Are we getting worse at the NBA draft?

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USA Today

Are we getting worse at the NBA draft?

The Toronto Raptors just won an NBA championship without a single lottery pick on the roster. It’s true. Kawhi Leonard, the Finals MVP, was picked 15th. Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka were all picked at the back of the first round. Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Norman Powell and Patrick McCaw were second-rounders. Fred VanVleet and Jeremy Lin weren’t even drafted. 

Not a single top-10 pick on the team. When asked about this stunner of a fact ahead of the NBA Finals, Gasol told reporters the draft was so important to him that he was actually asleep when he found out he was selected 48th in 2007. And now he’s a champion and NBA Defensive Player of the Year.


    Said Gasol: “I don’t know what it says about the draft.”

    On the topic, Lowry, who was picked 24th by Memphis in 2006, told the Toronto Sun: “Picks don’t mean anything.”

    It certainly seems that way, to an extent. Not only was the Finals MVP drafted outside the lottery, but so was the presumptive regular-season MVP in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was drafted 15th overall in 2013. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Rudy Gobert, was drafted 27th by Denver and traded for the 46th pick and cash. The DPOY before him, Draymond Green, was a second-rounder himself.

    On the other side of the equation, we’ve had two massive misfires at the No.1 pick in the last six drafts. Just 20 months after being the top pick in 2017, Markelle Fultz was traded for Jonathon Simmons and what will likely be a few second-rounders. Anthony Bennett, the No. 1 pick in 2013, is out of the league.

    Lottery teams prepare countless reports, stay up ungodly hours and talk to hundreds of people to help identify the next star. Teams have more data than ever and, with social media, more insight into a player’s mindset and personality traits. And yet, the draft seems as much of a crapshoot as ever and lottery teams continue to miss on stars. Just look at the NBA champions.

    As we’re getting ready for Thursday night, we have to ask ourselves: Are we getting worse at the draft?

    * * *

    The NBA draft has always been a difficult enterprise. Clifton McNeely, the very first pick of the very first draft back in 1947 (when it was called the Basketball Association of America/BAA) never actually played a single game in the NBA. Instead, he decided to coach high school basketball. (Imagine if Zion Williamson did that).

    There have been busts and always will be busts. That’s the nature of trying to look into the crystal ball. 

    But are teams actually getting worse at looking into the crystal ball? 

    It would stand to reason that scouting technology and the rise of analytics have raised the accuracy of front offices. Gadgets have certainly helped other industries. Short-term five-day forecasts, for example, are nearly as accurate as two-day projections were three decades ago. Netflix estimates that 75 percent of viewer activity is driven purely by its recommendation algorithms geared to predict what you’ll watch next

    But the NBA draft, apparently, isn't getting any more predictive. If anything, it might be getting worse.

    “It’s still a crapshoot,” said one prominent scout. “With all the available resources and new technology, we certainly haven’t gotten better.”

    If the draft were perfectly predictive, the best player would always be picked first and the worst player available picked last. No undrafted players would ever step foot onto an NBA court.

    Of course, that doesn’t happen. But the correlation of pick slot and win shares doesn’t seem to be getting stronger. That is, if we look into every draft since 1990, the best players -- as measured by prominent value metric win shares -- aren’t increasingly getting picked at the top, or near it. 

    Let’s look at the trends. Over the last five drafts, pick slot and player production (as measured by win shares) has a correlation coefficient of -0.38, indicating a moderate negative relationship between the two variables. In less nerdy terms, as picks go down from 60 to 1, we’re seeing player win share totals going in the opposite direction -- up and up and up. It’s not a perfect minus-1.0 relationship where the closer you get to No. 1, the more value is produced. (Cash winnings at a pro golf event are a perfectly negative relationship; the lower the score, the more money won).

