting a chance to do all of it more often than he was before. His usage rate is up two percentage points (from 28.6 percent to 30.6 percent) since that night, while his true shooting mark has jumped from 54.0 to 63.0 by virtue of his considerably shooting better (and considerably more often) from 3 and from the line. But perhaps the most fascinating thing about George’s usage since that early December game is that it actually exceeds that of Russell Westbrook.

via Basketball-Reference

That’s part of a larger trend of Westbrook ceding some offensive responsibility to George in a way he did not last year, and did not even do during his final season with Kevin Durant back in 2016. (It’s notable that Durant’s usage rate that season was … 30.6 percent, which is exactly what George’s mark is since that Nets game.) One of the characteristics of the late-Durant era Thunder was that they increasingly shifted toward Westbrook controlling the ball more and more often.

Durant is the far superior shooter and Westbrook is at his best with the ball in his hands, so it made sense for that to be the arrangement; but it also stunted things for the Thunder at inopportune times — partially because Westbrook has a tendency to get single-minded in his pursuit of the rim, and partially because of Durant’s occasional inability to shake free away from the ball. Especially in close and late situations, this would result in Westbrook having a far higher usage rate than was ideal, especially considering his penchant for taking wild pull-up jumpers.

This year, though, Westbrook has pulled back on the reins a bit, giving the ball up more often and letting George (and Dennis Schroder) control far more of the offense. Poking through the Second Spectrum player tracking data on NBA.com, the amount of time Westbrook has the ball in his hands on his average touch is way down this season, as is the percentage of time on the floor that the ball is actually in his hands, as he’s letting George and Dennis Schroder run things a bit more often than he allowed similar players to in the past.

via Second Spectrum

But it’s not just how often the ball is in Westbrook’s hands. It’s also what he’s doing with the ball when he has it. Westbrook’s most valuable skill is his ability to penetrate from the perimeter into the paint. It’s basically impossible to stop him from getting where he wants to go once he turns on the jets. This year has been no different, as he is once again among the league leaders in drives. He ranked fourth, first, and first in drives per game over the past three seasons, and ranks third this year. The major change this season is that he is using those drives to create not for himself, but for others.

via Second Spectrum

Among the 113 players averaging at least five drives per game, Westbrook’s 52 percent pass rate ranks 12th. That’s up from 40th out of 120 last year, 21st out of 99 the year before, and 53rd out of 100 during Durant’s final season. And he’s passing even more often (53.5 percent of his drives) since George’s early-December explosion against the Nets, while averaging a league-high 2.9 drive-and-pass assists per game during that time.

Crucially, all of this is carrying over into clutch time, where Westbrook has ceded control to George like never before. Comparing Westbrook’s and Durant’s and George’s clutch usage rates over the past few years makes that clear as day. (And yes, the 2016-17 number below is real. I swear.)

via NBA.com

The ceding of responsibility has had the twin benefits of unleashing the best possible version of George, and giving Westbrook room to attack the glass with all the ferocity he usually brings, create plays for George and everyone else, and even give a bit more effort on defense than we’re used to seeing from him over the past few years. Add it all up and, despite his horrific shooting, Westbrook has been an incredibly valuable player this season even while taking a back seat to his co-star and giving up the ball more often, which until very recently was thought would neuter his effectiveness. Instead, it’s enhanced the play of his most important teammate and has the Thunder looking great heading into the season’s second half.

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