Who matters more to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook? There are other variations of that question, such as “Which eye do you prefer to see out of, the left or the right?” Or, “Which would you rather give up, food or water?”
In each case, it’s not like only having one is a valid option, but one of your eyes is dominant and sees better than the other. You can live 10-plus weeks without food. You would die after three days without water. It’s a real Sophie’s Choice, or should I say “OKC’s choice?”
Point being, just because you don’t want to be without one or the other doesn’t mean that if you had to make a choice, you wouldn’t find a rationale. Westbrook and Durant, when they’re at the best, are arguably two of the five best players in the world. So, having both is really nice if you’re a Thunder fan. But if you had to do without one or the other, which would it be?
THE ARGUMENT FOR DURANT
The case for Kevin Durant is an easy one. He’s the 2013-14 MVP and up until last year, was viewed as the best player on the team and by some the best player in the world.
In terms of points per game for his career, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and LeBron James are the only ones ahead of his 27.32, and it’s only a matter of time before he passes James. And based on points per 100 possessions, he’s even better.
Here are the top 100 scorers per 100 possessions since the league started tracking turnovers in 1977-78:
The horizontal axis shows the number of points scored. The vertical axis shows roughly the number of possessions used to score those points (FGA+.44*FTA+TO).
Notice where Durant and Westbrook are. Both aren’t just among the best scorers right now; they’re some of the best in modern history.
But there’s still an argument on this graph for Durant over Westbrook, and it’s the best argument you can make for him. Durant is a scorer, but he’s not a “volume” scorer in the sense that he needs to burn a lot of possessions to earn his points.
Westbrook uses 35.84 possessions out of 100. Durant just uses 34.78. Yet, Durant scores 36.7 points to Westbrook’s 31.9. Theoretically, if he used as many possessions as Westbrook did, Durant would score 37.84 points. That’s a pretty significant difference.
That doesn’t mean that Westbrook is bad. It means that Durant is that amazing. In fact, no player is better than Durant in both points per 100 possessions and points per possession used, meaning that arguably no one ever has scored as much, this efficiently.
THE ARGUMENT FOR WESTBROOK
Yes, it’s easy to look at just scoring and consider that Durant is better because he’s a more efficient player. But here’s the problem that’s inherent to efficiency stats.
There are two ways to score: either off the dribble or off the pass. Shots off of passes are inherently more advantageous because they’re less likely to be contested. That’s in part because the guy who passed you the ball will often also be the guy who just drew your defender away from you.
And for all the talk about his ball-hogging, Westbrook drops a lot of dimes. He’s presently leading the league in assists, and if he accomplishes that, he’d join Tiny Archibald, Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Oscar Robertson to have a scoring title and assist title in their careers:
When we include facilitation in the above collection of players, awarding a minimum of two points per assist (although, many were for three, it’s impossible to reach that number with any accuracy prior to 2000).
Westbrook produces 53.5 points per 100 possessions. In the measurable age, only Chris Paul, LeBron James, John Stockton, Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson are ahead of him. Kevin Durant is at 46.10 points “all the way down” in 26th place. (Like I said, there are worse problems to have).
So, those sixish points that Westbrook loses in his personal efficiency, he makes up for in his passing. Furthermore, his teammates are more efficient off his passes, per the Thunder’s passing dashboard on NBA.com.
When shooting off Westbrook passes, his teammates have a 57.1 effective field goal percentage compared to 53.8 percent with Durant. Now some of that difference may be that Durant is passing Westbrook the ball and vice versa.
But Westbrook has generated 217 points on his passes compared to 86 for Durant. And Thunder players are taking 23.5 shots per game when he delivers them the ball. So all of that indicates that for all the scorn he takes for being a ball hog, he’s doing a heck of a job of making his teammates better by drawn defenders and creating shots for them.
That said, if you combine the points shooting and passing, Durant’s generated 311 points on 221 attempts. Westbrook has chalked up 423 points on 374 attempts. Westbrook has a big edge in volume (with good overall efficiency at 1.13 points per shot), but Durant has brilliant efficiency (1.41 points per shot).
So the question isn’t as easy to answer as one might hope. It depends on what you have around you. If you have a team of scrubs and also-rans, like the injury-plagued squad that stumbled through last year, you want someone who can produce a ton, and Westbrook is your man.
But if you have a stable team with a veteran presence, and you want the guy who can lead you to the title, you’d rather have Durant.
Of course, if you can have both, you take that and don’t complain about it.