    If drafting was completely random, we’d see a correlation coefficient of zero. If the best players were always selected 60th, we’d see a perfectly positive 1.0 relationship. As you go closer to No. 60, the better the players get. Days without shaving and beard length are a perfectly positive relationship; the more days you leave the razor on the shelf, the longer the whiskers.

    Where does minus-0.38 compare? The five drafts before that (2009 to 2013), that same number was minus-.50, indicating a stronger association between draft slot and player production. The five years before that, it was minus-0.41. From 1994 to 1998, that number was minus-0.52, the strongest five-year sample in the bunch.

    In sum: the last five years -- where intel on players on and off the court has skyrocketed -- haven’t been the sharpest work by NBA executives. If anything, the last half-decade of drafting seems to be more random than ever. 

    To be fair, win shares may not be the most accurate metric to evaluate draft performance and even if it was, it tells only part of the story. Recent drafts may seem more inaccurate simply because players haven’t fully developed; Joel Embiid was considered a bust two years after getting drafted. And who knows, maybe Fultz becomes an All-Star in Orlando.

    But even when there’s more information out there, it seems we’re not getting better at drafting. Executives have some theories as to why.

    * * *

    By now you’re probably wondering: Well, what about 2018? And you’re right. Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Trae Young (picks Nos. 1-5, respectively) had terrific rookie seasons. For the first time since the 1984-85 season, the top five picks in the previous NBA draft have all been selected to the NBA All-Rookie first team (there was no such thing as a All-Rookie second team that season.) 

    But 2017 was horrible by comparison. The Philadelphia 76ers were so confident in Fultz that they traded a future first-round pick to the Boston Celtics in order to move up two slots to draft the University of Washington prospect No. 1 overall. The Sixers dumped him less than two years later after a bizarre string of events.

    That same draft year, Donovan Mitchell, who has scored nearly 1,000 more points than the next-highest player in his class, was selected 13th overall. Kyle Kuzma, who is averaging 17.3 points per game in his NBA career, fell to pick No. 27 and was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers on draft night. 

    If the 2017 draft was redone, it’s hard to imagine 18 teams passing on Atlanta Hawks big man John Collins. Denver’s Monte Morris, who averaged 24 minutes per game for the 54-win Nuggets this season, went 51st. In a do-over draft, does Morris go higher than Fultz? That it’s even a question shows how much of a gamble the draft is.

    But in talking with executives (who all declined to go on the record so close to the draft), there’s something else going on here. One prevailing theory seemed to arise: They’re not getting dumber -- the players are just getting younger.

    There’s something to that. I pulled up all the draft data from Basketball Reference since 1990, when Derrick Coleman was selected No. 1 overall, and analyzed the ages of the draftees. Turns out that the average age of the 2018 draft class was 20.7 years old. That’s the lowest number of all the 29 classes I studied.

    Last year was such a young draft. The top five picks were 19.9, 19.3, 19.3, 18.8 and 19.1 years old, respectively. That’s the first time in NBA history that the top five picks were teenagers. To put that in perspective, as recently as 2013 -- the Anthony Bennett year -- there were no teenagers in the top five; Bennett, Victor Oladipo, Otto Porter Jr., Cody Zeller and Alex Len were all in their 20s. 

    “The average age of drafted players is the lowest of all time,” noted one assistant GM. “That probably increases variance.”

    That might be true, though the accuracy of the 2018 draft class figures to be an outlier. The age limit of 2005 has given rise to the one-and-done. The average age of top-five picks over the last five years is 19.3 compared to 21.9 in years 1990 to 1993. Heck, Dikembe Mutombo was the same age when he was drafted in 1991 as Bradley Beal is today (25). Michael Olowokandi was 23 when he was the No. 1 overall pick. Sure, Fultz might have been a mistake at No. 1, but at least there’s an excuse; he was barely 19 when he was drafted after a one-and-done season at Washington.

    Another scout suggested one recent factor: the mock draft effect. The proliferation of mock drafts in recent years has created a false sense of general consensus. For example, NBA.com now publishes a Consensus Mock Draft that aggregates 10 different mock drafts with varying levels of intel. 

