Excellent stuff here emailed in by a reader. I’m a bit of a stat guy myself, but I don’t think there’s anything that can judge “Can the guy ball?” And like I wrote about last week, Russell Westbrook can absolutely ball. Here’s a better way of saying it.
By John Mietus
One key element little discussed in this year’s NBA rookie of the year race is the importance of intuitive feel for the game, basketball genius for lack of better term. Some coaches and statisticians try to refer to this “feel” as Basketball IQ, but that attempts to quantify with numbers (high or low) a player’s innate feel for the game. The truth of the matter is that most great basketball players simply feel the game out, and no statistical measure accurately captures the beauty or volatility of such play. That’s why team’s can write PER measurements on Ricky Rubio or Larry Bird without ever fully realizing the “win potential” of either player.
I’m not always a fan of what Charley Rosen, the FoxSports.com NBA writer, says about basketball. Rosen tends to be negative to the point of absurdity when discussing the greatest basketball players in the world, but he makes valid points on the contributions of players in regards to a team concept. Rosen points out that 90 percent of the players on the court at any given time of a game do not hold onto the basketball. That implies that 90 percent of the game happens away from the ball. And even in the NBA, even in a league designed to be played one-on-one, plenty of opportunity for improvisation and contribution occurs when a player does not actually have the basketball in their hands. It goes well beyond, “Is this guy setting a screen where he should be?”, and has more to do with a feel for spacing, for angles, for opportunities to make plays. It happens on both ends of the floor and allows an intuitive player to separate himself from players of average ability. But can it be measured? Not concretely. It can only be felt.
I want to talk about Russell Westbrook and the critical measures of a player’s capability. Watching Russell play this year on television or live and you can see the joy of his game. He’s like a child who has yet to realize all the limitations and boxes life will attempt to put around him. People get concerned over his turnovers or his “low” shooting percentage but they may miss his bouncy athleticism, his intuitive ability to make plays, his general court sense. Russell’s been out trying things this year, experimenting, pushing the boundaries of statistical analysis.
The statisticians get excited because they see Russell putting up big rebounding numbers “for a guard” or having games with eight assists, but they might miss the force of his mind behind those stats. Russell is a non-traditional player. He goes out and plays, plays hard, and plays intuitively. The plays he makes as a point guard compare to the plays a young Jason Kidd made, perhaps without the same passing ability but with the same general feel. Russell also plays defense with determination, intelligence, elite level athleticism, a dimension of basketball that PER fails to even consider.
So how do you convince the stat heads that a player like Russell has value? Well for starters, the raw data that Westbrook delivers isn’t bad either. He’s a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year even with certain stat categories being less than ideal. But eventually the logical thinkers are going to want the data to match the “feel” for the game. By calling turnovers simple mistakes instead of measuring ability and intent, PER geeks get lost in the web of logic at the expense of genius.
Russell is going to help the Thunder win games. He’s going to likely be an All-Star in the future. But his contributions will (hopefully) always be non-traditional. He gets out of the logical/rational realm and into an emotional game. He’s got a chance to be special not because of his raw contributions to a box score, but because of his innate sense of play-making. (It’s important not to confuse “play-making” with something like “running the pick and roll and finding the open shooter”… etc., play-making in this sense means an all-court ability to read and feel the game and react instinctively). If the coaching staff or if criticism cages Russell’s play-making ability then a great gift will be lost.
Thunder Fans: There’s no such thing as a “rookie mistake” in basketball. Only a “mistake”. Russell isn’t making mistakes so much as he is pushing the envelope, the limits of on court creativity. A bigger mistake would be trying to harness Westbrook and eliminate his intuitive capability. It would be counter-productive now to rein him in, probably causing confusion for Westbrook. Russell represents the fine line between a “practice” player and a gamer. A practice player can run through all the plays in practice, hit his spots, shoot when it’s his turn and succeed on a regular basis. But a gamer can perform when the lights come on at night and the curtain goes up. A gamer can improvise and make magic out of simple sport. A gamer can remove the box score from the hands of stat geeks everywhere and bring it back to where it belongs: a tool but not a mandate. A gamer can win under pressure because a gamer treats the game like a musical piece, playing each night his own way. Gamer’s are hard to find, even in the rarefied air of the NBA. And Russell Westbrook is one.