Nylon Calculus, Oklahoma City Thunder

Nylon Calculus: Is Westbrook struggling because he’s already peaked?

Russell Westbrook was hammered off the court after his Oklahoma City Thunder got lambasted by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first two games of their series and perhaps, rightfully so. Besides his Game 3 recovery to help the Thunder snag a win, he’s been in a playoff slump since 2016. Maybe he’s not totally at fault.

It’s been well-recorded that NBA players peak anywhere from ages 24 through 29 and even 30 (differences largely occur from the scope of data being looked at). Typically, players suffer a steep decline in production after the age of 30 years old.

The Vice Sports article linked above describes the age effect in the NBA, from research conducted on pay and performance linked here. In it David Berri writes,

When it comes to NBA player performance, age really matters.

Younger players, of course, can get better with age. In general, though, once players reach their 30th birthdays, they start to curdle like milk.

And we know that Russell Westbrook just turned 30 years old.

The data used in the visualization above includes WP48 every year from 1977-78 to present day (more on WP48 here). Not only do we see how amazing a career that Russ has had, but we can start to see that he’s on the other side of a “WP48 hill” if there was one.

This “hill” might be better visualized by looking at Russell Westbrook’s PIPM over time.

These visualizations don’t necessarily help us too much, as the averages of both WP48 and PIPM (represented by the black lines) look nearly flat and don’t point to which age players in general start to decline.

But I don’t think Westbrook will be able to achieve the heights he attained at 27 and 28 years old.

The following table examines the means of every player’s PIPM and WP48 at each age (again, going back to 1977-78).  The reason why WP48 numbers in this table look different from the linked Vice Sports article can be due to:

  1. Broader data set (if I understand correctly, the research uses data from 1987 to 2007, while this data represents 1977 to today)
  2. Since I’m using more and current data, I suspect that the post-decline WP48 is further mitigated by modern NBA health management. Nonetheless, the data still shows a bit of a decline after thirty.

Here, PIPM  based on age seems to further confirm the drop-off in player production after the age of 30.

The good news for Russell Westbrook is that he’s still pretty alright at this basketball thing. He played well in Game 3 by making 4-of-6 3-point attempts to help the Thunder win. His plus-minus was at a respectable +15 all the while his superstar comrade in Playoff Paul went 3-of-16 from the floor (Playoff Paul fared a bit better last night).

Next: Scouting NBA draft prospects at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament

But my gosh, what a show Game 4 was last night. With Westbrook at the helm, it was difficult for the Thunder to prevent the onslaught of the Portland starting five. Russell Westbrook has recorded just one steal in this first-round series. I know Westbrook hasn’t been regarded as a defensive wunderkind in his career, but he’s certainly been better than this.  His career per game average in steals in the regular season and the playoffs is just under two per game.

How could he “fix” this issue? As the saying goes, “Father Time don’t wait for no one, man.”

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