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Russell Westbrook, triple-doubles, and stat-padding accusations

So there was this post on Reddit on Thursday that got some people talking. It’s been a conversation for a lot of this season with Russell Westbrook, about how he’s getting his triple-double average and if his numbers are inflated or lack authenticity, somehow.

The general thesis rests on Westbrook gaming the system for rebounds, whether it be on defensive free throws (accurate), not contesting shots (hmm) or hauling in uncontested rebounds (so what).

Here’s a selection:

Westbrook is almost never contesting shots, instead he’s leaving his man open and blatantly attacking the paint in search of defensive rebounds with a numbers advantage. Beyond this, the entire rebounding culture of the team has been centered around the bigs boxing out and deferring rebounds to Westbrook. Additionally, due to his position being perimeter oriented, his constant search of rebounds has compromised OKC’s perimeter defense, which ranks dead last in the NBA in opp. guards expected FG% by a considerable margin.

I have a few thoughts:

1. This is just what happens in today’s social media world when something is neat and fun and cool. It crescendoes and then someone comes swooping in to tell you how that neat and fun and cool thing you like is actually stupid and not great. Did you love the last 10 minutes of Rogue One? Well, here are 51 reasons why the ending of Rogue One is actually horrible. Does the world universally recognize the greatness of Tom Brady? Well, let me tell you why Brady actually isn’t a top 15 quarterback ever (alternatively titled, PLEASE CLICK THIS LINK). Do you like Tom Hanks? Well… oh who am I kidding Tom Hanks is fantastic and nobody could ever have a bad thing to say about him.

This is just what happens. Westbrook is doing something ridiculous and incredible and spectacular, and the way you know this is because Some Guy On The Internet is here to tell you why it’s not actually that great. Really, that’s what true validation looks like in 2017.

2. The numbers used in the post are pretty selective, and fail to tell the entire story. Using contested shots as a measure for Westbrook not playing defense and hunting rebounds is an interesting concept, but I’m not sure it illustrates anything important. That number is heavily weighted toward interior players, because a contested shot is hard to measure in terms of an empirical stat. What Second Spectrum rules as a “contested” has to fit certain criteria, namely being the distance between a defender and shooter. And if you look at the data, it leans mightily to big men. There aren’t many perimeter defenders on the top of that list. As the post notes, Jimmy Butler is low on the list. C.J. McCollum is pretty high up at 444. Is he suddenly a great defender? Harden is at 428.

Westbrook certainly gets lazy on the defensive end, but in the end, statistically, he’s not hurting the Thunder’s defense. It’s better when he’s on the floor than when he isn’t (granted, that should include the context he plays a lot with Adams and Roberson). The Thunder defensive scheme encourages a lot of switching, and Westbrook often guards off ball players, while Roberson takes the primary scorers. That influences this as well.

I do think there’s something interesting to follow in terms of the numbers. Westbrook being that low on contested shots suggests, something, but I don’t think the conclusion should necessarily be that he’s not playing defense so he can chase rebounds. He might just not be playing very good defense. Because the majority of Westbrook’s rebounds come off shots his man didn’t take.

I asked Donovan about this exact thing early in the season and his answer was simple: If he thought Westbrook was doing this, it would be something addressed in film. But he hasn’t seen it as an issue, and nothing statistically speaking suggests it is.

3. Does it matter who gets a rebound? Actually, yes. Especially when it’s Westbrook. ESPN Stats & Info has been tracking Westbrook since December, and the numbers bear out, pretty impressively, that the Thunder’s offense is better following a Westbrook rebound. They play faster, they generate higher percentage shots and they score at a better clip. So if we’re talking about what’s best for the team, it’s Westbrook stat-padding rebounds.

4. The free throw rebound thing is accurate and real. One hundred percent Westbrook is padding the numbers a bit on those. It’s a clever move. I don’t know how many Westbrook has grabbed using this tactic, but let’s say it’s 50. Subtract 50 from Westbrook’s total and now he’s averaging 9.5 a game.