    Some teams use mock drafts, especially early in the season, to outline which players they watch in tournaments and on tape. As a player moves up the mock drafts or big boards, personnel people may be trapped into confirmation bias. If a player is rising, there must be a reason why. You see what you want to see.

    “A lot of guys get drafted because they’ve been on a mock draft board at certain positions for a while,” said the West scout. “It’s kind of a mob mentality. Web sites and agents are gassing it up.”

    Mock drafts are supposed to be a reflection of the market, which would be a helpful resource of data. But what if the market is a mirage? With so little information on these youngsters, executives may be desperate to find clues, no matter how good or bad those clues are.

    * * *

    The Golden State Warriors’ dynasty launched a league-wide hunt for the next Draymond Green, who was famously picked 35th in the 2012 draft. This year, front offices will surely hear from powerful people with a task to identify the next Fred VanVleet, the undrafted Wichita State product who played so well that he got a vote for NBA Finals MVP. 

    You could probably say the same for Malcom Brogdon, a 2016 second-round pick, who won NBA Rookie of the Year and became a 50-40-90 club member this season for the best regular-season team in the NBA.

    There is one characteristic that Green, VanVleet and Brogdon share beyond the fact that they weren’t first round picks: They played all four years at college. 

    Perhaps we’ve invested so far in the one-and-done era that there may be what I’ll call a Diploma Bias -- guys who played all four years may be undervalued in the market. These prospects are usually labeled as “low upside” players, but VanVleet just proved his ceiling as one of the best players on a Finals team. Same with Draymond Green and Danny Green, the latter of whom went 46th after four years at North Carolina.

    Sure, one-and-done players may be sexy because they did so well in just one year of experience, but it’s still, you know, one year of data. One executive sees the one-and-done problem having a compounding effect.

    “Whoever plays in college next year won’t play against Zion Williamson,” said a front office executive. “That reduces their competitive environment.”

    Which makes it tougher to evaluate, even with technology and analytics.

    “Although there is more information, the signal in that information has dropped,” the executive said.

    This isn’t to say that Cam Johnson, who is 23 years old after his senior year at UNC, should go No. 1 over Zion. But it might mean that he’s being unfairly punished for his age. For those who are looking at the next Draymond Green, it may be worth taking a look at Brandon Clarke, who is 22.8 years old but shares much of the same versatility and defensive acumen that we heard about Green. The same goes for Virginia’s defender, De’Andre Hunter, who is 21 and a half.

    While everyone chases the next kid and bemoans how hard it is to draft in today’s environment, it might make more sense to zig when everyone zags. Old may be the new young.

    Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

    Sixers' Ben Simmons is worth the max

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    Sixers' Ben Simmons is worth the max

    The Philadelphia 76ers aren’t messing around. On Tuesday, Ben Simmons signed a full maximum extension, worth $170 million over five years, to remain with the team that drafted him No.1 overall in 2017. With Joel Embiid already under contract through 2022-23, Philly GM Elton Brand locks in one of the best young duos in the NBA for at least the next four seasons.

    Simmons’ extension isn’t a total surprise, but it’s still an enormous commitment from the Sixers once you account for the rest of the core’s price tag. The 22-year-old’s salary will jump from $8.1 million in 2019-20 to $29.3 million in 2020-21 and escalate gradually to $38.6 million in 2024-25. 

    Haberstroh: Sixers smart to reload with Harris, Horford

    With the re-signing of Tobias Harris and the additions of Al Horford and Josh Richardson, the Sixers will be paying $131.5 million to just five players in 2020-21. To illustrate how steep that outlay is, consider that the salary cap is projected to be $116 million. (CBA 101: teams can go over the cap to re-sign its own players, generally speaking). According to ESPN, all five years are guaranteed with significant bonuses tied to All-NBA honors in 2019-20. 

