Russell Westbrook is making an All-Defensive case. Not for himself. Because, as Thunder backcourt-mate Victor Oladipo recently explained, that case could prove difficult. No, this case is for another Oklahoma City wing, Andre Roberson, who Westbrook believes deserves First Team consideration.
The subject of Roberson’s defense arose following his effort opposite New York Knicks star swingman Carmelo Anthony, who logged more shots (19) than points (18) in a loss to the Thunder on Monday.
During his statement, Westbrook raised a long-debated issue about the NBA’s annual All-Defensive teams — that many votes are cast more on reputation than reality. Here he is, via ESPN’s Royce Young:
Russell Westbrook on Andre Roberson, who he feels deserves some recognition: pic.twitter.com/RpxKIVKDaC
— Royce Young (@royceyoung) November 29, 2016
“Guys they put on the All-Defensive team, they give it to them before the damn season starts,” Westbrook told reporters Tuesday. “Guys don’t play defense, honestly. So, he actually locks up and defends, and people can’t score. It’s actually 1-on-1 defense, and that’s what it is. I don’t care about all the defensive numbers, all this other s**t. I don’t know defensive percentages when you’re in the game. That doesn’t matter. When you’re on the court and you see things he does defensively and people that actually watch the games and understand what it means to actually guard somebody, then they can see what All-Defensive team is.”
Since a media panel votes for the league’s two All-Defensive teams — each comprised of two guards, two forwards and one center — Westbrook seems to be taking swipes at four sects of the media here: 1) those who never played the game, 2) those who don’t really watch games, 3) those who lazily cast their votes based on reputation and 4) those who pore over advanced statistics before voting.
Based on his comments, Westbrook’s ideal voter, it seems, would be a former player who watches games and ignores advanced stats. But my guess is those are most often the reputation-based voters. It is my experience that folks who fall into Categories 2 and 3 more often hail from Category 1 than 4.
[Russell Westbrook Triple-Double Watch: Game 20, versus Washington]
In order to test that theory, I searched for the most ridiculous vote of the past couple years, and the best example I could find was Rajon Rondo receiving a 2014-15 Second Team All-Defensive vote during a season in which he publicly admitted, “I haven’t played defense in a couple years,” upon being traded from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks in January 2015. That vote was indefensible.
And it came from Antonio Harvey, a former NBA player who served as the radio analyst for the Trail Blazers from 2005-16. He was fired as part of Portland’s broadcasting overhaul this past summer, and has since turned his focus to becoming one of Oregon’s first licensed recreational marijuana growers. We cannot be certain his level of commitment to advanced statistics, but we can venture a guess.
A perusal of recent All-Defensive teams reflects a largely informed panel, as you would be hard-pressed to argue against anybody from the past four seasons not deserving their selection. The most recent reputation-based picks for All-Defensive honors are probably the Second Team backcourt duo of Rondo and Kobe Bryant in 2011-12. Their selections, particularly Bryant’s, drew heavy criticism and ultimately marked the last of eight straight All-Defensive bids for Kobe and four straight for Rondo.
Those selections were also made by the league’s 30 coaches. The NBA moved to a media panel a year later. In the three years since, 20 different players filled the league’s 30 All-Defensive spots, and only seven earned multiple bids (Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard and Chris Paul are the only three-time picks in that span). To give you an idea how little reputation has factored into the voting, four-time MVP LeBron James hasn’t made an All-Defensive team since 2013-14, when he was a Second Teamer.
Recent advancements in analytics have more likely made All-Defensive teams less dependent on reputation than ever. The argument that votes are cast before the season starts is becoming archaic, at least among a growing contingent who watch games, analyze stats and take the process seriously.
Westbrook’s argument seems to be a retread of one ex-teammate Kevin Durant made to ESPN in 2015:
“I think (the) media gets too much power to vote on stuff like that. Quite frankly I don’t think you really know a lot about as much we know about it,” Durant said when asked if MVP winners should be allowed to vote on the MVP like former Heisman Trophy winners are allowed to do with the annual award for the best college football player. “So we play against these guys every single night, we battle against these guys, we know what they say on the court, we know how they handle their teammates, we know how they approach the game, and our votes should count.
“Our opinions should count. I don’t think you guys know as much we do, and I don’t see why you have more power than we do.”
We should now note Westbrook does not watch film because, “I don’t worry about other people”:
— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) November 16, 2016
In 2015, the National Basketball Players Association launched its own awards, with only current players voting. They do not select All-Defensive teams, only a Best Defender. Two years ago, they picked DeAndre Jordan, who finished third in the media’s NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting behind Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green. Last year, both the media and NBPA voted Leonard as the league’s best defensive player. So, maybe players and media aren’t so different after all.
It is Leonard’s looming presence as the NBA’s unquestioned best defender that makes Westbrook’s First Team All-Defensive case for Roberson so difficult. Leonard’s still-elite defense realistically leaves just one open forward spot — one that will most likely again go to Green, arguably the league’s most versatile defender. Whether their repeats would signal a vote based more on reputation than reality is a question Durant could speak to perhaps better than anybody, since he played with Roberson, left to play with Green, and has had many a battle with Leonard. Asked in 2015, he chose none of them:
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) April 15, 2015
For the record, Tony Allen has made an All-Defensive team in five of the past six years. And the variance in answers other players might have provided is a testament to the difficulty of naming a best defender in the NBA or the league’s 10 best defenders. In the end, it’s a subjective exercise.
But if we’ve learned anything here, the best voters are informed ones, whether they be current or former players, coaches, media members or fans. Ballots cast on a combination of watching games and poring over advanced statistics are generally defensible. But it would be presumptuous to think any voting panel, players or media, can be universally committed. After all, if reputation didn’t matter, Westbrook would not have gotten more All-Defensive votes last season (23) than Roberson (1).
So, Westbrook’s willingness to push Roberson for All-Defensive consideration is also an important step in the process. In recent years, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers’ lauding of DeAndre’s defense helped elevate his reputation, as did the Boston Celtics’ campaign for Avery Bradley last season. Both players made the First Team in 2015-16. While their selections were certainly warranted, there’s no doubt public discussion of their defensive talents raised their notoriety over the years.
Now, just for fun, let’s see if we can make an advanced statistical All-Defensive argument for Roberson. Field goal percentages for foes defended by Roberson dip an average of 2.9 percent, according to NBA.com/stats — the best mark on the Thunder and an above-average but not elite rate across the league. As a team, the Thunder rank 14th in defensive rating (102.6 points allowed per 100 possessions). That number improves to a top-four level (100.1) with Roberson on the floor and falls to the bottom seven (106.6) with him on the bench. Although, those stats are even more lopsided with or without teammates Steven Adams (on: 99.5; off: 108.1) and Oladipo (on: 98.3; off: 113.1).
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But when you consider Roberson often draws the opposing team’s most skilled offensive player, there’s a case to be made that he is a stellar defender. Because he is a stellar defender. Two weeks ago, Roberson served as OKC’s primary defender opposite James Harden when the Houston Rockets star submitted his worst shooting performance of the season — a 13-point night on 4-of-16 shooting. Adams’ help defense at the rim was also a significant part of that effort. Watching games matters, too.
And perhaps we’ll watch Roberson closer now that Westbrook has mentioned him in such high regard. There’s no doubt players can help the media better understand the game, but a player disregarding the media’s own understanding of it probably isn’t the best place for that relationship to start.
For the record, there was one All-Defensive vote cast for Roberson last season — a Second Team one from Mike Fratello, a former coach turned analyst who never played professionally and covered office walls with statistical analysis long before advanced analytics were an accepted part of the game.
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