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The Westbrook Effect: Do Players Really Get Better After Leaving OKC?

It’s been a trying season for the Thunder, and the eye-popping performances from former players like Victor Oladipo have only added salt to the wound. Much of the blame has been cast on the reigning MVP’s style of play, but should it?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kevin Durant and Victor Oladipo were named NBA players of the week on Monday, and James Harden is the league MVP through the first two months. It’s a great time to be a former member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and an equally anxious stretch for GM Sam Presti and the rest of the extant organization. OKC’s veteran Big Three can’t shoot, and the Thunder enter a three-game jaunt through the competitive middle of the Eastern Conference — bookended with Paul George’s trip home to Indiana on Wednesday and Carmelo Anthony’s to New York on Saturday — with a losing record and only one star locked in beyond this year.

The timely homecomings for the other two stars pose two-way revenge story lines, as the Thunder will face a group of players they cast aside over the summer and see up close the talent they failed to develop and integrate themselves. Oklahoma City traded Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis to Indiana for George and Enes Kanter as part of its package for Anthony. But in a twist, the trio of OKC expats is outperforming the Thunder’s new Big Three: By player efficiency rating, Oladipo is having a better season than Russell Westbrook, Sabonis a better season than George, and Kanter a better season than Anthony.

Of course, these numbers can mislead in small samples, and nobody should think that, say, Sabonis is better than George. But the former no. 11 pick has made vast improvements since his rookie year in OKC. No player last year started as many games as Sabonis (66) while scoring as infrequently (just 5.9 points per game), but the second-year big has more than doubled his points, rebounds, and assists averages and is now a solid rotation player for the surprise 5-seed in the East.

His lone carryover teammate, Oladipo, has been even better. The Indiana University product is a top-15 player in points (24.5 per game), 3-point percentage (44.4), and usage rate (30.9 percent), and he’s one of just three guards in the league who’s averaging at least a steal and block per game. His and Sabonis’s ascension yields a considerable shift in perspective from the summer, when fans and league executives alike thought the Thunder had swindled the Pacers in the George trade.

Westbrook’s former teammates are thriving now that they’re removed from his gravitational pull, and it’s natural to attribute the reigning MVP as the common limiting factor. Which raises the question: Is player improvement after leaving Oklahoma City a one-year anomaly, or is it indicative of a larger trend?

The sample size of players who have left OKC and played meaningful minutes elsewhere isn’t large, in part because several of the team’s fringier rotation players either retired (Derek Fisher) or fell into obscurity (Eric Maynor) once their Thunder tenures ended. In the case of someone like Maynor, his post-Thunder career made clear that OKC’s system wasn’t holding him back or squandering any untapped potential — but the former Thunder players who have lasted elsewhere in the league have exhibited across-the-board improvement.

Since 2010–11 — the first season that OKC made a deep playoff run, and also the first season that Westbrook posted a usage rate north of 30 percent — 17 players have tallied at least 500 minutes for the Thunder one season and 500 minutes while playing elsewhere in their following season. This list includes a former MVP (Durant), five more former top-five picks (Oladipo, Kanter, Dion Waiters, Harden, and Jeff Green, who played in OKC in 2010–11 and in Boston in 2012–13, with a year off in between due to heart problems), and a broader mix of young players and veterans. On average, they fared significantly better in several key statistics in their first season with a new team. (The year-over-year difference for each statistic depicted in the below graph is statistically significant at a 95 percent confidence level.)

Intuitively, these figures all make sense. For much of the period in question, the Thunder revolved around the singular talents of their two stars, and then Westbrook monopolized all facets of the team’s play last season, his first without Durant. Without Westbrook dominating the ball, the OKC emigrants boost their usage rate, and without him dominating the stat sheet, they have more opportunities to collect points, rebounds, and assists. And because their box-score stats increase while their minutes per game remain essentially static, their resulting PER increases as well.

