FanPost

Battle of the Point Guards: Team USA Edition

I was reading the Olympic player previews at the NBA section of the mothership and the Deron WIlliams profile by Tom Ziller of the mothership and SacTown Royalty caused a bit of a stir. TZ was very complimentary of Williams, and in fact views him as a really good player. From what I can tell, the outrage (if you wanna call it that) from Nets fans here and across the Internet machine is that Ziller and many basketball fans don't see Williams as the best point guard in the league, and maybe even on the current version of the Men's Olympic team.

And since we're in the dead zone of the NBA offseason now that the Olympics are done and Dwight Howard has been traded, I figured why not have this discussion. Head below the fold and we'll talk some more about Williams, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook.

The 2011-2012 season

How'd the players do last season? Let's take a look:

2011-2012

Chris Paul

Deron Williams

Russell Westbrook

Other point guards

Games Played

60 55 66 42

Minutes per game

36.4 36.3 35.3 23

True Shooting %

58.1 52.8 53.8 52.4

Assist Rate

47.30 36.58 21.53 38.1

Turnover rate

10.8 16.69 14.18 17.8

Usage Rate

24.27 30.04 32.64 20.94

Rebound Rate

5.8 5.3 7.4 5.9

PER

27 20.3 22.9 13.48

Win Shares per 48

.278 .099 .163 .100

Wins Produced per 48

.313 .060 .102 .099

We do have to take into account that Williams suffered from injuries so that in all likelihood had a negative effect on his performance. Moving on from that, it wasn't a banner year for Williams. In the Season in Review post I did many moons ago, I said:

And as it turned out, Deron wasn't able to carry the offense. He was more involved in the offense, but his shooting suffered as a result. Williams was third in shot attempts from 16-23 feet, and was around league average (he shot 39% vs. the league average of 38%). The big change was in the amount of three pointers taken. He led all point guards in three pointers attempted at six per game. Unfortunately, they didn't go in very often. He only shot 33% from three, which isn't what you want when he's fifth in the entire NBA in attempts.

The spike in three pointers can be explained. Due to lacking an inside presence, the Nets as a team attempted 144 more three pointers than they did in the 2010-2011 season (and keep in mind, there were 16 less games played this season due to lockout chicanery). And due to said lack of inside presence, Williams had to be everything for the offense, which is a responsibility he had never undertaken prior to this season. The results were by and large a failure, as Williams couldn't carry the Nets to success. Another issue with Williams this year was his relative lack of free throw attempts. In a vacuum, being 12th in the NBA in total free throw makes and 20th in attempts is pretty swanky. But this turns out to be disappointing when you take into account his career highs in usage rate and field goal attempts per game (for reference, his career usage rate, including this season, is 24% and he attempts 13 shots per game on average).

The career high usage rate for Williams is a major, major, major red flag in my opinion. For those who aren't aware of the term, from Basketball Reference:

Usage percentage is an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor.

The reason I found that to be a red flag is because this was the first time in his career he has had to take on that much responsibility on the offensive end. When he was in Utah, a quarter of the team's possessions would usually run through him while he was on the court. This season, 30% of the team's possessions went through him. Of course, this was out of necessity due to the absence of Brook Lopez and the lack of suitable secondary and tertiary options. Coach Avery Johnson has gotten a ton of heat around these parts for the lack of offensive creativity and the general stagnancy of the Nets, and that stagnancy led to Williams trying to do more on offense than I feel he is capable of.

Now I didn't really talk enough about the type of shots Williams was taking in my season wrap-up, but luckily Dopeness in the comment section expanded on it:

My issue with Williams is one that you mentioned: He settles too much. Deron has one of, if not the best, crossover moves in the NBA; however, he seems to almost never use it to get passed the defender. He almost always gets the defender off-balance and then pulls back from a jumper. Now, of course he should pull back and pull up a good portion of the time because he has one of the better mid-range games at his position (although his percentages have dipped since his wrist injury — something that I don’t think has received enough attention), but he needs to attack the rim more. Williams’ main problem the last two seasons has been his efficiency (or lack thereof); when you attack the rim, you do three things: (1) you slow the game down, (2) you get to the line at a higher rate, thereby significantly boosting your efficiency and (3) you can create a momentum shifting play if you convert on an and-1.

