Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant give Neil Olshey and Sam Presti permission to think big, but it’s the presence of their second-best players, Russell Westbrook and Eric Gordon, that completes the most basic foundation of a championship core. Whereas one great player constitutes a future, two makes “rebuilding” a thing of the past.
For the Clippers and Thunder, ultimate success hinges on the ability of these two “second fiddles” to lead the way. Chosen three picks apart in the 2008 draft, Westbrook (4th) and Gordon (7th) remain connected as pioneers of a new breed of combo guard. They share an extraordinary athleticism and uncanny ability to get to the hole and the free throw line. They have become elite scorers for their position and enter their fourth seasons with high expectations and great responsibility.
2010-2011 marked a significant step forward for both, as they distinguished themselves as elite guards in the league and leaders for their teams on both ends of the floor.
From Hoopdata, numbers in parentheses are ranks among guards:
|Usage Rate||Adjusted PER||True Shooting%||Effective FG%|
|Westbrook||31.53% (5th)||26.32 (2nd)||53.8% (40th)||45.5% (99th)|
|Gordon||26.43% (21st)||18.58 (24th)||56.6% (23rd)||50.6% (40th)|
Westbrook was more involved in his team’s offense than almost any other guard in the league and both his usage rate and adjusted Player Efficiency Rating (PER) reflect that. He played in all 82 games for the third time in his 3-year career while raising his usage rate from around 26 percent his first two seasons to 31.5 in 2010-2011.
Gordon, on the other hand, jumped up five points in usage rate from 21.48 (20 is league average) the season before, but shared the court far too often with more ball-dominant point guards like Baron Davis and Mo Williams to compile the same amount of touches as the guys ahead of him.
Adjusted PER (APER) aims to quantify contributions in all aspects of the game while adjusting for team pace and league averages, and Westbrook understandably ranked near the top. He started alongside a low-usage guard, Thabo Sefolosha, and the lack of structure in Scott Brooks’ offense gave him all kinds of freedom. The situation was ripe for Westbrook’s emergence, and with increased assertiveness and a relentless commitment to getting to the hoop came incredible production. Like Gordon, he also adds considerable value on the defensive end.
Westbrook had career highs in: points (21.9 per game), assists (8.2), and steals (1.9). He became an All-Star for the first time thanks to increased efficiency from the field (44 percent), from the line (84 percent) and even beyond the arc (33 percent) — up from only 22 percent in his second season. Still not a strong shooter, he showed promising signs by playing to his strengths, getting a quarter of his looks (6.8/game) at the rim and converting those at a 60 percent clip.
What may not be so encouraging for Thunder fans were instances down the stretch where Westbrook struggled to stay under control. For all his power and quickness, the guy whose 316 turnovers led the NBA by 32 over the next highest total underwent a very public battle over his decision-making and execution. He found himself on the bench during the playoffs in favor of Eric Maynor because Maynor took care of the ball, and he seemed to struggle, at times , to understand why. Unlike fellow 2008 draftee Derrick Rose, he is not designed to be the primary option on his team — that’s Durant. And unlike Gordon, he seemed unable at times to defer to his star teammate.
The second set of numbers above allows a closer look at the two while isolating their ability to score. The primary difference between effective field goal percentage (eFG%) — the number invented by Mike Dunleavy in the early 80’s to adjust for the value of 3-pointers made — and true shooting percentage (TS%) is that TS% includes free throws in its computation and eFG% doesn’t. In essence, TS% gives you the most efficient scorers, eFG% tells you who are the best shooters.
Even in a down year, Gordon is the better shooter by far, and it is the area in which he figures to have the biggest advantage going forward. He is a natural shooter with the athleticism and strength to get to the hoop, whereas Westbrook is a penetrator by trade taking jumpers when defenses give him too much space. If Gordon can even return to his career form of 37.5 percent from downtown — and he should continue to find openings as teams focus on Griffin — it shouldn’t be a surprise to see his numbers jump into All-Star territory. For whatever that’s worth.
What makes Westbrook’s journey through last spring even more interesting to Clipper fans is what it can teach us about Eric Gordon. We saw what Westbrook could do – both good and bad — over a season in such high usage, but to this point Gordon has not had that opportunity. He may not be the primary ballhandler next season, but he does have a clear opportunity to assume an even more prominent role with Mo Williams playing to his strength off the ball as a spot up shooter.
Synergy Sports gives us an indication of just how effective the Clippers’ two-man game could be next season. Below are the numbers for Westbrook and Gordon last season as pick-and-roll ball handlers, the basic set out of which both operate a majority of their offense. Numbers in parentheses indicate league rank among the 66 players that average at least three pick-and-roll plays a game.
|% of Plays||Points Per Possession||FT% on PnR||Turnover Rate|
|Gordon||27.4% (50th)||.94 (9th)||15.1% (6th)||18.2% (50th)|
|Westbrook||32.7% (34th)||.83 (34th)||13.7% (9th)||15.2% (34th)|
If you can get past the whopping turnover rates, especially for Gordon, you see that in the most fundamental and commonly run set in the NBA, he is one of the very best. In points per possession produced, he’s ranked ahead of guys like Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, and figures to get at least more opportunities, if not more out of them, next season.
Ball security is an issue for Gordon if he’s going to reach his offensive potential, but he scored and got to the free throw line at an elite rate, which bodes well for his chances with Griffin setting elbow screens all night long. When you watch tape of Gordon running pick-and-rolls last season, you see that many of his turnovers came on plays where he would come off the screen dribbling too high and just lose the handle to the weakside defender. If he could tighten up his dribble this offseason just a grade or two, we could see yet another drastic jump for EJ next season.
Perhaps the biggest key for Gordon isn’t his dribbling though. Unlike his counterpart in Oklahoma City, he has yet to play a full season and enters his fourth with a trend to break: declining “games played” totals of 78, 62, and 56 the last three years. The Clippers played well at times with Gordon out, particularly after the trade for Williams, but they don’t figure to get where the Thunder have been or beyond if he’s not healthy.
So far, health and hope have favored OKC, but if all of that is equal, so seem the abilities of each team’s lead duo. This unbelievably talented quartet of 22-year-olds — all four born within six months of each other — is the basis for this comparison of these two teams at its most basic level, the reason why it makes sense to talk about them in the same category, if not the same class.
Both clubs are rich in young talent and assets, but in all likelihood their success will come on the backs of Durant and Westbrook, Griffin and Gordon.