Russell Westbrook Named February West Rookie of the Month

As part of our 63 part series on Eric Gordon (it's hard to find positive things to write about these days), Russell Westbrook was today named the Western Conference Rookie of the Month for February (Brook Lopez took the award in the East).  Although Gordon also had a stellar month, any chances he had of defending his January ROM honor were dashed when he was injured against the Celtics.  Not only did he miss the last two games of the month, but the injury, coming as it did early in the third quarter of a game in which EJ struggled in the first half, had a direct impact on his February averages.  The 4 point outing that subsequently went into the score books not only ended his double digit scoring streak at 30 games, it also reduced his February scoring average from 20.2 to 18.7 points per game - that alone probably did the trick.

Westbrook is an exciting rookie, and had a hard to ignore month, scoring 30+ three times including twice in the last week.  It was to be expected that he would win the honor, after leading all rookies in scoring for the month at 20.6 points per game (see how that 4 point game against the Celtics hurt EJ's bid).  The NBA awards industry remains obsessed scoring, so Westbrook was more or less a lock, especially with Gordon hurt and given that Mayo had twice before been honored.

It's somewhat surprising to me though that NBA analysts who supposedly know better are so solidly on the Westbrook bandwagon when you look a little more closely at the numbers.  John Hollinger was quick to point out that Gordon's minutes were the main reason his scoring average increased so dramatically in arguing that he was a poor choice for the Rookie Challenge.  But is anyone looking at the reason that Westbrook is scoring more these days? 

His points per game of 20.6 in February is almost 5 points above his season average of 15.8.  So no wonder the Rookie of the Month voters noticed him.  But he shot over 17 times a game in February, compared to 13.3 shots per game on the season.  So his average of 1.2 points per shot in February is essentially identical to his season average - and not particularly good.  Shoot more, score more.  That makes sense.

But after improving his very poor shooting percentage in December and January, Westbrook had a major relapse in February.  The knock on the guy is that he is not a great shooter right?  Well shooting 38% during the month in which you receive the ROM award would seem to suggest that it's still an issue. 

And although his all around game tends to increase his overall valuation in many statistical measures (his PER of 16.2 for instance is the best of the four leading rookie guards - himself, Rose, Mayo and Gordon), those numbers can be inflated by opportunity as well.  There's no denying that Westbrook is a good rebounder for a point guard and conversely that Gordon needs to improve on the boards.  But Westbrook has almost as many offensive rebounds as defensive rebounds this season - 134 to 144.  That says that his coach is sending him to the glass instead of asking him to stay back and play transition defense.  And of course he averages more assists than Gordon, as he plays point guard and has the ball in his hands significantly more, but his assist to turnover ratio in February was worse than Gordon's (1.5 vs. 1.6) - and that's not supposed to happen when you're comparing a point guard to a shooting guard.

To further illustrate the ongoing fascination with scoring, it should be noted that by many measures Gordon played much better in February (when he didn't win ROM) than he did in January (when he did win the award).  He shot a much higher percentage from the field (47.1% versus 43%) and a higher percentage from deep (41.5% versus 37.9%) as well.  On a per minute basis, he scored EXACTLY the same while taking 10% fewer shots.  He remains far and away the most efficient scorer among the perimeter rookies when you consider his overall shooting and his ability to get to the line.  He has actually increased his lead in measures like effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage since we last went through this exercise.

Does Gordon still have a legitimate shot at Rookie of the Year?  Probably not.  Although I find David Thorpe's reasoning on the subject from a recent ESPN.com chat dubious:

Brian (Durham, NC): Hey Mr. Thorpe, if Eric Gordon continues to drop 20+ and chip in with 4 boards/4 assists a game… what are the chances he can be ROY? Thanks and keep up the good work!

 David Thorpe: No-the team is too bad and too many others have played well for a longer period.

It's far too simplistic to just say no.  For one thing, this whole 'team is too bad' argument might change if the Clippers win half of their remaining games, which is at least a possibility.  It's also wildly inconsistent to maintain that it's a four way race that includes Mayo and Westbrook and then out of hand say bad teams disqualify candidates - the Clippers have more wins than the Thunder and as many as the Grizz, and those teams don't have the injury excuses the Clippers have.  

Nonetheless, Gordon's chances at the award are remote at best.  His calling card is his scoring, which does indeed win votes.  Unfortunately, O.J. Mayo has a big head start on him in that category dating to November when O.J. was a starter and E.J. was third string.  And Rose has the distinct advantage of playing for a team that is actually in contention for a playoff spot in the East.   But first things first, E.J. needs to get healthy and get back on the court.  If he can continue to be the efficient scoring machine he has been for the Clippers, plenty of accolades will be forthcoming in his career.

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