This bares itself out in the numbers as well. Despite the increase in total attempts, Williams attempted fewer free throws per game compared to his final half season in Utah (he only played 12 games after the trade & he got injured so there isn't much to glean from it). The settling for jumpers shows itself in the shot locations for Williams. This past season, 80% of his attempts were jump shots. Digging a little deeper, we see that almost 60% of his shots were from 16 feet and beyond. Expanding on this a little bit more, Williams drew fewer fouls at a lower rate than he did as a member of the Jazz. As a Jazz (is that grammatically correct?), he typically drew fouls 14% of the times he used a possession. As a Net last year, he only drew fouls 11% of the time. This ties into the shot location point made earlier. For a player as talented and as good of a free throw shooter as Williams is, it's imperative that he gets the best shots as possible. One other factor that could've impacted Williams' shots was when he actually took them. When he was in Utah, the majority of his shot attempts would come within the first ten seconds of the shot clock. As a Net, that number went down to 34%. While this isn't true in every case, attacking early in the shot clock is beneficial because you can catch the defense when they're not completely set, which, if you're driving to the basket, can increase your odds of getting to the free throw line.

Deron's assist rate took a major nosedive last year, but I believe there are some reasons behind that. One explanation could be the stagnation of the Nets offense. I don't have the actual # from Synergy Sports, but from my recollection the Nets ran more isolation plays than were necessary last season. If we want something empirical to back up this assertion, we can turn to team assist rate. As a team, the Nets were 21st in assist rate, which can tell us one of two things. The first thing is that there wasn't enough ball and/or player movement which makes it easier to defend. The other reason, and perhaps the most likeliest explanation of all, is that the Nets didn't have enough players that shot the ball well. The Nets had only six players who shot above the league average effective field goal (remember this accounts for three pointers as well) percentage of 48.7%. And keep in mind that of those six players, two missed a bunch of games (Brook Lopez & Jordan Farmar), one appeared in only 6 games (Andre Emmett),one scored primarily on putbacks (Jordan WIlliams) and one joined the team in the second half (Gerald Green). So what's left? Anthony Morrow, and Morrow is best utilized as a catch-and-shoot player.

We can't forget about the defensive side of the ball. Williams can be a physical, lock down defender at times but isn't regarded as one of the top defensive point guards in the NBA. Last year, opposing point guards had a PER of 18 against him. That's a little above the designated average of 15 and the actual number of 13.48. This plays into the general perception of Williams being an okayish, but slightly below average defender. When we move the lens to the team defense with Williams on the court, it looks ugly. When Williams was on the court, the Nets allowed 111.5 points per 100 possessions. For reference, the Charlotte Bobcats 107.8 points per 100. I wouldn't fret too much about it since the Nets allowed "only" 108.7 per 100 without him so it was a full helping of suck either way. A capable defensive big man and good perimeter defender (theoretically, Gerald Wallace and Johnson should fill this void) should take the Nets from a crappy defensive team to an above average one (see Tyson Chandler and Iman Shumpert on the Knicks. Also, the Knicks were actually a competent defensive team this year even before D'Antoni left).

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Photo from SB Nation

I spent all that time talking about Deron WIlliams I almost forgot I have other players to discuss.

The general consensus is that Chris Paul is the undisputed best point guard in the NBA. He can practically do it all on the court. He's a solid shooter inside the three point line, can pop the occasional three pointer, is a solid-great defender and is a maestro passing the basketball.

The common trope w/r/t Paul these days is that he's no longer the amazing player he was before he suffered his knee injury in 2010. But when we look at the numbers, there really hasn't been a major dropoff. In 2010-2011, after returning from his left knee injury, Paul played in 80 games (plus 6 playoff games against the Lakers) and averaged a little over 36 minutes per game. This past season, Paul played in 60 (of 66 games) and averaged 36 minutes per game. Combine to that the 11 playoff games at almost 38 minutes per game (I should note that Paul suffered injuries to his right hip flexor and his right middle finger, which probably hindered his performance against Memphis and San Antonio) so I think the durability concerns will start to go away.