The individual improvements from this year’s class of OKC exiles don’t represent a constellation of coincidences, but rather serve as a testament to what players can accomplish once they escape Westbrook’s orbit. Much of the improvement can be attributed to greater on-ball presence; NBA players are always developing, and the best way to acquire new or enhance existing game skills is to practice them in real time against competitive defenses. And almost everyone adds to his creative workload after leaving OKC: Of the 17 players in the sample, Kevin Durant — the one player whose touches Westbrook didn’t deflate in OKC — is the only one whose assist percentage decreased in his first post-Thunder year.

Even by the simplest statistic of all — touches — the ex-Thunder have made considerable gains, which in turn has aided their on-court evolution. Oladipo has boosted his touches per game from 47 last year (which placed him alongside Matt Barnes and Joakim Noah) to 62 this season (in the range of DeMar DeRozan and Bradley Beal). Sabonis’s touches have nearly doubled, from 33 per game a season ago to 59 now. A similar pattern arose a year earlier, when Dion Waiters’s touches increased from 30 per game to 57 in his first season in Miami and Serge Ibaka’s jumped from 38 to 50.

Oladipo has made the most of those extra touches, putting to use his “entirely new skill” of off-the-bounce shooting, as Kevin Pelton wrote for ESPN last week. The Indiana guard has made 35 of 77 (45.5 percent) pull-up 3s this season, as compared to just 17-of-50 (34 percent) last season. This difference has also warped defensive structures, as teams are more hesitant to go under Oladipo pick-and-rolls, which further opens the floor for him to drive and find scoring opportunities near the basket.

There’s an extra variable to consider when assigning blame for this post-OKC boost. Based on their age, most of the players in this sample should have improved. Harden was 23 in his first full season after leaving the Thunder. Waiters and Reggie Jackson were 25, and Green was 26. This year, Oladipo and Kanter are 25, while Sabonis is only 21. Research shows that basketball players improve throughout their early 20s, peak around 27, and decline from there, so it makes sense that the young Thunder exports would have posted better numbers when — a year older and more experienced — they found new teams.

Splitting the group into younger and older players reveals sharp, age-based differences between their last year in OKC and their first year elsewhere. Eight of 11 players in their 20s have increased their points per game in their first post-Thunder season, while just one of six in their 30s have; nine of 11 players in their 20s have boosted their PER, versus just three of six in their 30s.

Even if he had stayed in Oklahoma City, Oladipo might have developed that skill over the summer and unleashed it against unsuspecting defenses this fall. But the development history of the Thunder’s supporting cast isn’t promising in that regard, and it’s unlikely Oladipo’s gains would have come so far in OKC, where he was rarely afforded the opportunity to create his own shots. As The Ringer’s Haley O’Shaughnessy noted in July when predicting his Pacers resurgence, the majority of his shots last season were attempted within two seconds of touching the ball. It’s not just that Oladipo is a year older — he aged a year between his final season with the Magic and his season with the Thunder and didn’t markedly improve, nor did Waiters in his Thunder tenure, nor other former teammates with stalled career arcs.

In the “Against Russ” chronicles, then, this exercise at least serves as a point in favor of my editor-in-chief’s argument that the divisive point guard’s intransigent style “stunt[s] development of the Thunder’s young players.” The proof is right there, after all, in the numbers and the visuals of Oladipo’s 47-point outburst against the Nuggets on Sunday.

At the start of the decade, the Thunder were a team on the rise with a young set of stars, but outside Steven Adams, not one new player has joined the core, stuck around to complement it, or replaced its parts when Harden, Durant, and Ibaka left. That so many players have succeeded after leaving OKC suggests that the issue isn’t a shortage of potential, but rather that either Presti didn’t see those development projects through or some players couldn’t fully mature in such a rigid system, deferring to so particular a player as Westbrook.

The Thunder in 2017 look creaky and play at a slogging pace. The franchise’s past five first-round acquisitions are Mitch McGary, Josh Huestis, Cameron Payne, Domantas Sabonis, and Terrance Ferguson; excluding Sabonis, that group has combined for 68 NBA points this season. Presti oversees the seventh-oldest roster in the league — mostly trailing title contenders — whose inherent talent isn’t commensurate with the record it’s produced thus far. The Thunder have disappointed in 2017, but George and Anthony aren’t aberrations, either: Plenty of other skilled players have failed to coexist in OKC before.