Quick Thoughts Russ/Duarte Edition

1. Westbrook Traded Again:  The biggest trade of draft day was the Lakers flipping Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwelll-Pope, their 22nd pick (who ended up being Isaiah Jackson, who was, in turn, traded to the Pacers for Aaron Holiday) for Russell Westbrook (and two future second-rounders).  My initial reaction was to wonder how a ball dominant point guard who is a shaky shooter would mesh with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

I also questioned why the Lakers would invest so heavily in Russ  for his age-33 and 34 seasons, when he has showed some decline and is due $91 million over those two season (2022-23 is a player option for $47 million that Westbrook would almost surely exercise unless he somehow ages like John Stockton).  From a money perspective, per Sportrac, the trade adds about $8 million in salary to the Lakers’ payroll in 2021-22, leaving the Lakers near the luxury tax threshold with essentially only LBJ, Davis, Pau Gasol, and Russ on the roster (Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker are free agents and are due a raises). 

But if the Lakers are willing to pay the tax to win games, that’s their business.  LeBron is under contract for two seasons and he’s turning 37, uncharted territory for most star players.  The Lakers rightfully want to take as many chances as possible to squeeze out another title during that span (assuming LBJ can still compete as a star player during that time). The only question is whether spending on Russ is good use of cap room.   

As noted, my sense is that this is not a great move.  Let’s dig into the issues a bit and see if the move might be better than it looks at first glance:

-The Current State of Westbrook:  The anti-Westbrook sentiments about his age and lack of shooting can been countered by the fact that the guy fills a stat sheet like no player.  Remember how big a deal it was when Russ averaged a triple-double in 2016-17?  Well, he’s done it three times since and did it again last year for Washington (22.2 ppg, 11.5 rpg, and 11.7 apg).  Of course, raw stats aren’t close to everything to consider in evaluating a player.  Here are Westbrook’s year-by-year advanced stats since 2016-17 so we can get a sense of how his production has progressed during that span:

-2016-17: 30.6 PER, .224 WS48, 11.1 BPM, 9.3 VORP

-2017-18:  24.7 PER, .166 WS48, 6.3 BPM, 6.1 VORP

-2018-19: 21.1 PER, .124 WS48, 5.2 BPM, 4.7 VORP

-2019-20: 21.0 PER, .098 WS48, 1.5 BPM, 1.8 VORP

-2020-21: 19.5 PER, .075 WS48, 3.4 BPM, 3.2 VORP

Russ is still clearly valuable but the trend line is downward.  Scarier is the fact that his weakest season was when he tried to fit in with James Harden in 2019-20 in Houston, a situation that could be similar to what he currently has with LeBron and Davis.

 Last year, Washington needed to deploy Westbrook as ball dominant to make the team competitive.  Even in that setting, Westbrook had a career-low 19.4% of his shots within three feet of the rim (his career average is 34.5%).  On top of the decline, Russ will not help spacing (he’s a career .305% three-point shooter).  Even at his absolute peak as a shooter, Westbrook is below average from three and he’s as likely to shoot under 30% this season given past history.

I would be concerned that paying Westbrook to be the third option in this context carries significant risk that Los Angeles would be paying $91 million for a guy who doesn’t perfectly fit and is in decline.  The hope is that Westbrook somehow captures the same mojo that Rajon Rondo got in the 2019-20 playoffs (another aging bad fit who played incredibly for a few months before reverting back into a pumpkin).

-Could L.A. get anything better?:  The best arguments for making the trade for Russ are twofold: (a) Westbrook can probably munch minutes/stats while the Lakers take it very easy on James’ minutes in the regular season and (b) the Lakers are better off with Westbrook than any theoretical future acquisition to fill out the roster.  The first part of the argument makes some sense.  Westbrook’s best skill is keeping teams moderately competitive at all times.  The second part of the argument is tougher to accept.  Westbrook’s big salary and lack of fit with James make me wonder if waiting for a bit fit might be a better idea.

Of note, the Lakers were the best defensive team in the NBA but 24th in offense.  A lot of that offensive struggle can be attributed to LBJ and Davis being injured but even the title team of 2019-20 was just okay at offense (11th).  Westbrook should be much better than the soon-departed Dennis Schroeder (13.8 PER, .093 WS48, -1.1 BM, 0.4 VORP) but I would’ve liked to see what other offensive option might have emerged in the marketplace before committing to Westbrook.  The Lakers are still a title contender but you can feel the window closing and this trade reflects their knowledge that the end is coming.