    Is paying all that guaranteed money to Simmons a wise investment? 

    I wouldn’t think twice about it. He deserves it. Simmons is an elite NBA player, even at age 22 (he turns 23 next week). He averaged 16.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 7.7 assists on 56 percent shooting in his second season in the league, becoming the youngest player in this past season’s All-Star Game in Charlotte.

    Still, Simmons remains a basketball riddle. Consider that his top statistical comparables in FiveThirtyEight’s model include names like James Worthy, Grant Hill, Bernard King, Brad Daugherty, Blake Griffin and Andrew Bogut. All over the place. If you asked a Magic 8 Ball about Simmons’ future, it’d probably read, “Cannot Predict Now.”

    Who is Ben Simmons? The irony is he’s himself, to a T. Simmons’ first two seasons in the league were just about carbon copies of one another. To wit:

    In 2017-18, he played 2,732 minutes. 
    In 2018-19, he played 2,700 minutes.

    In 2017-18, he took 12.3 shots per game and made 6.8.
    In 2018-19, he took 12.2 shots per game and made 6.7. 

    In 2017-18, he averaged 8.2 assists and 3.5 turnovers.
    In 2018-19, he averaged 7.7 assists and 3.6 turnovers.

    In 2017-18, his player efficiency rating was 20.0.
    In 2018-19, his player efficiency rating was 20.0.

    And his other advanced metrics were eerily similar, too. 

    Some might call that uncanny consistency. Others might call it a red flag. But criticizing Simmons’ plateau in Year 2 ignores the fact that most of the players on the All-Rookie teams had either even or down years. Most everyone expected huge things from Simmons, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Lonzo Ball in 2018-19. None of them took a huge step forward. (Mitchell came on strong late in the regular season, but struggled mightily in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets.)

    Simmons’ postseason saw wild swings from clear superstar to critically flawed. The best game of his young career notably came in a playoff setting, one in which Embiid sat out with a sore knee. Entering Game 3 tied 1-1 in the series against the Brooklyn Nets, Simmons erupted for 31 points and nine assists on the road without his co-star. That virtuoso performance came on the heels of Jared Dudley saying Simmons was “average” in the halfcourt. Simmons responded in a big way.

    That’s the Simmons that Philly fans want to see every night. But over the next nine games, Simmons averaged just 12.1 points, including four straight games without making a free throw.

    Look, he’s 22. We want Simmons to be a finished product who dominates every playoff game he’s in, but he’s years away from his prime, and the Sixers just locked in his age 24 to age 28 seasons.

    The most tantalizing aspect of Simmons’ game is his defense. Thanks to his versatility, it’s possible Simmons will win a Defensive Player of the Year award by the time this contract is done. At 6-foot-10 with point guard speed and instincts, Simmons has the ability to thwart just about any player in the game. According to research by Nylon Calculus’ Krishna Narsu, Simmons was one of nine starters who guarded all five positions at least 10 percent of the time on the floor last season. None of them were as young as Simmons.

    It’s rare for a player to show a knack for defense at Simmons’ age. It was Simmons, not Jimmy Butler, that took on the Kawhi Leonard assignment in critical moments of the playoffs. There were lapses, to be sure, but he was 22 freaking years old going against the best player in the world. Getting young players to commit defensively in the NBA is like pulling teeth. Simmons wants to be a Defensive Player of the Year one day, which is a huge win in and of itself.

    Simmons’ lack of a jumper has many folks howling about how Embiid and Simmons are horrible fits next to each other. The numbers don’t agree. With the two young stars on the floor this postseason, the Sixers outscored opponents by 19.5 points per 100 possessions. Here are some postseason net ratings for star duos (net rating is points ahead/behind every 100 possessions while on the floor): Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, minus-1.3; Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, plus-3.0; Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, plus-7.8; Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, plus-9.6. Again: Simmons and Embiid, plus-19.5.

