Piggy-backing off of Slim’s (in?)famous “Slim vs. Slim” series of years past, I’m going to be writing a number of articles pitting two players with similar ADPs against one another. The format will be slightly different, but the goal remains the same – provide fantasy owners some food for thought to better inform their decision if faced with these two players come draft day. It’s not a groundbreaking idea across the fantasy sports spectrum, but I’ve always found it to be a good way to help avoid a coin toss scenario once the clock starts ticking. So in lieu of a long-winded introduction, let’s just get down to brass tacks, shall we?
TALE OF THE TAPE
|RUSSELL WESTBROOK||DAMIAN LILLARD|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||Team||Portland Trail Blazers|
|PG||Position (Y! Eligibility)||PG|
|10th||9-Cat (Total Value)||6th|
|7th||9-Cat (Per Game)||16th|
|34.4||Minutes Per Game||35.7|
|38.2 (1st)||Usage Rate (Rank)||26.3 (21st)|
THE CASE FOR RUSSELL WESTBROOK
Think of the Oklahoma City Thunder as a high performance boat with twin outboard motors powering it. When both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are healthy and running clean, there is a ton of horsepower without overtaxing one source – both perform as they should and the results are quite impressive. However, take one of the motors out of commission and demand the same performance from the boat, what happens? A heavy burden falls to the one operational motor, and for a time it can meet the demand in spectacular fashion, but overall it’s an inefficient, unsustainable operation that will begin to wear down.
The 2015 NBA season should, in theory, be Russell Westbrook’s best campaign from an efficiency standpoint. With an embarrassment of riches surrounding him in OKC, Russ shouldn’t feel the need to be a one-man wrecking crew on offense like he did sans-Kevin Durant for much of last season. Pace, spacing, shot selection, and running creative offensive sets will be areas of interest for me when watching Thunder games in 2015/2016. There are five legitimately talented offensive weapons in OKC’s starting lineup. Gone are the Sefoloshas, Perkins, and Adams of the first unit. Enes Kanter is no joke on the offensive end (he might be the best one-liner you’ve ever heard on D though!). Serge Ibaka has shown progression each year with expanding range. And even Neon Dion Waiters (contract year alert!) can get a hot hand from time to time. Simply put – there’s no need for Russell Westbrook to lead the NBA in usage rate again this year. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. With so many other legitimate weapons for opposing defenses to concern themselves with, I can see Westbrook’s .426 FG% rising 10-20 points and back into the range we saw from him the four prior years (2010-2013). He should also be able to pick his spots a little better from deep and bump his 3PT FG% back into the .320 range after falling to sub-.300 for the first time since 2009. The overall effect is an arrow that is neither pointing straight up nor straight down, but rather just off of horizontal depending on how new Thunder coach, Billy Donovan, decides to craft his offense.
THE CASE FOR DAMIAN LILLARD
Ladies and gentlemen, let me present to you the new (and improved?) Russell Westbrook. Just about everything that was said above for RW can be turned on its head and applied to Damian Lillard. Points, boards, assists, minutes, usage rate – all should see increases in 2015 out of pure, unadulterated necessity. The tarnished flip side to that shiny coin? Increased defensive attention resulting in a high-volume FG% that will likely set a new career-worst mark (currently sitting at .424 in 2013). TOs? You can bet the farm they’ll rise above 3 per game with a usage rate that, by season’s end, should be top-5 in the league.
Damian Lillard is going to run, run, and then run some more. As I wrote in “Minutes Men” I believe the 25-year old Portland PG will average close to 37 MPG and challenge Jimmy Butler for tops in the Association in that regard. The opportunity is going to be there for Lillard to post some huge numbers as the undisputed lead dog amongst an inexperienced, unproven pack. One of the big questions that won’t be answered until the games go live is whether or not the complimentary Blazers are able to knock down enough shots for Lillard to move up the ranks in the highly coveted assists category. Last year, despite having a bevy of talented offensive weapons around him, Lillard failed to crack the top-10 in total assists, despite playing in all 82 games. In fact, he had fewer assists than non-PGs James Harden, Tyreke Evans, and Lebron James (none of whom played all 82 games). Look for Lillard’s assists to rise closer to the 7.0 APG mark, again, simply as a result of him having the ball in his hands more than he ever has before. On the plus side, the assist-killing isolations to LaMarcus Aldridge on the left block are gone. Those possessions should be replaced by pick-and-roll plays to a driving Mason Plumlee and Ed Davis, or pick-and-pops to Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu. Whether any of those less than inspiring names can convert on a Lillard dish remains to be seen. But for a Portland team that ranked in the top half of the league in pace last year, volume should (hopefully) offset inefficiency.
Let’s take a look at how these two players should stack up head-to-head for fantasy owners in 2015 looking to roster an elite point guard with their first round pick (* denotes my projected category winner):
|RUSSELL WESTBROOK||DAMIAN LILLARD|
Damian Lillard steals this one by the narrowest of margins based on one very important factor that you won’t find in the chart above: durability. Dame hasn’t missed a game in his career – he’s 246 of 246. Russell Westbrook of former “hasn’t missed a game dating back to high school!” fame? He has only managed to suit up for 113 of a possible 164 regular season contests over the past two years (I’ve still never forgiven Patrick Beverley for starting that snowball a few years back). Though he’s only 26 years old, Russ has seven seasons of ultra-aggressive NBA basketball under his belt and his medical chart is starting to reflect it.
The chart above might as well be a dead heat as the blocks category (currently in Lillard’s favor) is a negligible difference. The popcorn stats that once favored RW should move much closer to one another as Lillard’s rise and Westbrook’s fall. Prior to last season’s one-man band performance, Russ was scoring in the 22/23 PPG range because of the presence of Kevin Durant and I would expect him to return to that range. Lillard should blow that number out of the water this year and could very well pace all non-“Splash Brothers” in 3PM. And while Damian likely won’t ever threaten to dethrone Westy as PG steals king, he did show improvement in that category going from 0.8 in 2013 to 1.2 last year.
It’s extremely close, but I’ll bank on a career year from Damian Lillard and a predictable regression for Russell Westbrook. I’m pulling the trigger on Lillard in 9-category leagues any time after the 5th pick of the first round – I’m that high on him for 2015.
Agree/disagree? Who is your choice when you’re on the clock? Feedback is always welcome, so please share your thoughts in the comments section below or come find me in the Twitterverse at @moneyballmatty. Cheers!