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What can the Wizards expect from Russell Westbrook?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

The John Wall era in Washington is over. Wall departs as the best guard in franchise history, and probably the seconds best player regardless of position — Wes Unseld earned the top spot by winning MVP as a rookie and leading the team to its only championship.

His break-up with the Wizards is sad, even for a cranky curmudgeon like me who nitpicked his game and leadership. At his best, few in the league could compare with his court vision, precision passing, and ability to create openings for teammates by manipulating defenses and using blinding speed and an explosive first step.

The trade makes it clear he did want to play elsewhere and that the Wizards were happy to oblige. According to sources within the Houston Rockets, the team initially called the Wizards to discuss a Westbrook for Wall swap at the behest of Wall’s agent, Rich Paul.

While many, including myself, believed it would be difficult for Washington to trade Wall’s contract before he took the floor in actual NBA games again, Sheppard and the Wizards were able to negotiate a reasonable deal because Houston was equally motivated to trade Westbrook.

There’s no doubt the Wizards got the player with the better career. Wall was very good in Washington, but Westbrook was just plain better. For example, during Wall’s best season, Westbrook won MVP. I have Westbrook with seven seasons as good or better than Wall’s 2016-17 peak. Westbrook’s career average 166 PPA is about the same as Wall’s high (165).

PPA (Player Production Average) is my overall rating metric that credits players for things that help a team win (scoring, playmaking, rebounding, defending) and debits them for things that don’t (missed shots, turnovers, fouls, poor defense). PPA is pace neutral, accounts for defense, and includes a “degree of difficulty” factor. In PPA, 100 is average, higher is better and replacement level is 45.

Russell Westbrook vs. John Wall, season by season PPA.
Kevin Broom

But, the Wizards aren’t getting MVP Westbrook. Truth is, they’re not getting the career average guy either. As is the #SoWizards way, they’re buying the expensive decline portion of a player’s career. Westbrook is 32-years old — an age at which athletic guards often see their production take a nosedive. And, despite an excellent two months, last season was his least productive since 2009-10, his second season in the league.

Westbrook received All-NBA honors last season, which my analysis says he didn’t deserve. Back in September, I created fourth and fifth team Almost All-NBA lineups and I wrote this about Westbrook:

...if Westbrook hadn’t been named to third team All-NBA, he would not have made my fourth or fifth team. I haven’t looked to see how many teams I’d need to create to get to Westbrook. At least one more.

In other words, I didn’t have him among the NBA’s top 10 guards last season. For this article, I went and looked. Turns out, I would need at least a 7th team “All-NBA” to include Westbrook.

For a guy who was a worthy MVP candidate in at least two seasons, this is significant slippage. He could snap back for another very good year or perhaps two. It would be extraordinary good luck if he managed more than one good-to-very-good seasons. Players his age can be relied on to do two things: get worse and get injured.

Before he became GM, Sheppard told me he thought traditional aging patterns and career arcs don’t apply to today’s NBA because of how players take care of their bodies, and because of modern training and medical care. I’ve tried several times to prove him correct, but have thus far failed to do so. My research indicates that careers still tend to follow a familiar pattern — 2-4 years of improvement, a peak between 25-27 years old, a plateau until 30-32 years old, and a marked decrease in production and availability from there.

As with any pattern, there are always exceptions. Perhaps Westbrook will defy the career arc. As is shown by the chart above, his performance seems to be following the traditional pattern.

Westbrook Meets the Doppelgänger Machine

I ran Westbrook’s 2019-20 with the Rockets through the Statistical Doppelgänger Machine to see the comps. Unsurprisingly for a guy who produces so much in so many areas — points, rebounds, assists, steals, turnovers, missed shots — there are no close matches. Westbrook’s closest comps score in the mid-80s where 100 is a perfect match and most players get comps that score in the 90s.