2.  Duarte, Loving Those Old Rooks:  When the Pacers drafted Chris Duarte with the 13th pick, it got everyone’s “old rookie” radar pinging.  Duarte is 24-years old as of June 13, 2021, which is only about two years younger than Giannis Antetokounmpo.  As a good college player at 23, Duarte’s ceiling is probably low but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a useful player.  Or does it?  For fun, we did a rundown of the top 15 picks taken since the mid-1970s who were 24 years old in their first seasons and how they did:

-Ron Lee, 1976-77 (age 24): Lee started his college career late and averaged 18 ppg each of his four college seasons at Oregon.  He was drafted tenth overall and had a blah NBA career as a backup.

-Mychal Thompson, 1978-79 (age 24):  Thompson was the top pick in the 1978 Draft.  His late start to basketball didn’t hurt his draft status or his career, as he was a very good pro (but not quite an All-Star).

-Steve Johnson, 1981-82 (age 24):  Johnson actually played five years in college but missed most of his sophomore with injury.  As a result, he was 24 when Kansas City took him seventh in 1981.  He had a nice career as a banger in the post.

-Joe Kleine, 1985-86 (age 24):  Transferred from Notre Dame to Arkansas, which delayed his pro start.  He was taken sixth overall and had a long career as a backup.

-Brad Sellers, 1986-87 (age 24):  The Bulls took him ninth after a career at Ohio State, which delayed a bit because he was a transfer from Wisconsin.  His pro career was not great.

-David Robinson, 1989-90 (age 24):  Obviously, Robinson was a unique case.  He was drafted two years earlier and spent time in the Navy.  If we could magically teleport 1987 David Robinson into the 2021 draft pool and told the teams that he wouldn’t be ready to play in the NBA until 2023 at age-24, he would likely still be the first pick in the draft.  Special case doesn’t begin to describe it.

-Bo Kimble, 1990-91 (age 24):   Kimble was a transfer from USC to Loyola Marymount, so he was older than most players.  His NBA career didn’t pan out.  His age and the LMU system should’ve been warning signs.

-Alec Kessler, 1990-91 (age 24):  The big man from Georgia had a late start to his college career (age 20) and was drafted by the Heat.  He had a short NBA career because he was slow.  He later became a physician before sadly dying of a heart attack while playing pickup ball at age 40.

-Dikembe Mutombo, 1991-92 (age 25):  Mutombo is also a unique story.  A find out of the Congo, he came to basketball late and people were even dubious about his listed age, though Deke strongly denied being older than he was listed.  In any event, he had a Hall of Fame career and was a clear outlier in any era.

-Greg Anthony, 1991-92 (age 24):  Anthony started college a little late (age 19 in 1986-87) with the University of Portland and then transferred  after a year and was a fifth-year senior during UNLV’s 1990-91 title run.  The funny thing is there was a lot of talk about how old his teammate Larry Johnson was but he was two years younger than Anthony.  Greg had a solid career but was mostly a backup.

-Eric Piatkowski, 1994-95 (age 24):  Solid shooter was taken 15th by the Clippers and had a low ceiling but good career.

-Brent Barry, 1995-96 (age 24):  Born on New Year’s Eve 1971, Barry was held back a year in school making him a bit old for his grade.  Combine that with the fact that Barry went to college for four years, he appeared to be pretty low ceiling in the draft.  He slowly improved at Orgeon State (5.2 ppg as a freshman to 21.0 ppg as a senior).  He was taken 15th overall in 1995 and had a fine career as a starting guard, including that bonkers 5.5 BPM in 2001-02.  His career would be an ideal outcome for Duarte.

-Rafael Araujo, 2004-05 (age 24):  The Brazilian big man from BYU was drafted eighth based on his potential  but did not develop as a pro and was out of the NBA quickly.

-Nick Collison, 2004-05 (age 24): Collison was taken 12th as a solid power forward for Kansas.  He had a long career as a solid starter/backup. 

-Buddy Hield, 2016-17 (age 24): Hield was taken 6th overall and is a pretty good player but probably would’ve dropped a bit had people realized he wasn’t honest about his age.  As a data point, however, he is a pretty good outcome for an older draft pick.  I’m not sure the Kings are so thrilled. 

The chances of a really good player going to college for four years and being a hot prospect are low.  In the olden times, a Mutombo or Robinson might stay in college for unique reasons that don’t exist today.  In the last 25 years, of the older rooks, only Hield has been taken in the lottery and turned out to be above-average (and he would’ve sunk in the draft if he told the truth about his age).   Of the above group, there were very few great players.  Taking away the truly unique situations of Robinson and Mutombo (and also Thompson), the best players were Barry, Johnson, Hield, and Collison and they are juxtaposed against a long line of busts.

On the other hand, there are a few players college players who developed into really good players as older rookies.  The higher end for these older rookies are really good, like Paul Pressey, Sam Cassell was and Malcolm Brogdon.  In all, however, the past indicators are not great for Duarte.