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February 21, 2012
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Westbrook's Dishes to Durant

by Dan Feldman

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Russell Westbrook shoots too much, especially when he steals attempts from Kevin Durant. The story has been written many times.

Durant, for his part, has never publically bought the narrative. Matt Steinmetz of CSNBAYAREA.COM:

"Hey my man, I've got a question for you," Durant said. "Why does everyone want to talk about who the best player is on our team, whether it's me or Russell? Why does everyone worry about that?"

Naturally, I was defensive and told Durant that's not what I was talking about on television.

"I know," he said. "But you're in the media so maybe you know why some writers and guys like that do it. I just don't get it."

"I'm not sure," I answered.

"I mean, we're on the same team, Russell and me, so what does it matter?" Durant said. "Who cares whether he's better than me or I'm better than him?"

"Well, you know, the media does that kind of stuff every once in a while," I said, unabashedly throwing my media brethren under the bus. "You know, it happens here some with Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry."

Durant nodded.

"Thanks," Durant said. "It's just that we're on the same team, you now? So it doesn't matter. Who cares?"

Maybe Durant's support of Russell is totally rooted in Durant being a good teammate. Or maybe Durant has a warped point of view.

When outsiders watch Russell, they see the high-usage player who averages just 5.6 assists per 36 minutes, 22nd among starting point guards. When Durant watches Russell, he sees the distributor who passes him the ball.

A lot.

Through Saturday, Westbrook had dished 84 assists to Durant. Only Steve Nash's 99 assists to Marcin Gortat were more in an individual-to-individual combo.

In fact, 52 percent of Westbrook's assists going to Durant is an extremely high total. No other player with at least 20 assists has sent a higher percentage of them to a single teammate. And compared to other teams' assist leaders, Westbrook sends a much higher percentage of his assists to his main recipient than anyone else:

Part of the explanation is playing time. Westbrook plays 97 percent of his minutes with Durant, much more than with any other teammate:

Another explanation is that Durant makes a lot of shots. He ranks third in the NBA in field goals made, because shoots at high efficiency (50.8 percent) and volume (19.2 shots per game). All else equal, passing the ball to Durant is more likely to yield an assist than passing the ball to any other Thunder player.

But Durant and Westbrook's teammates are shooting a combined 46.1 percent, one of the best marks in the league for the teammates of the pairs charted in the first viz:

That partially explains why Tony Parker's assists to Tim Duncan rank near the bottom of the league in terms of percentage of the leading passer's assists going to a single teammate. Parker has more teammates capable of receiving passes and scoring than just Duncan. Westbrook has similar offensive luxury, yet he focuses on just Durant.

Westbrook and Durant assist Serge Ibaka more than anyone else does, but for the rest of the Thunder, moving the ball is a balancing act. With Eric Maynor out for the season and Westbrook zoning in on Durant, James Harden, Durant and Nick Collison have picked pick up the passing slack. Harden, Durant and Collison are all averaging more assists and turnovers per 36 minutes than last season.

Harden passes well for an off-guard, as does Collison for a big man, and Durant just has the ball in his hands a lot. But none of those three replicate a good point guard. Until Maynor returns or Reggie Jackson develops, it would seem Oklahoma City would benefit from Westbrook distributing the ball more evenly.

Obviously, there's a degree of codependence, but Durant's reliance on Westbrook isn't nearly as extreme. Westbrook assists 63 percent of Durant's 134 assisted field goals. Steve Nash assists 63 percent of Gortat's 156 assisted field goals and 70 percent of Grant Hill's 74 assisted field goals.

But maybe Westbrook passing so much to Durant works for the team. As stated above, the Thunder's other players are shooting well, even without Westbrook assisting them. Oklahoma City ranks second in Offensive Rating, and if opponents are keying in on Westbrook and Durant when Westbrook has the ball, the plan isn't working.

In Sunday night's 50-40 game for the duo, seven of Westbrook's nine assists went to Durant, who scored 16 points on those passes.

More importantly, under this plan, the Thunder's franchise player is happy with the team's other star. As long as everything else is working, why risk changing that?

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Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Dan by clicking here or click here to see Dan's other articles.

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