But again, does it especially matter? As Donovan noted when someone asked recently about it, Westbrook is one of the best rebounders on the team, so doesn’t it make sense he goes and grabs them? Isn’t the purpose for OKC to get the rebound? And of course, any other player in the league could be doing the same thing, and they aren’t averaging a triple-double.

5. This just isn’t fair. Anyone going through Oscar Robertson’s Second Spectrum data and scrutinizing it? Or Michael Jordan’s? Or heck, even LeBron James’ or Steph Curry’s from their recent incredible seasons? Kyle Korver forced up some contested 3s during his 3-point streak to keep it going, so is the whole thing now a FRAUD? The focus is on Westbrook because he’s doing something historic. It’s hard to comprehend how he’s doing this, so people are digging deep to try and explain it away, for better or worse.

6. Uncontested rebounds are such a dumb stat to care about. Because that’s not Westbrook’s fault the opposing team isn’t competing for rebounds against him. It’s uncontested even if there are four Thunder players in the area and Westbrook hauls it in.

I think what it also speaks to is how opposing teams fear Westbrook pulling in a rebound and breaking into an immediate transition opportunity. Opposing teams aren’t crashing the offensive glass, because of the fear of Westbrook in transition. So what does “uncontested rebound” actually prove? Is it only a rebound if he’s in there fighting three other players for it? Are the only 3s that REALLY count for Danny Green the contested ones? All those silly, easy open ones don’t really matter.

7. Westbrook is doing this in 34 minutes a game. Thirty-four! If he were TRULY chasing this triple-double thing, wouldn’t it make sense for him to be pushing upwards up 40 a night? He’s leaving numbers on the floor every night by sitting an extra three or four minutes.

8. This point:

Finally, and probably the most damning statistic, is that 7.0 of Westbrook’s 10.4 rebounds per game are coming on missed FGA from 13+ feet. The largest proportion of those, 4.2, are from 19+ feet. That number ranks 4th in the NBA behind only Whiteside, Jordan, and Drummond. 83% of those rebounds on misses from 19+ feet are uncontested rebounds, meaning Westbrook had 0 competition for the board.
Why is a point guard able to grab rebounds on missed long shots without contest so frequently? Why is he not guarding the opposing point guard when there’s a FGA so far away from the basket? The opposing PG obviously isn’t in the paint next to Westbrook, or the rebound wouldn’t be uncontested. Is he just abandoning his man when a player has the ball on the perimeter and is likely to shoot?

This is where a WATCH DA GAMEZ comes in. If you watch Westbrook on a regular basis, or even just have a general knowledge of him, you’d know he’s uh, fast. He beats a lot of players to the ball. And his anticipation skills are incredible. He routinely will read the flight of the ball and be the first to it simply because he’s faster than everyone else. Where other guards will hover on the perimeter, Westbrook crashes the glass and rebounds. It’s because he has the energy to do it, when a lot of other players don’t.

So someone is going to penalize him because he has an impressive skill? This point on long rebounds going Westbrook’s way really should be making the opposite impact, proving how Westbrook’s hustle and speed are at another level than other players. But as it goes when you’re desperately trying to prove a hypothesis, you skew the numbers to support your braindead theory.

Again, the Thunder are one of the best rebounding teams in the league. Westbrook is the best rebounding guard. The Thunder are better when he gets a rebound, on both ends of the floor, and they’re 18-5 when he records a triple-double.

If you actually are buying this nonsense that he’s stat-padding and therefore his triple-double average is invalidated then I have news for you: Every player’s stats in the NBA aren’t authentic. Every player is chasing numbers to some degree. Kevin Durant buzzer-clutched his way to a 50-40-90 season. Stats are part of the game, and part of what makes it fun to follow. If it were as easy as just stat-padding, then Westbrook wouldn’t be the first player in more than 50 years to be doing this.