    Some of that juggernaut rating is a reflection of JJ Redick, Harris and Butler often being on the floor as well, but it’s undeniable that the Sixers have thrived with Simmons and Embiid on the court. The fit isn’t perfect, but Simmons and Embiid complement each other in other ways. 

    While Embiid lumbers up the floor, Simmons blitzes past defenders in the open court. Simmons’ ability to execute high-level passes in tight spaces has resulted in Embiid shooting 45.5 percent on 2-pointers off of Simmons’ passes compared to 41.5 percent on 2-pointers from all other teammates, per NBA.com tracking. Simmons assisted more of Embiid’s buckets than Butler and T.J. McConnell combined. (Side note: the Sixers are going to miss Redick’s playmaking next season).

    Would a reliable jumper help Simmons’ impact? Of course it would. But you could say that about a lot of players -- most valuable ones, too.

    The reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo has shot 26.5 percent from downtown over the last five seasons. Russell Westbrook, another MVP, has shot above 30 percent on 3-pointers once in the last five seasons. Westbrook has made 216 more 3-pointers than Simmons has over the last two seasons, but he’s also missed 504 more 3-pointers than Simmons over the last two seasons. Those misses matter, too.

    Taking more 3-pointers would probably be good both for Simmons’ development and the Sixers’ spacing. But excessive 3-point shooting from bad shooters can be just as hurtful to NBA offense. Yes, the offense can become clogged when it slows to the halfcourt and playoff teams can exploit that. But even with the iffy shot and fit with Embiid, the Sixers were the eighth-best offense in the NBA. Not historic, but pretty darn good. And they were a bounce or two from the Eastern Conference Finals.

    Simmons’ lack of range has generated some polarizing opinions on the player. Some think Simmons is another Michael Carter-Williams (there are a lot of blue check marks here). But that’s incredibly unfair to an elite finisher like Simmons, who owns a 57.0 true-shooting percentage in his career compared to Carter-Williams’ 47.1 percent over his first two seasons -- not even in the same sphere. Simmons is much closer to Magic than MCW.

    While I think many go overboard on Simmons’ lack of a jumper, I am not holding my breath that he’ll add one. Brook Lopez famously didn’t make a 3-pointer until his seventh year in the league and he’s now one of the NBA’s most prolific 3-point shooters. But Lopez was an excellent free throw shooter (81 percent in his first two seasons) and regularly exhibited a knockdown mid-range shot. 

    Simmons’ lack of a single made 3-pointer in his two seasons grabs headlines, but it’s his poor free throw shooting (58.3 percent) and lack of mid-range game that make me skeptical it’ll ever become a go-to weapon. Since 2000, there are 25 players who have zero 3-pointers in at least 3,000 minutes over their first two seasons. The list is almost exclusively centers. The ones that eventually added a 3-point shot -- Lopez, Marc Gasol and Horford -- all shot at least 70 percent from the line. 

    Simmons, however, owns a free-throw shooting percentage that ranks 23rd of 25 players, just ahead of Mason Plumlee and Bismack Biyombo and just behind fellow Klutch client and workout buddy Tristan Thompson. I probably don’t have to tell you that Plumlee, Biyombo and Thompson have yet to add any semblance of a 3-point shot. 

    But Simmons does outrank all of those non-shooting centers in one category: total win shares. Again, just because Simmons doesn’t have a jump shot doesn’t mean he can’t be a dominant player. 

    It all boils down to this: Simmons instantly vaults into the MVP conversation if he adds a jumper to his game. Players that are one skill away from MVP talk absolutely deserve the max. Players in that realm are almost never 22 years old. Simmons is already there.

    Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

    Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

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    Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

    If you’re the Houston Rockets, which star would be the ideal fit with James Harden?

    First, the star would have to be OK with not having the ball in his hands. In the best-case scenario, said star is a sharpshooter who can defend multiple positions at a high-level. On top of that, he’d have young legs to ease Harden’s burden as he enters his thirties.