Moving on from how many games and minutes he played, when he take a look at his play on the court, he was the same as he ever was. In general I hate the term, but Chris Paul is a perfect example of a "shot creator." He's a player that works well within the offense, but when necessary, he can isolate and score for himself (he was assisted on only 17.4% of his field goals last year, the 4th lowest mark in all of basketball). Last year, ESPN TrueHoop writer Ryan Schwan observed:

He's still quick, elusive and able to free himself and his teammates for baskets, but these days, his play in the half court is almost entirely reliant on misdirection and clever ballhandling. He goes to the basket less, but compensates by shooting at a better clip than ever before. With his strength and low center of gravity intact, he often relies on running into opposing players to force them to retreat and give him room to shoot.

Paul averaged around 2 shots per game at the rim that season. Did that trend continue this past season? Not entirely. Paul averaged around 3 shots per game, which is less than the 4 he used to average before the meniscus injury., but still pretty good for a point guard. He only drew fouls on 7% of his possessions, but he did attempt 5 free throws a game.

From the same TrueHoop article,

At the All-Star Game{2011] last month, he said, "As I get older and older, I'll probably slow down a little bit more. I probably won't jump as high. Hopefully I just keep getting better in basketball. Just continue to work on ballhandling and shooting."

Even though Paul wants to work on his shooting a little more, he's a pretty great shooter right now. He's a career 85% from the free throw line and 36% from three point line. He doesn't take many three pointers, but he's great shooting the corner three. He shot 48% (on 29 attempts, so small sample size), which would've been one of the best marks in the league. The area Paul likes the most is from 16-23 feet, and there's a good reason why. He shot 44% from that distance last season, and in fact, he shot 47% in the non-restricted area last season.

Paul's always been a heady ballhandler, and his debut run with the Clippers was more proof of that. In 2010-2011, the Clippers led the league in turnover rate at 15%. This season with Chris Paul at the helm? They had the second lowest turnover rate, with a little over 12% of their possessions ending in a turnover. This sharp decline in turnovers allowed them to score 4 more points per 100 possessions. Paul's assists were down, but I wouldn't fret too much about that. He was still one of the league's leading passers, and most importantly, he cut down on his turnovers. He didn't commit many turnovers as it was, and since he committed fewer turnovers, it allowed him to get more shots for himself and his teammates.

When you think of Chris Paul on defense, you're probably thinking of

Paulf_medium_medium

yes Paul (& a bunch of other players too for that matter) has a flopping problem, but once we look past that, we see that he's a very good defender. Opposing point guards had an eFG% of 44.8% while being defended by Paul, which was below the league average point guard eFG% of 47.8%. And while steals aren't the best measure of defensive ability (as an example, Allen Iverson routinely appeared on the steals leaderboard but wasn't a good individual defender), Paul has led the league in steals for 5 consecutive seasons. When looking at Paul in a team sense, it doesn't look particularly exciting. The Clips allowed 107 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the court and 107 without him. The big problem with the Clippers defense was their penchant for fouling. They had the second highest opposing free throw rate in the league, and even though opponents shot only 75% against them, the excessive fouling left their defense at a handicap.

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Photo from SB Nation Kansas City

Last but not least is the youngest of the bunch. Westbrook has been in the league 4 seasons, and has yet to miss a game. His minutes have also risen each season he's been in the league, as he averaged 35.3 minutes per game after averaging 34.7 minutes a game in 2010-2011.

As Westbrook's minutes have increased, so has his on-court productivity. Each year he has been in the league, his True Shooting % has risen. The area that has seen the most improvement is in his jump shooting. Before this season, Westbrook shot around 37% on his deep two's. In 2011-2012, he shot a career best 43% from 16-23 feet. The Thunder play at a relatively fast pace, so it's no surprise to see that 41% of Westbrook's attempts came within the first ten seconds of the 24 second shot clock.

Even though it's commonly used as a pejorative, Westbrook fits the profile of a "scoring point guard." He can get his shot off at any time, has been accused of being a detriment to his team (see Magic Johnson calling Westbrook's 1st half in Game 2 of the Finals "the worst point guard play he's ever seen in the history of the Finals"), and isn't as good of a passer as his peers. His passing numbers declined from his junior season, but I would attribute that to the improvement of James Harden. Harden saw an increase in his minutes and shot attempts while he was able to do more for himself on offense. In 2011-2012, Harden was assisted on 50% of his field goals, which was a decrease from being assisted on 58% of his field goals the previous season. This jives with the general perception of the Oklahoma City offense, which is one where there isn't much ball movement and players can get their shots off relatively easily. As a team, OKC had the lowest assist rate in the NBA last season.

