Russell Westbrook has shot 43.3% from the field these previous three seasons, or 0.1% lower than his career shooting average if we want to really put things in context, and 38.4% in the playoffs during this same stretch of time. He’s averaged a triple-double in all three of those seasons, and yet, hasn’t played more than six games in the postseason in that time; consistently finding himself eliminated in the First Round. He was the Thunder’s first ever draft pick since their relocation from Seattle, and they’ve held onto him ever since; losing both James Harden and Kevin Durant in the process. Those losses signaled the end of whatever potential dynasty the franchise had, while Westbrook’s triple-double chasing has signified a change in the franchise’s culture.
Westbrook’s 42 triple-doubles in his MVP-winning 2016-17 season are an NBA record, and he’s earned himself 101 triple-doubles in the regular season the past three seasons; a majority of his 138 total career triple-doubles. This, of course, is a stark contrast from the eight he recorded during his first six seasons, but when Kevin Durant went down with that Jones Fracture that sidelined him for a majority of the 2014-15 season, the contending Thunder were forced to let Westbrook run the show with impunity, and he got a taste of the triple-double bug. The team was unsuccessful in reaching the playoffs without Durant, who was just one season removed from winning his sole MVP award, but his return did little to mitigate Westbrook’s newfound domineering role in the offense, as Westbrook followed up his sensational streak of triple-doubles from the previous season by collecting seven more triple-doubles; 18. This means 29 of his triple-doubles came in these two seasons prior to Durant’s departure, forcing me to believe Durant not only realized everything else everyone has already commented on about the Thunder franchise and Westbrook’s inability to make his teammates better, but that this “walking triple-double” hype was looming on the horizon, and he needed to get out before it threatened his chances at a title.
Looking back, it’s comical to see Westbrook ranked so highly amongst analysts, journalists, and publications1 alike, especially when many of these same people accurately pointed out the flaws in his game that persist to this day. His athleticism put pressure on opposing defenses, opening up easy dump-off passes to the Thunders’ bigs, but he also made poor decisions with the ball, took far too many shots to justify, since the consistent complaint was that he took away scoring chances from Durant, and didn’t always give the defensive effort necessary to make crucial stops. Chris Palmer was fired from ESPN2 just four months after making a tweet claiming that Dwight Howard would “100% re-sign with the Lakers” even though everyone on the planet knew he wasn’t, so it’s impossible for me to find the original tweet for another ridiculous take, but it still leaves me with this archaic quote tweet3 from a more knowledgable fan.
I do think his opinion is an exaggeration of Westbrook’s shot selection and poor decision-making, as he is talented enough to lead a team to a sub-50 win season and a playoff berth, and in reality, there aren’t many players who can say the same. By that criteria alone, Westbrook certainly should be a top-five player in the NBA, but as we all know, that just isn’t the case. Top-10 is arguable, but it speaks to the depth of talent in the league right now when someone who was viewed as one of the five best players in the NBA just seven seasons ago at the ripe age of 25 is now plummeting down that same list, and those flaws that many tried to argue as being one of the Thunder’s strengths4 are now being placed under a microscope by fans and analysts alike.
This borderline opinion piece5 paints a picture of ineptitude exuding from Westbrook that would force non-sports fans to take notice, but considering Westbrook was competing in the Finals during the publication of this piece, and Ty Lawson currently plays in China, I think it’s safe to say this man owes Westbrook an apology. The tweet from above came nine months after this article, so there was already a growing anti-Westbrook sentiment amongst a minority of NBA fans, but as the majority has come to learn, there are definitely flaws in Westbrook’s game that can no longer be overlooked. It would be years before his stat-padding became an issue, but even during this time period, there is one criticism that still persists and should have been rectified long ago.
His job description forces Brooks to be an apologist for Westbrook.
Despite the fact the franchise parted ways with Scott Brooks in the offseason prior to the 2015-16 season, current Thunder coach Billy Donovan must also make excuses for Westbrook’s inability to truly lead a team. His job may become easier after the disappointing playoff run the Thunder put together, because Westbrook is the one above all who must be held accountable for these last three seasons of playoff paucity. Donovan is not the kind of coach who brings imagination to the offense, but he is a coach who emphasizes communication and defense. However, after 11 seasons in the NBA, Westbrook has proven he’s the guy who wants the ball to himself so he can make spectacular plays and put up big numbers; his athleticism allows him to do that. He’s 30-years-old, and perhaps if he wasn’t encouraged to do the things he’s doing now when he was 23 by fans, players6, and analysts alike, maybe Durant wouldn’t have left, and perhaps the Thunder would have won a championship.
Further fueling my argument is the fact that Kobe Bryant once again7 found himself in a position to discuss Westbrook’s play-style, and once again, encouraged him to continue playing recklessly. Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Bryant attempted to convince Westbrook in the 2012 Olympics to return the next NBA season with more of his own mentality, ultimately to take away away scoring chances from Durant and not allow him to win another scoring title, hoping to ruin their chemistry; what is a mamba if not venomous? The long-term ramifications of those conversations have bloomed before our eyes, and unfortunately, the only person who doesn’t seem to understand what happened is Westbrook himself.