That said, Westbrook’s historical similars are legendary. Here’s the top 10:

  1. Kobe Bryant, 2009-10, Los Angeles Lakers, age 31 — With a 149 PPA, this was the least productive season since Bryant’s third year in the league, when he was 20 years old. While his performance was diminished from his peak (200 PPA at age 27), he followed it up with three more good-to-very-good seasons (170, 137 and 159). Then he tore his Achilles and his production didn’t approach league average again.
  2. Carmelo Anthony, 2014-15, New York Knicks, 30 — Anthony was very good, though overrated throughout his career. His peak was a 173 PPA at 29. At 30, he managed just 40 games and a 142 PPA. He followed that up with a steady decline: 135, 106, 72, 51 and 70 this past season.
  3. Vince Carter, 2003-04, Toronto Raptors, 27 — Carter’s name shows up a couple more times on this list. This was a rough season for Carter (120 PPA), who’d grown unhappy in Toronto and was trying to force a trade. He played even worse the following season for the Raptors, and abruptly performed better when he got the trade to the New Jersey Nets. Carter’s best season was a 200 PPA in his third year in the league (age 24).
  4. Carmelo Anthony, 2011-12, New York Knicks, 27 — Anthony’s first full season with the Knicks. It wasn’t great — a 143 PPA. His two best years were still to come.
  5. Dwyane Wade, 2014-15, Miami Heat, 33 — Legendary name whose production had declined each of the previous seasons. At 33, he hit the proverbial career wall, and his production plummeted from a 164 PPA to 124. He had two more above average seasons at 34 and 35 before an even steeper dropoff. Westbrook’s production pattern matches up pretty well with Wade’s, albeit with the production decline coming a couple years earlier with Westbrook. At least so far.
  6. Tracy McGrady, 2007-08, Houston Rockets, 28 — A transcendent talent in his early 20s, injuries stole what should have been his prime. At 28, McGrady was fading — a 124 PPA (down from 173 the previous season). He followed that with a 126 the following season, but in just 35 games. It got worse from there.
  7. Vince Carter, 2006-07, New Jersey Nets, 30 — Carter’s reputation has probably been helped by his longevity, as well as indelible dunk contest performances and the...umm...Nutscraper over Frederic Weis in the Olympics. This was actually his last stellar season — a 163 PPA. He was decent for another three seasons, he managed a slightly above average season at age 36 for the Dallas Mavericks, and he had some other seasons where he performed at the level of a useful reserve.
  8. Gilbert Arenas, 2009-10, Washington Wizards, 28 — This was post-injury Arenas and his play was mediocre (104 PPA) until he got suspended for bringing guns into the locker room.
  9. Glenn Robinson, 2001-02, Milwaukee Bucks, 29 — Never all that good, Robinson’s production would decline from a 126 PPA to 96 at age 30. The next two seasons got even worse and he retired at 32.
  10. Vince Carter, 2005-06, New Jersey Nets, 29
  11. World B. Free, 1984-85, Cleveland Cavaliers, 31 — Something tells me Free would be more valued in today’s game than he was in the 70s and 80s when he played. This was his best season (132 PPA) when he abruptly started taking threes (3.4 per pace adjusted 40 minutes) and hitting them (36.8%).
  12. Lebron James, 2015-16, Cleveland Cavaliers, 31 — This was James’ second season back in Cleveland and he was terrific (226 PPA). James led the Cavaliers to a championship — his third — over the 73-win Golden State Warriors. By the way, James has 14 seasons with a PPA of 200 or higher, including each of the past five. No Wizards or Bullets player since my database begins in 1977-78 has ever cracked 200. The high PPA was a 189 by Moses Malone in 1986-87.

Those who can count may notice that 12 is more than the 10 I promised. Look, I saw my chance to have Gilbert Arenas, World B. Free, and Lebron James on the same list, and I took it.

I’ll have more about Westbrook when I do my preseason forecast in the next few days. Given his age, it’s unrealistic to expect improvement. He’ll be an upgrade over what they had playing guard last season, and probably enough to at least get the Wizards into the play-in games. Expecting more than that would be #SoWizards.