    In other words, it’s probably not Russell Westbrook. 

    On Monday, the Rockets reportedly traded for the 2016-17 MVP, pairing him with James Harden to form one of the most intriguing duos in the NBA at a cost of a combined $340 million over the next four seasons (Westbrook and Harden each have player options for nearly $47 million in 2022-23). As part of the deal, the Rockets traded Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. 

    For the Rockets, it’s a bold move, but it’s tough to ignore the scent of desperation. Houston general manager Daryl Morey valiantly fought off rumors about Paul’s reported trade demand and publicly guaranteed that Paul and Harden would be back next season.

    It took less than a month for Morey to reverse course and trade Paul to a Western Conference rival so he could reunite Harden and Westbrook for a championship push. It can’t be overstated that the most 3-point obsessed team in NBA history just traded for the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever. Westbrook’s career 30.8 percent 3-point field goal percentage is the worst in NBA history among the 110 players with at least 2,750 3-point attempts, per Basketball Reference.com.

    One rival general manager called it a “panic move” by Houston, calling the pick-sweetened package “too rich” to send OKC’s way.

    Westbrook seems heretical to Morey’s gospel of efficiency. Over the last decade, there’s only been one player who used at least 30 percent of their team’s offenses possessions with worse shot efficiency than Westbrook last season. That was Kobe Bryant during his farewell tour two seasons after a torn Achilles.

    Morey doesn’t have his head in the sand when it comes to Westbrook’s inefficiency. Quite the opposite. In April 2017, I interviewed Morey on an ESPN podcast while his player, Harden, was up for the MVP award. Harden had lost steam in the public eye compared to Westbrook, who was averaging a triple-double on the season.

    Of course, at the time, Morey was stumping for his guy, Harden, and attempting to delicately discredit the other candidates without formally naming them (Westbrook eventually won the award). Without saying the word “triple-double” Morey made it clear that that was an overly simplistic MVP criteria.

    “For me, the argument is pretty straightforward and simple,” said Morey. “Don’t get distracted by the easy catchphrases.”

    Morey continued, citing Houston’s No. 3 seed in the West.

    “Call me crazy, but historically people who watch the NBA know that (players) can put up numbers on average to below-average teams and that’s why they don’t vote for those candidates. Call me crazy, but if you’re a dominant player and primarily dominant on offense and you’re not even an above-average offense in the NBA, it seems hard to say you’re making an impact.”

    “On top of that, the other guy (Harden) who is putting up basically the same dominant numbers is leading the top-10 offense ever, not below average in the NBA this season.”

    When Morey was asked more pointedly about Westbrook’s candidacy, the Houston GM again harped on Westbrook’s box-score numbers not translating to team success.

    “(Westbrook)’s having one of the greatest seasons ever. He just happens to be doing it with James Harden also having one of the greatest seasons ever -- and on a team that’s winning. There’s really no precedent when two people are having absolutely historic seasons that they give it to the guy who is generating his value on the side of the ball where his team isn’t even above average.”

    That was in 2017, but it might as well be right now. 

    Last season, Westbrook again averaged a triple-double while his team finished 16th in offensive efficiency, sandwiched between the Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings. And that was while Westbrook’s teammate, Paul George, had an MVP-caliber season. What’s more, the Thunder still couldn’t get out of the first round, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in five games.

    So, what makes the Rockets think they can do better with Westbrook and Harden? 

    This appears to be a situation where Houston’s new owner Tilman Fertitta may have gotten impatient after a Western Conference semifinals loss to the Golden State Warriors and then went on a rant saying the Rockets should have, uh, cut the Warriors’ throats.

    "I can promise you, we're gonna win some championships with James Harden because we're not going to sit here," Fertitta said. "We're going to battle every year. We're going to have a strong offseason, and we're gonna do whatever it takes to be a better team. We're not gonna sit on our hands. I can promise you that."