As a defender, Westbrook is pretty average. Opposing point guards amassed a 15.7 PER and shot an eFG of 49.6% while he was defending them. While he isn't anywhere near the defender that his teammate Thabo Sefolosha is, Westbrook is quick, is active in the passing lane (close to 2 steals per game) and can be physical. The Thunder allowed 104.1 points per 100 with and without Westbrook, so there isn't much to discuss.

A look at their careers

We've spent a good amount of time discussing Paul, Williams, and Westbrook's most recent season, let's take a step back and look at their overall career performances:

Career

Chris Paul

Deron Williams

Russell Westbrook

Games Played

485 506 312

Minutes per game

37 35.7 34.2

True Shooting %

57.3 % 55.6 % 51.6 %

Assist %*

46.3 42.7 35

Turnover rate

13 16.6 16

Usage rate

23.9 24.1 28.8

Rebound rate

7.2 9.3 8

Win Shares per 48

.238 .136 .114

Player Efficiency Rating

25.4 19.1 19.8

Wins Produced per 48

.302 .144 .106

*I decided not to use Assist Rate here because Hoopdata's information goes back to 2006-2007, where as Paul and WIlliams entered the league the season before that.

From Ziller:

He was never better than CP3, and he's absolutely a legit NBA All-Star. The weird thing about Williams and the hype bubble is that he's been overwhelmingly consistent throughout his career. He's a scorer who can dominate off the dribble and from long-range, but who often tries to get his teammates involved. He's a physical player who isn't always excellent at defense, but who can get things done. He's a floor leader whose had more wins than losses but who doesn't command the reputation of a Paul or a Jason Kidd.

Everything in the data matches up to this assessment of Williams. On his better days, he's deadly in the midrange game (prior to joining the Nets, Williams consistently shot over 40% from 16-23 feet). He's also shown an aggressive streak, as he would routinely attack the basket, draw a ton of fouls and take over in end-of-game situations. One thing to note is the amount of offensive responsibility he has had to take on (measured by usage rate). When WIlliams is at his best, he is a player that is best suited getting his shots in the flow of an offense instead of having to do everything on the court for his team. Earlier, I mentioned his career high usage rate, and when we look at his career rate, we have an idea of how he's best utilized. Deron is a player that is at his most efficient when he takes around 14 field goal attempts a game and is looking to set his teammates up. When he has to set his teammates up, be the primary shot taker, and have to bail the offense out late in the shot clock, Williams isn't at his best. And, it doesn't hurt to be around good players. In theory, the return of Brook Lopez, having Gerald Wallace for a full season and the acquisition of Joe Johnson should help lessen the offensive load for Williams.

The TrueHoop article from article made a very interesting comparison:

But the script has flipped now. These days, it's the Utah point guard of yesteryear who comes to mind when I watch Paul play. And while it's hardly what I expected, the similarities have become striking.

Like Paul, Stockton directed his team's offensive system almost to a fault, ignoring open shots early in the shot clock to keep trying to generate open shots for his teammates. When fans want CP3 to take the open 3, he's waiting for power forward David West to pop open for a short jumper -- Stockton had Karl Malone in that role.

Paul is the current master thief, while Stockton holds the all-time record with 3,265 steals, far ahead of No. 2 Michael Jordan. In addition to great anticipation, Paul and Stockton have shown a masterful understanding of opposing offensive schemes. And each in his own way, Paul and Stockton have been known for gritty, sometimes physical play, to the point of being accused of dirty play to stymie opponents and gain an advantage.

After noticing this tendency and drafting this article, I contacted Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus and ESPN.com, who has a statistical system that identifies similar players. Pelton usually runs it for three seasons of a player's career at a time, but at my request, he examined Paul just this season, since his injury. And when Pelton ran the numbers, who did his computer cough up as the player most similar to the current Chris Paul? John Stockton.

