Not this year. Please, not this year.
Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook needs surgery to repair cartilage in his knee. This year. He’s out indefinitely.
What a punch to the gut.
Why? Well, two recent stories — one on LeBron James, one on Kevin Durant — got me thinking about how, as basketball fans, we live in a blessed era. And what could have been an epic Heat-Thunder Finals rematch, featuring two all-time greats trying to crush each other, likely won’t happen now if Durant’s running mate, Westbrook, can’t return at full-strength for the playoffs.
Here’s what’s clear: not only are James and Durant singular talents, but they’re also PhD-level thinkers about their craft. And that couldn’t be cooler, because their games are better for it, basketball is better for it, we as fans are better for it.
Not that, say, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson or other legendary players weren’t serious students of the game. But those guys couldn’t access the analytical and technological tools that today’s players have at their fingertips. James and Durant could easily fall back on their natural ability, and still be ridiculously rich global celebrities. Instead, they dove into the data.
Just listen to LeBron. Grantland.com writer Kirk Goldsberry asked James about the evolution of his game, from his rookie year in 2003-2004 until now. His reply:
Efficiency. I’m just a more efficient player. I take no shots for granted. When you’re a young player, you cast up low-percentage shots, and you’re not really involved with the numbers as much as far as field goal percentage and things of that nature. As I’ve grown, I’ve made more of a conscious effort to become a more efficient player and I think it’s helped my team’s success over the years.
James’ lack of a low-post game was glaring in the 2011 NBA Finals, when Miami lost to Dallas. It was also incredibly frustrating: why was a physical freak like LeBron spending so much time standing 25-feet from the hoop? To his credit, James recognized the opportunity cost — easy baskets — and starting working on his low-block moves. He trained with Hall-of-Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, who has the footwork of a dancer, that summer. With James taking more shots in the paint, he increased his PER — Player Efficiency Rating — 12.45% the next season. James won the 2011-2012 MVP award, and his first championship.
Last off-season, James made another data-driven switch. He worked harder on his three-point shooting. As James explained to Goldsberry:
You know, I changed. I didn’t shoot many 3s last year, I kind of played more in the post, and more in the mid-range, but I felt like I worked on 3s enough this past off season that I could make another change — and the least efficient shot in our game is the mid-range shot — so I thought maybe I could move it out, improve my 3-point shooting, continue to work on my low-post scoring, and then leave the mid-range to be my next journey.
The result? James shot 41% from three-point range this season, a career high. He also set a career-high in effective field goal percentage (eFG%), which adjusts a player’s shooting figure to account for the higher worth of a three-point shot (if a player hits a two-point shot, he’s 1 for 1 in the eFG% calculation; if he hits a three, he’s 1.5 for 1, since three-pointers are worth 50% more than two-pointers). His 60.3% eFG% was second-best in the NBA; his PER rose another 3%, to an NBA-best 31.59. That gives him the seventh-best PER in NBA history.
Durant, meanwhile, put a personal stats geek on his payroll. As Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated writes:
Kevin Durant sat in a leather terminal chair next to a practice court and pointed toward the 90-degree- angle at the upper-right corner of the key that represents the elbow. “See that spot,” Durant said. “I used to shoot 38, 39 percent from there off the catch coming around pin-down screens.” He paused for emphasis. “I’m up to 45, 46 percent now.”
Durant has hired his own analytics expert. He tailors workouts to remedy numerical imbalances. He harps on efficiency more than a Prius dealer. To Durant, basketball is an orchard, and every shot an apple. “Let’s say you’ve got 40 apples on your tree,” Durant explains. “I could eat about 30 of them, but I’ve begun limiting myself to 15 or 16. Let’s take the wide-open three and the post-up at the nail. Those are good apples. Let’s throw out the pull-up three in transition and the step-back fadeaway. Those are rotten apples. The three at the top of the circle — that’s an in-between apple. We only want the very best on the tree.”
Thanks to this smarter approach, Durant enjoyed his most efficient season ever. He took two fewer shots per game than last season, but still averaged slightly more points (28.1 points per game, compared with 28.0 points last season). Durant proved he’s more than just a scorer, like LeBron. He set a career-high in assists, 4.6 per game, even though the Thunder traded one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers, James Harden, who averaged 25.9 points per game for the Houston Rockets, fifth-best in the NBA.
Durant became just the sixth player in NBA history to shoot over 90% from the foul line, 50% from the field, and 40% from the three-point stripe.
Durant’s motivation? Toppling LeBron. Durant gave Jenkins one of the richest money quotes in recent NBA history:
I’ve been second my whole life. I was the second-best player in high school. I was the second pick in the draft. I’ve been second in the MVP voting three times. I came in second in the Finals. I’m tired of being second. I’m not going to settle for that … I’m done with it.
They were on a collision course, again. Maybe Westbrook can recover quickly, and return to the playoffs. Maybe Durant will lift the Thunder into the Finals on his own. I just hate to have to wonder on these things. Not this year. Not now.