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Can Westbrook and Oladipo be the best defensive backcourt?

Can Westbrook and Oladipo be the best defensive backcourt?

Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo have a lot in common. Among many things: they love to sing, they love to compete, and they both were drafted on defensive potential. Russ in his final year for UCLA was the PAC 10 Defensive player of the year, and Vic was the NABC Defensive Player of the year in 2013. This brings us to a quote by Russ on Media Day:

“Defensively I think we can be the best defensive backcourt in the league, because we can do different things with our size and using our length and our speed and I think that’s the biggest part of it.”

Judging from pure stature it would be hard to disagree. It would be pretty easy to declare them the most athletic or explosive backcourt in the league, but the best defensive? Since they have been in the NBA both have been disruptive defenders, who have lacked solid play. Oladipo has been a more solid defender than Russ, but both lack discipline to be DPOY candidates. They are explosive in every way and that shows in their ability to get steals and easy transition dunks. I can’t blame them, there’s probably nothing like getting a big steal and hearing the crowd roar when you jam in home. Defensive is more about staying solid and true to the scheme than it is those plays, so it will take a big adjustment for them to become the best defensive backcourt… or will it?

So how do we know who the best defensive backcourt is? I’m going to use Defensive Real Plus Minus. Is DRPM perfect? No. Are we going to get a definitive answer? No. Just an exercise to see how close they really are according to a good defensive stat.

Here’s how the numbers came out.

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Russ and Vic were the 3rd best “duo” (Obviously they didn’t play together) according to last season’s DRPM. Only the Spurs and Grizzlies had a better DRPM among their backcourts. With both sets of players due for a possible decline, it does seem possible for the Thunder to be at the top at the end of next season. Chris Paul, Danny Green, and Tony Allen heavily carry their backcourts while having lower or even negative DRPM running mates.

As skeptical as I was when I heard Russ say it, these numbers make it seem possible. If Russ and Vic can learn to balance staying solid and going for the home run play, they could do it.

Is this the season they finally meet their defensive expectations? So far they are saying all the right things. On the first day of practice Westbrook lost his voice from yelling out orders during defensive drills. A quote from Oladipo on media day:

“Whenever I’m solid, everything good happens. I think that’s why my defensive skill set has grown throughout the years, not only in the NBA but throughout the years because I just remain solid and try to do a good job of just buying into the defensive schemes and just doing my part defensively.”

Last season both had a positive DRPM, the only other backcourts that did were the Grizzlies Tony Allen and Mike Conley and also whatever combination of Bucks players you’d like in Michael Carter-Williams, Khris Middleton, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Russ and Roberson also fit that description. In fact the projected starting lineup for OKC includes 4 out of 5 players with a positive DRPM (Russ, Vic, Roberson, and Adams), that leaves whoever they choose to start with negative DRPM. Kanter, Ilyasova and Lauvergne all have negative DRPM.

So can Russell Westbrook and Victor Oladipo be the best defensive backcourt in the NBA? Both their physical ability and the DRPM numbers hint at yes.