    "I'm a fighter. That's my culture," Fertitta said. "The longer I own this team, they're gonna pick up more of my culture. We had 'em. We should have stepped on their throats the other night and cut their throats. It's step on their throats, and let's take it back to Houston and end it in six."

    For what it’s worth, Westbrook certainly fits into that fighter culture. A one-of-a-kind athlete, he’s also three and a half years younger than Paul, and lines up closer with Harden’s career trajectory. Harden turns 30 years old in August and 33 at the end of his deal, while Westbrook turns 31 in November and will be 34 in 2022-23. But there are more than enough reasons to be concerned about Westbrook as he enters the back half of his career.

    It starts with his injury history. Beginning with the collision with then-Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in the 2013 playoffs, Westbrook has undergone five procedures on his troublesome right knee, most recently a clean-up in May and arthroscopic surgery last September that wiped out his preseason. For someone who relies on his wheels so much, that has to be a concern.

    Most alarming, there are signs his physical decline has already started. In his age-30 season, coming off that September surgery, Westbrook finished with just 33 dunks, 24 fewer than in 2017-18. Just 2.9 percent of his field goal attempts were dunks, tying a career low, per Basketball Reference. He notably had zero dunks in the Thunder’s first-round loss to the Blazers.

    Some of that drop may be attributed to an early-season injury to his plant leg, an ankle sprain, that caused him to miss six games in November. But it’s also noteworthy that Westbrook experienced a bizarre drop in his ability to draw fouls during the regular season, taking only 6.2 free throws per game and making just 65.6 percent of them (down from 10.4 attempts and 84.6 percent in his MVP season).

    When he is healthy, Westbrook plays like he’s shot out of a cannon, but it backfires far too often. Playing next to George was supposed to free up open shots and help Westbrook become more efficient. Instead, Westbrook became the worst version of himself, hijacking the offense with premature jumpers and getting careless in transition.  Westbrook ranked dead-last in transition efficiency among 27 players with at least 250 transition plays, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Only 22-year-old Ben Simmons coughed up the ball more times in these open-court situations, fueling the critique that Westbrook plays with a low basketball IQ even at this stage of his career.

    Fastbreak opportunities are normally an integral part of a healthy NBA offense. But in the case of Westbrook, his tendencies have become so hurtful last season that him finishing a transition play was less efficient than OKC’s halfcourt offense (0.87 points per play versus 0.93 points per play). 

    As the architect of the Seven Seconds Or Less Offense in Phoenix, Mike D’Antoni may be able to wean some of the headaches out of Westbrook’s game, but expecting him to make a wholesale change at this point in his career isn’t a smart bet. 

    Perhaps D’Antoni tinkers with the iso-heavy offense that defined the Harden-Paul era and tries to step on the gas. Last season, the Rockets were the NBA’s fourth-slowest team in pace factor, a measure of possessions every 48 minutes. And it worked, with the Rockets ranking second in offensive efficiency, mostly thanks to Harden’s one-on-one dominance. 

    Last season, Harden finished with 1,280 isolations and was the NBA’s most efficient player in those situations, scoring 1.11 points per isolation, according to Synergy tracking. The player that ranked last in isolation efficiency last season? Yup, Westbrook, at just 0.75 points per play. 

    So, Westbrook is inefficient playing fast and playing slow. D’Antoni certainly has his work cut out for him. 

    Westbrook should find some easier pathways to the rim with Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker flanking him, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that Harden and Westbrook ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in turnovers last season. Meanwhile, Paul finished with half as many turnovers as Westbrook (152 to 325) and remains one of the most efficient point guards ever.

    From a schematic point of view, Westbrook makes little sense next to Harden. With Harden pounding the rock in isolations and pick-and-roll attacks, why guard Westbrook off the ball? Paul shot over 43 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, while Westbrook made just 53-of-166 (31.9 percent).

