Fun With Synergy: Russell Westbrook, Pull-Up Jumpers And Kevin Durant's Shot Distribution Wisdom

Mar. 27, 2012; Portland, OR, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) celebrates with point guard Russell Westbrook (0) after Westbrook hit a three point shot during the fourth quarter of the game against the Portland Trail Blazers at the Rose Garden. Westbrook scored 32 points as the Thunder won the game 109-95. Mandatory Credit: Steve Dykes-US PRESSWIRE

Russell Westbrook shoots a lot of jumpers off the dribble. Most would classify these as bad shots, but Kevin Durant said this week that the Thunder play better when Westbrook shoots more. Is he right?

Fun with Synergy is a new feature that takes a look at some of the interesting numbers presented to us by MySynergySports.com. They have been kind enough to give us a free subscription to the scouting service, so we're going to take a look at a trend and analyze what it might mean.

A few days ago, Kevin Durant said something that caught my eye about the ongoing debate that Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook shoots too much. In responding to ESPN's Skip Bayless (always a bad idea, but what the heck), Durant made the point that the Thunder actually need Westbrook to shoot too much to succeed.

Via Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman:

"We're worse when I take more shots," Durant said. "Like I said, that guy doesn't know a thing. I don't think he watches us. I think he just looks at the stats. And traditionally, a point guard is not supposed to take more shots than everybody else on the team. But we're better when he does do that and he's aggressive. And I'm better when I'm out there facilitating, rebounding, defending and being more efficient on my shots with less shots."

That quote intrigued me for a ton of reasons.

  • Just think about how counter-intuitive that quote is for a second. Durant is basically saying that the Thunder can live with Westbrook shooting too much because shooting keeps him engaged. These are the kinds of things you once said about big men. Durant's saying it about a point guard.
  • You could read this quote literally, or you could read this quote as an unbelievable psychological ploy by Durant.
  • On the surface, Durant's actually right. The Thunder are 20-5 this season when Westbrook shoots more than Durant. They're 20-9 when he doesn't.

However, this is Fun With Synergy. We don't do surface analysis.

As it turns out, Durant's argument dovetails nicely with an ongoing tracking project I've been doing with Westbrook. All season, I've been tracking how well and how often Westbrook shoots jumpers off the dribble, because these are the kinds of attempts we normally classify as bad shots. The goal was to try to figure out whether Westbrook does indeed take too many jumpers off the dribble.

Here's how it broke down:

  • I assumed every play that was classified as "Pick and Roll Ball Handler -->Jumper" was an off-the-dribble shot, since you have to dribble to run pick and roll.
  • Almost all plays classified as isolation attempts were included. The only ones that weren't were the ones where Westbrook caught the ball and, without dribbling, used some jab steps to eventually take the shot.
  • All transition plays, except for ones where Westbrook scored off the pass, were included.
  • The final category was a mix of all other leftover plays when Westbrook dribbled to shoot a jumper. This mostly includes post-ups and any spot-up attempts where Westbrook gave a ball fake and dribbled in to shoot.
  • Floaters and layups weren't included. Neither were jumpers where Westbrook was fouled.

Here are the results of that tracking.

  • Overall, Westbrook averages a whopping 10.2 off-the-dribble jump shots per game. I haven't tracked anyone else, but that seems like a stunningly high number. Westbrook averages 19.6 total shots a game, so these account for over half of his attempts.
  • Of those 10.2 attempts per game, over half (5.4) came off the pick and roll.
  • As for an overall percentage, Westbrook hits an average of 4.1 off-the-dribble jumpers per game. That's a shooting percentage of 39.9 percent. That may seem pretty crappy, but keep in mind that it's a better mark than the NBA average on all jumpers (assisted or not) from 10-15 feet, 16-23 feet and three-point range.

Those are fun numbers, but they're also just numbers. More importantly, does Durant have a point? Are the Thunder better when Westbrook shoots more of these kinds of shots?

As it turns out, Durant has lots of evidence in his favor. For example:

  • The Thunder do compile a better overall record when Westbrook attempts more off-the-dribble jumpers than his season average. Westbrook has attempted at least 11 off-the-dribble jumpers 27 times this year. The Thunder are 21-6 in those games, good for a 78-percent winning percentage. They're 19-8 in games where Westbrook attempts 10 or fewer off-the-dribble jumpers, good for a 70-percent winning percentage.
  • While Westbrook shoots roughly the same average number of off-the-dribble jumpers in wins and losses, he shoots a slightly higher percentage in wins (40.2 percent to 38.9 percent).

Then again, there are also some nuggets that contradict Durant's point, such as the following:

  • In 34 games against playoff teams*, Westbrook shoots just 37 percent on off-the-dribble jumpers. Worse, he takes more of these shots, hoisting 10.6 a game as opposed to just 9.5 per game against non-playoff teams.
  • There have been seven games where Westbrook has attempted more than 15 off-the-dribble shots. The Thunder are just 4-3 in those games. That's a small sample size, of course, but it's still a bit troubling. One of those losses was a home defeat to the San Antonio Spurs, a potential Western Conference Finals opponent. Westbrook shot a good percentage on his 17 shots (8-17), but Durant took just 19 attempts in total and the Thunder's offense became predictable.
  • Also worth noting: 14 of Westbrook's 17 off-the-dribble jumpers in that Spurs game were on the pick and roll. It's possible the Spurs stumbled on a blueprint to slow the high-powered Thunder offense: make Westbrook shoot and live with the consequences.

Ultimately, Durant's argument has enough logic to consider it as something more than just a psychological ploy. That said, as with anything in life, it's a balance. An aggressive Westbrook is usually a good thing for the Thunder, but too much aggression could ultimately bring Oklahoma City down.

Another interesting nugget from this project:

  • There's a distinct difference in Westbrook's shooting percentages before and after he signed a five-year, $82 million contract extension on Jan. 19. Prior to that date, Westbrook was shooting just 33 percent on off-the-dribble jumpers. Since then, Westbrook's shooting percentage on off-the-dribble jumpers is 42 percent.
  • Also, in those first 15 games before the extension, Westbrook was attempting just 8.9 off-the-dribble attempts per game. Since the extension, he's way up at 10.7 attempts per game. This lends credence to the theory that Westbrook was trying to be something he wasn't early in the year, and now that he's playing his game, he's performing better.
  • This adds further proof to Durant's argument.

*=For the sake of this piece, I'm including both Houston and Utah in that group.

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