And that comparison holds up very well when we dig into the numbers. Earlier in the summer, during the Dream Team vs. 2012 Men's Team mini-debate, I thought Paul and Stockton matched up pretty well. Of course, I thought the Dream Team would win, but that's going off topic. Moving back to Paul, we can see that he has been amazing throughout his career. He's been a player that has shot the ball extremely well at various parts of the court, has shown an ability to get to the line when necessary, is always looking to find the best shots for his teammates and is one of the better players in late game situations. He is also an erudite defender, decent enough rebounder at the point guard position and never turns the ball over. I haven't mentioned the value metrics at all, but long story short, they value what conventional wisdom suggests as to what makes a good player: efficient shooting, capable passing, quality defense and great ball control. Paul excels at all of those areas (and then some), which is why he's viewed so highly by basketball fans and draws comparisons to Hall of Fame players. He's never played in a fast paced offensive system, as the Clippers and Hornets played at a slow pace, which allowed for Paul to probe the defense and find the best shot opportunities for himself and his teammates. Practically everyone in the basketball blogosphere thinks Vinny Del Negro will get fired at some point and Mike D'Antoni will get hired, so it would be very interesting to see how Paul would adapt to a faster style.

Even though he's only been in the league four seasons, Westbrook has always been a very active player on offense throughout his young career. He's always been a player that has looked to attack the basket and find his shot. The general belief is that the more possessions you use, the less efficient you become. But Westbrook has been an exception to that rule. His field goal % has risen each year as his shot attempts have increased. One area where he excels is from deep two. He's consistently shot in the upper 30's from 16-23 feet and last year, he shot 43%, which was a career best and one of the better marks for point guards. One area he was worked hard to improve is his turnovers. He's been Top 4 (including being first twice) in turnovers every year he's been in the league, but there is an encouraging trend. His turnover rate has declined each season and as a result, he has become a more productive player.

At their best

In general, whenever we discuss players, we compare them at their peaks. So why don't we take a look at each players' best season:

Chris_paul_medium

Photo from SB Nation Arizona

2007-2008

Chris Paul

Games Played

80

Minutes per game

37.6

True Shooting %

57.6

Assist rate

55.6

Turnover rate

12.08

Usage rate

25.73

Rebound rate

6.2

Win Shares per 48

.284

Player Efficiency Rating

28.3

Wins Produced per 48

.350

Paul finished second in the MVP race that season, but he probably should've won. As such, it was a remarkable season from Paul. His leap from great young player to "Best Player in the NBA not named LeBron James" was due in large part to his improved shooting. Writing about Paul that season, At the Hive Editor Rohan noted:

There's really not much to explain. CP is hands down the best player to ever put on the Teal. People have long criticized his shooting. This year, he shot the three better than Kobe (who was invited to the 3-Pt Shootout). Yes, he struggles against Deron Williams. When Jazz fans compare the two, they always point to the head-to-head, and conveniently ignore the other 78 or so games. I don't think there's even a shadow of a doubt as to the best point guard in the League.

He has the kind of worth ethic that makes you believe he will improve his defense. His range and shooting ability will only continue to improve. His fouls/minute have decreased significantly year by year.

In many ways, Paul is the perfect basketball player. He's as good in the community as he is on the court, he motivates his teammates constantly, and he has an intense competitive spirit when playing. No, he doesn't D-Will's crossover or three point stroke. But the way things are going, it's not Deron that CP should be compared to; it's Magic and Oscar.

He shot a then career high 37% from three point range, but his biggest gains came close to the basket. The season before, he shot a respectable 55% at the basket & 40% from inside 10 feet. But he improved in those areas, as he shot 62% at the rim and 50% from inside 10 feet, which were some of the leading marks in the league. He didn't get to the free throw line as much as he did the year before, but he got there around 5 times a game. His passing numbers increased, and that was due in part to actually having players who could shoot. In 2006-2007, David West missed 30 games as he dealt with a right elbow injury and Peja Stojakovic missed 69 games due to back surgery (Paul missed 18 games due to an ankle injury). The following season, West & Peja played over 70 games each.

My memory is probably off, but at the time, I thought Paul had already established his reputation as a lockdown defender. But Rohan's assessment and a look back at the numbers told a different tale. When we look at the team defense, they allowed 107.6 points per 100 possession with Paul on the court vs. 101.4 per 100 without him. This surprised me because I remembered the Hornets being one of the better defensive teams in the league that year. When we look at Paul's individual defense, we see an OK but unspectacular defender. Opposing point guards registered an 18.3 PER against CP3 and shot an eFG of 51.8%. It wasn't all mediocre, as Paul forced 4 turnovers a game.