    Maybe that’s the idea, to just have Westbrook not shoot 3-pointers. But at least defenders had to respect Paul as a shooter. With Westbrook off ball, Harden will see more defenders in his way to the rim.

    There’s also this: point guards who rely on speed and athleticism don’t age particularly well. Consider that his top comp in FiveThirtyEight’s similarity model, Isiah Thomas, played his last game at the age of 32 after rupturing his Achilles tendon in 1994. Though that injury was a career-ender, Thomas had already planned to retire that season because too many nagging injuries had sapped his effectiveness. In his last two playoff runs, following the 82-game grind, Thomas labored his way to just 13.7 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting from the floor.

    The Rockets could look at Westbrook and see Jason Kidd, who is the third-closest comp on the FiveThirtyEight list. The triple-double maestro from Cal famously added a full-throttle 3-point shot in his mid-30s and enjoyed a career renaissance in Dallas that culminated in a championship in 2011. That’s the best-case scenario for Westbrook if everything falls into place, but Kidd was a significantly better shooter even at this stage of his career. 

    Meanwhile, Oklahoma City continues one of the quickest, and most impressive, teardowns in NBA history. The Thunder were eyeing one of the biggest payrolls the league had ever seen before George reportedly went to GM Sam Presti with a trade request last week. The Thunder could have hung on and tried to tread water, but a Westbrook-centric team weighed down by the four years and $171 million remaining on his supermax extension wasn’t the most prudent decision for a small-market team. Though Paul has three years of max money left, it’s one year shorter than Westbrook’s (if Westbrook picks up his player option in 2022-23).

    If the Thunder choose to keep Paul, he could mentor 20-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and run point alongside Dennis Schroder with Terrence Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams anchoring the frontcourt alongside Nerlens Noel and Andre Roberson, who’s returning from knee surgery. That could be a playoff contender, but it’s more likely that OKC spins Paul to a team with true championship aspirations.

    According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Thunder are already working with Paul’s agents to move him to a new team. If Denver sputters to start next season, would it trade Paul Millsap for Paul and accelerate their title contention now that they have former OKC stretch four Jerami Grant? That’s one possibility. According to ESPN, the Miami Heat discussed a possible Westbrook trade with the Thunder and are prominently involved in Paul trade discussions as they try to land a co-pilot for Jimmy Butler.

    But OKC is loaded with assets now and can take their time with Paul and with their future. Usually teams have to lure other teams with a first-round pick sweetener to take on money like Westbrook and George, but it’s a testament to Presti’s roster that he was able to turn the tables. Teams gave the Thunder picks to take on their money. Presti brokered a record-setting deal to acquire five first-round picks and two picks swaps with the Los Angeles Clippers for George and his three-year contract (player option on the third season). They received another protected pick from Denver for Grant, giving the Thunder potentially 15 first-round picks over the next seven drafts.

    In exchange for those picks and a bright future, Presti ended the OKC Thunder as we know them. I’ll never forget seeing James Harden drape his arms around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Miami after the Heat had sealed the 2012 NBA Finals. Despite the five-game loss, OKC looked destined to assemble its own dynasty one day. Seven years later, all three are gone and the Thunder never got back to the Finals. 

    Now, the Rockets are banking on Harden and Westbrook to rediscover their old magic in Houston. Maybe it works. With Klay Thompson recovering from a torn ACL and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, the West is as wide open as it’s been in years. Maybe Westbrook’s reckless, driving style pairs perfectly next to the shooting of Harden, Gordon and Tucker. Maybe the old OKC Thunder duo return to their glory together and finally get the Rockets over the postseason hump that’s stalled them for the past three seasons. Vegas sportsbooks actually view this deal as improving the Rockets title odds.

    But I don’t see it. Between Westbrook’s injuries, declining play and the bizarre on-court fit, this feels like a reunion that’s doomed to fail.

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