Russell Westbrook, Maurice Cheeks, correlation, causation and the Pistons

Late in the recruiting process, Russell Westbrook held offers from only San Diego, Creighton and Kent State. He had been a good high school player, and he admitted his lack of exposure frustrated him at times, but he turned that into motivation.

“I just continued to work,” Westbrook told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports.

Westbrook nearly committed to San Diego – the athletic little brother of San Diego State, a mid-major itself that has gained recognition lately for producing Kawhi Leonard – but, at the last moment, Jordan Farmar turned pro, and UCLA swooped in with an offer.

Westbrook averaged just 3.4 points per game as a freshman at UCLA, but he worked hard enough to earn a much larger role as a sophomore and even won Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. He turned pro, and because of his explosive athleticism, rose up draft boards all the way to the No. 4 overall draft pick in the 2009 draft.

Not only did he make the All-Rookie first team with the Thunder, he averaged 5.3 assists per game at 20 years old. The only other players to average so many assists per game at such a young age are Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, Mike Bibby, LeBron James, T.J. Ford, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday, John Wall and Kyrie Irving. Obviously, not all those players developed into top point guards, but it’s pretty elite company.

Once his rookie season ended, Westbrook dedicated himself to a vigorous training regimen, sometimes working out three times per day.

By this point, Westbrook had displayed tremendous potential for playing point guard, and he’d proven himself the type of dedicated worker who would take the necessary steps to reach his potential.

Then – once Westbrook had already done all that – Maurice Cheeks entered his life.

A vital qualification to the Pistons?

David Mayo of MLive:

So why Cheeks?

His history of developing young guards runs deep.

Most recently, Cheeks has worked closely with Russell Westbrook at Oklahoma City.

Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

Much has been made of Cheeks’ influence on All-Star Russell Westbrook. He has been a calming influence on Westbrook, who has a combustible personality.

It could rub off on third-year guard Brandon Knight.

Vincent Goodwill of The Detroit News:

Currently an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Cheeks has helped with the development of guards Russell Westbrook, Reggie Jackson and former Thunder guard Eric Maynor, who was traded to Portland this season. It’s a background the Pistons liked, especially since they’re still figuring out what they have in 2011 first-round pick Brandon Knight and they hope Cheeks could be a good mentor for him.

All three of those reporters independently confirmed Cheeks had become Detroit’s top choice. They might not know exactly why the Pistons coveted Cheeks, but they have a direct line to someone who does. So, I find it very telling all three wrote about the Cheeks-Westbrook relationship in their first articles analyzing the pending hire.

I’m sure the the Pistons hired Cheeks for more reasons than his work with Westbrook, but if that were a major factor, they should be darn confident Cheeks is significantly responsible for Westbrook’s growth.

Undoubtedly, Westbrook got better while Cheeks worked with him, but correlation does not equal causation. Simply, just because Westbrook improved while Cheeks coached him, Westbrook didn’t necessarily improve because Cheeks coached him. Remember, Westbrook demonstrated incredible talent and work ethic before Oklahoma City ever hired Cheeks.

And even if Cheeks has had a demonstrated positive effect on Westbrook, that doesn’t necessarily mean Brandon Knight will benefit. In two years with the Pistons, Knight has not come close to showing the promise Westbrook did as rookie. Westbrook’s biggest problem is his fire sometimes burns too hot during games, and that’s where Cheeks’ most visible coaching came in.

Granted, Westbrook also had issues as a playmaker that were ironed out under Cheeks’ tutelage, but Westbrook played off guard at UCLA and was learning a new position in the NBA. Knight has always been a point guard. He just doesn’t see see the floor well. Though the result looks similar, the problems are different and require different solutions. Maybe Cheeks helped Westbrook and can help Knight, but helping Knight very well could require a different method.

The fundamental question – where would Westbrook be without Cheeks? – is unanswerable. Dealing with the counterfactual is difficult, and it’s an art and science of piecing together clues. It’s especially difficult for me to do here due to the private nature of NBA practices. Surely, the Pistons have access to more information than I do about Cheeks’ role with Westbrook. Hopefully, they used it wisely.

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Tags: Brandon Jennings Brandon Knight Chris Paul Derrick Rose Isiah Thomas John Wall Jrue Holiday Kyrie Irving Lebron James Magic Johnson Maurice Cheeks Mike Bibby Russell Westbrook Stephon Marbury T.J. Ford Tyreke Evans

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