He was able to maintain his MVP-caliber play in the playoffs as well. The Hornets defeated the Mavericks in five games before ultimately falling to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games. Paul was fantastic throughout, as he averaged 24/5/11 while playing 40 minutes a game.

Chris Paul Stellar in Debut (via NBA)

Chris Paul's 30 Points, 12 Assists Stop Spurs (via NBA)

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Photo from SB Nation

2007-2008

Deron Williams

Games Played

82

Minutes per game

37.3

True Shooting %

59.5%

Assist rate

54.67

Turnover rate

17.7

Usage rate

23.08

Rebound rate

4.9

Win Shares per 48

.177

Player Efficiency Rating

20.8

Wins Produced per 48

.211

Not to be outdone, Deron WIlliams had a career year in 2007-2008 as well. The big improvement was with his shooting, and specifically in two areas. Williams got to the basket more often, he was able to convert more, & unsurprisingly, he got to the free throw line more often. He shot a then career best 63% at the rim, drew fouls 13% of the time he had the ball, attempted five free throws a game & shot a then career high 80% from the stripe. The second area that saw a major improvement was his long distance shooting. In his first full season as the starter, Williams took three three-point attempts a game and converted on only 32% of them. The following year (07-08), Deron took about a little more than two per game, and hit on almost 40% of his three point field goals. As Dopeness alluded to earlier, Williams has one of the better midrange games in the NBA, and this year was no exception. He shot 46% from 16-23 feet, which was one of the best marks for point guards who played consistently.

D-Will's passing remained the same, and it's easy to see why. The league average eFG% that season was 49.8%, and the Jazz employed nine players (including Williams) who shot above that mark. Jerry Sloan offenses always featured a ton of player movement and attacking the basket. The script didn't change that year, as the Jazz were second best in team assist rate and third in team free throw rate. Long story short, Phase 1: employ good shooters. Phase 2: run an offense that leads to easy shot opportunities. Phase 3: Profit Assists!

Williams elevated his game for Utah in the playoffs. That postseason, he averaged 21/3/10 and shot an astounding50% from three point range. The Jazz defeated the Houston Rockets in six games, and in Game 6, Deron went crazy


Deron Williams Catches Fire (via xunlucky17x)

Despite Williams' best efforts, the Jazz fell to the Lakers in six games. Writing about Williams' playoff run that year, SLC Dunk writer Basketball John noted:

Outside of maybe Millsap and Brewer, Deron was really the only one that showed up in the playoffs. He picked it up a notch going for 21 & 10. He probably would have had a higher assist total but no one else could hit a shot. If you take out Deron's stats, the rest of the Jazz shot just 43% in the playoffs. Their poor shooting is one of the reasons why they had a hard time getting past Houston in the first round. And when the couldn't pick it up in the second round, they didn't have a chance against LA.

But Deron made a name for himself again in the playoffs. He kept the Jazz in most games and almost single-handidly brought the Jazz back in game 6 against the Lakers. I don't think that there's anyone else that you want taking that shot in that situation. I think more people were surprised that it didn't go in. Boozer can lay claim as this being their team, but for me and I believe most fans, it's Deron's team. He's the only one that's shown he's the leader and not just claimed it. As Deron goes, so goes the Jazz.

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Photo from SB Nation Kansas City

2011-2012

Russell Westbrook

Games Played

66

Minutes per game

35.3

True Shooting %

53.8

Assist rate

21.53

Turnover rate

14.18

Usage rate

32.64

Rebound rate

7.4

Win Shares per 48

.163

Player Efficiency Rating

22.9

Wins Produced per 48

.102

I wrote about Westbrook's 2011-2012 season earlier, so I won't add anything here. Instead, I'll link to quotes about Westbrook from other basketball writers. Andrew Sharp of SB Nation:

He hasn't changed the way he plays, but he's gotten better at picking his spots this year. He'll still have the occasional airballed jumper and/or sideline shouting match, but -- aside from his fantastic fashion sense -- the biggest theme of Westbrook's playoffs has been this strange savvy, where he explodes at the perfect time, then lets Durant and Harden take over when the moment's right.

