All this talk about Kevin Durant's lack of offensive self-reliance, lack of productive diversification and ceiling got me thinking, of course, of Russell Westbrook. In case you missed it: Ethan Sherwood Strauss of HoopSpeak wrote about Durant's inability to create easy shots from himself, noted that he's never tallied more assists than turnovers in a season and compared the share of KD's shots that are assisted to other superstars, and came to the conclusion that while Durant can be "consistently great," he'll never have a shot at being The Greatest.
I responded by heralding KD's specialization and arguing that skill diversification for the sake of skill diversification is little more than window dressing; if KD is the best scorer in the world, why would you need him to pass more effectively to rate higher on your ultimately subjective scale? Noam Schiller chimed in on Hardwood Paroxysm, discussing KD's ceiling and surmising that the star's skill limitations are such that solving them is highly unlikely and that a scenario in which Durant is basketball's best player is unfathomable. (I would direct the good Mr. Schiller to the first two weeks of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, but that's neither here nor there.)
Anyways, this Durant talk had me thinking about Russell Westbrook. We're talking about shot creation and self-reliance in much different ways than we usually do. Usually, we glorify the pass, herald the pure point guard and bemoan the growing influence of "hero ball," in which one star wing dribbles in isolation before using a high pick to careen into the lane, praying for rain. "Combo guard" is still a dirty word, and you won't find many who at some point in the 2011 Playoffs didn't curse the uncreative crunch time offenses of the Thunder or Heat. Steve Nash has two MVP awards. That's all you need to know about how much we fetishize good passing.
But what does it mean to create? After all, Strauss' specific criticism of Durant was that he doesn't set up teammates nor does he create most of his own shots. Superstars set up teammates explicitly (not just indirectly by dominating defensive attention and creating space) and superstars hunt their own food.
Is that actually true?
I whipped together something called Creation Ratio. It is essentially the ratio of shots created to shots used that were created by someone else. How does one create a shot? By taking it with no one else in line to get an assist on the play, or by getting an assist on another player's shot. We're including free throws at Zach Lowe's suggestion; a previous study by Roland Beech at 82games.com found that free throw opportunities were half as likely as field goal attempts to be created via assist. As such, we have adjusted the estimated assist percentage for free throws to reflect that. (Note that I say "estimated assist percentage for free throws"; that's necessary because assists on free throws aren't actually tallied. Further, only assists on made baskets are counted in the box score, which means that any extrapolation of assist percentage on all field goal attempts is also an estimate. Consider this another plea for the tracking of potential assists. Please please please.)
If you create a lot of shots for yourself and your teammates and don't get set up by teammates when you shoot, you are deemed a Creator, you win a laurel of lavender and your Creation Ratio will be high. If you rely on teammates to set you up and don't get many assists, you are not a Creator, you probably believe in the Welfare State and your Creation Ratio will be relatively low.
Since we're talking about scorers, I teased out only the 39 players who played 40 or more games, 30 minutes a game and scored more than 20 points per 40 minutes. God bless Hoopdata for the hoop data. I put True Shooting percentage on the x axis to give an indication of scoring efficiency, and Creation Ratio is on the y. Prepare for subversion.
Among the top scorers in the NBA, Russell Westbrook is by far the top Creator. He doesn't just lead the pack in Creation Ratio among top scorers: by our estimates of assisted misses and free throw opportunities, Westbrook created more shots per 40 minutes than any other player, with 29. Derrick Rose came in second with 26 shots created per 40 minutes, and LeBron James followed at No. 3 with 23 and change. (Kobe Bryant was just behind LeBron.) Westbrook fits all the criteria for a prolific creator: he racks up assists (9.4 per 40), he takes a lot of shots (19.5 field goals and 8.8 free throws per 40) and his makes are almost never assisted by a teammate (with an assisted percentage of just 17.4 percent). He's a perfect storm of creation.
In fact, among the 100 players who appeared in 40 or more games and averaged 30 or more minutes per contest, Westbrook is No. 3 in Creation Ratio, behind only basketball pacifists Steve Nash and Chris Paul. Think about that for a second. Steve Nash, the ultimate pure point guard. Chris Paul, the reigning pick-and-roll champion. And ... Russell Westbrook. Maligned, mistrusted Russell Westbrook. These are the men who create scoring opportunities. (I know you're wondering where Rajon Rondo falls: he's right behind Westbrook in Creation Ratio, but creates 10 fewer shots than does our protagonist per 40 minutes.)
Once the Westbrookian Fever subsides, the next thing to notice on the graph is how stratified by position it looks. Point guards find their ways high on Creation Ratio -- having the ball in your hands really means something -- and centers and traditional power forwards are near the lower end. Assist counts play a role, but note that the rate of a player's shots assisted by teammates is also madly stratified. Big men tend to have higher numbers there as a rule; point guards or central ballhandlers obviously less.
Back to Durant, who benefits from a goodly number of those Westbrook-created shots. Where does he fall in Creation Ratio? As it turns out, he looks like a big man. He's down with the Dwight Howards and LaMarcus Aldridges and Kevin Loves and Paul Millsaps. And, as Strauss suggested, he is lower on the scale than all of the superstars you'll find in Best In The League conversations. Lower than them all ... except for Dirk Nowitzki.
That's right: Dirk, the man who didn't do enough to win the ultimate prize until he did win the ultimate prize, the poster child for monodimensionality, the forgotten superstar of the past decade (until the championship changed everything). Consider the backwards-as-funk logic on Dirk: all along, he was too limited to be counted among the very, very best the league can offer. Sure, he's an amazing scorer, they said. But he doesn't do enough outside of that. He's an OK rebounder for a power forward. An OK defender. A poor passer. You can never win a championship if he's your best player, they said.
So much for that bulls--t. Let me be clear that Strauss and Schiller aren't making any judgments on Durant's ability to win: they are talking about qualitative comparisons among players, not championship readiness. But while Strauss and Schiller are exacting and measured in their concerns, the wider world of sporting punditry won't be. If Durant doesn't win soon, he'll face the same critiques Dirk did. "Sure, he can score. But that's not enough. You'll never win if he's your best player."
Let's make sure the response to that is a middle finger, a digit pointed at the Mavericks' 2011 Championship banner, and another middle finger.
I should also quickly address a note Zach Lowe made with respects to the Durant chatter. He said that defense has not yet come up in the discussion. From my point of view, if there comes a time to ascertain whether Durant is the best player in the league, defense absolutely matters, just as it did for LeBron as compared to Kobe, Shaq as compared to Nash in 2005 and Dwight Howard compared to everyone, always. I'm focused on the scoring and offensive diversity issues here, but defense is just as important, and clearly KD has work to do on that end.
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