Dan Grunfeld of SB Nation:

Basically, Russell is a scorpion. And how can anyone expect him to be anything else? Sure, his shot selection, decision-making and overall command of the game should and will improve over time, but if people want the Thunder to be led by a point guard who is methodical, meticulous and who distributes the ball with surgical precision, then Russ is not the guy for that job. Instead, he's energetic, aggressive, unpredictable, outrageous, freakishly athletic and in every way one of the most dynamic guards in the league, as evidenced by his two-time All-NBA status. Quite frankly, it is not his nature to play any differently -- like a traditional slow-it-down and set-it-up point guard, for example -- so to ask him or to expect him to be that kind of player is both unfair and unproductive. He could undoubtedly do a better job of managing himself and his teammates (like almost all NBA point guards), and I bet he will find a slightly more appropriate balance as the years progress, but he'll never really change who he is, and truthfully, he shouldn't, especially since he's an amazing competitor and an established winner as is.

Aaron McGuire of Hardwood Paroxysm & Gothic Ginobli:

That’s Westbrook. He’s a study in contrasts — within himself, he’s both sides of the coin. He’s democracy, challenging the reign of convention and offering a new archetype for the consumption of the fan. He’s lawless tyranny, challenging his fans to accept a player they cannot understand. He plays without conscience, without regard for either fans or teammates. Sometimes, it works. Gloriously. And all things considered, even when it doesn’t, Westbrook is still one of the best players in the game today. He’s fearless, strong, and just about the most pound-for-pound athletic specimen in the league. Without Westbrook, the Thunder are a classical version of the Dirk-led Mavericks — a team with the greatest scorer in the league surrounded by decent parts. Westbrook is, just as much as Durant, the reason the Thunder have such a bright future. He’s the thing that separates "a good team with a superstar" from "a limitless team with impossible potential." He’s the X-Factor extraordinaire, and one of the best point guards in the league. And he does it his own way, taking his own fans hostage and making them wonder how the hell he does it. It’s exhilarating, it’s a roller coaster. Nothing is guaranteed, but nothing is off the table. It’s funny. And it’s Russell Westbrook, the lawless sovereign himself.


Russell Westbrook 28 points vs Lakers full highlights (2012 NBA Playoffs CSF GM5) (via kietasss)


Looking ahead

We've spent all this time looking at Paul, WIlliams, & Westbrook's recent past and their best days. So what should we expect from these three in the future?

For Deron WIlliams, this upcoming season promises to be his best as a Net. During his year and a half with the Nets, Williams has dealt with injuries to key teammates and himself, responsibilities on offense he's never had to take on before, suspect coaching and mediocre teammates. Now that Joe Johnson is a Net and Brook Lopez/Gerald Wallace hopefully remain healthy, the Nets should be a solid playoff contender and Deron should play at an All-Star level.

Looking at Chris Paul, he is scheduled to be a free agent this upcoming offseason. And while the hot rumor (really, pipe dream but whatever) coming from the New York beat writers is that Paul will find his way to Madison Square Garden, the Clippers are confident that Paul will remain in Los Angeles. The Manager of Clips Nation, Steve Perrin, expands on this:

For those that dread a Carmelo in Denver, Dwight in Orlando or even CP3 in New Orleans scenario, it's important to note that the grumblings had long since started in each of those cities long before those players entered the final seasons of their contracts. That's why they became issues: everyone knew the player wanted out, and the team was in a position where they felt they had to do something or risk losing a superstar for nothing in return. That's not the case with Paul in L.A. Paul has had nothing but positive things to say about his experience in L.A. so far, and while he hasn't signed an extension (and again, there's little incentive for him to do so), nor has he given any indication that he wants out. As of now, Paul and the Clippers seem happy together.

Russell Westbrook has been trending upward since he came into the league. He's upped his shooting efficiency and decreased the number of turnovers every season, and barring something unforeseen, this should continue. The Thunder are viewed as one of the favorites to win the NBA Finals in 2012-2013, but with the new look Los Angeles Lakers, they will face a daunting challenge and Westbrook will be a huge factor in their matchups.

Note: I was originally going to do a section on head-to-head matchups, but I decided against it. I chose not to do it because using one-three game samples doesn't really add much clarity to a situation and doesn't give us enough information to draw a conclusion. I also chose not to reference team success or failure because that is a product of the roster around the individual player as well as his contributions. I felt it was better to discuss the individual player and their role instead of saying "Player X's team made it further in the playoffs than Player Y, so Player X>Player Y."

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