Going through and anatomizing Westbrook’s stats is a befogging task, as it’s virtually impossible to accurately judge how much Westbrook needs the ball and what role he should play. His league-leading 30.6 PER during the 2016-17 season is the highest of his career, and the 2014-15 season was the second-highest PER of his career at 29.1; once again, the same season Durant only played 27 games. These numbers, as well as his regular per game averages, would suggest he is the kind of player you can base a franchise around and make multiple Finals appearances with, but the end results contradict the statistical greatness he’s put forth in the regular season during this time. The perfect encapsulation of this phenomenon would be how Westbrook took a career-high 7.2 three-point attempts in the 2016-17 season, made a career-high 34.3% that same season, and then declined in efficiency the next two years from behind-the-arc, while taking less shots, with more help overall. What exactly are you supposed to gather from that?
Perhaps Westbrook’s off-ball role is what prevents his team from being more successful? The Thunder have always had a player, usually on the wing, who attempts five catch-and-shoot opportunities, or at least since the 2013-14 season8, which is how far I was allowed to go back when researching these numbers. I don’t think drawing up this many catch-and-shoot opportunities for one particular player is damaging, I mean, Klay Thompson has been leading the league in catch-and-shoot attempts for four seasons now and the Warriors have made it to the Finals every year in that same time span, so there must be more to the scenario than what initially meets the eye. Upon taking another look at Westbrook’s attempted three-point shots per game, you may be surprised it’s even more confounding than just realizing his shooting percentage has declined despite taking less three-pointers.
His 7.2 3-point attempts per game from 2016-17 were cut down to 4.1 attempts the following season, and yet, his three-point percentage went down from his career-best 34.3%, which still isn’t really that good in the grand scheme of things, to 29.8%; much closer to his career three-point percentage of 30.8%. This was the fifth time he shot below 30% from behind-the-arc in his career, and the third time in four seasons. He shot 27.1% and his career-worst 22.1% from behind-the-arc in his first two seasons, but by his third season, he was shooting 33% from the three-point line, while attempting only one less three total than his sophomore season. However, this would be the last time Westbrook attempted less than 2 three-pointers a game in his career thus far, as he jumped from a career-high 1.3 three-point shot attempts in 2011-12, to 3 three-point shot attempts the following season. He was up to 4.7 three-pointers attempted by 2013-14, which his 31.8% three-point percentage for that season didn’t really justify, but he continued shooting roughly the same amount of three-pointers for the next two seasons, even as he shot below 30% in both seasons.
I’m only bringing all this information up because this data would suggest Westbrook should reduce the number of three-pointers he attempts, but then after his MVP season, where he had a career-high three-point shot attempts, three-point field goal percentage, and field goal attempts overall, he actually followed through on that advice, and his shot suffered as a result. 24 shot attempts per game became 21.1, and even though his field goal percentage itself increased from 42.5% to the third-best shooting percentage of his career with 44.9%, his three-point percentage plummeted, and so, with Anthony gone, and more shooting opportunities, Westbrook attempted to rectify the situation by increasing his three-point shooting attempts once more. It’s true he shot less three-pointers than his MVP season, but it would have been incredibly misleading of me to not explain all that as thoroughly as I did, lest you fact-check and realize that it’s not the complete truth his three-point attempts dipped every year, as this previous season did see him take the second-most amount of three-pointers in his career. It’s just that, unfortunately for Westbrook, his shooting percentages also dipped across the board.
All this proves is what most everyone already knew; Westbrook doesn’t possess a consistent long-range jump-shot. The one area I can praise his shooting is in the right corner three, as he hit that shot at an excellent 43.8%, but he only took 16 total shots from that area throughout the entire 2018-19 regular season. Considering his catch-and-shoot three-point percentage of 31.9% was significantly higher than his horrific pull-up three-point percentage of 26.4%, the Thunder should be drawing up more plays that allow Westbrook to spot up in the right corner and get a good shot up, rather than allow him to make bone-headed decisions off-the-dribble. Westbrook was only gone to in a catch-and-shoot situation only 12.2% of the time for his team, and with 11.4% of those situations allocated to three-point attempts, the team would do well to give him more opportunities to spot up in the right corner and force defenses to stay honest. 163 of his 411 3-pointers were catch-and-shoot, but when 358 of those 411 total three-pointers are coming from the top of the three-point arc, where he’s shooting a repugnant 27.9%, it’s safe to assume the Thunder are throwing entire possessions away by positioning Westbrook in unfavorable positions on the court.
You’ll notice above I included select images of Game 4 during the Blazers-Thunder First Round series where Lillard has his back completely turned on Westbrook as he just stands at the top of the arc, or near the curve on the left side of the court. Westbrook went 12-of-35 shooting from the left corner three all season, so it’s fair to assume the Blazers scouted him even more thoroughly than this, as Lillard doesn’t pay Westbrook any attention in these situations. However, they could have corrected this issue by drawing up more situations like in the one set-up above where Westbrook is parked in the right corner three, where Lillard once again has completely sagged off him, and has his back fully turned. Paul George really should have found Westbrook open for the three on this play, as this was a crucial must-win game for the Thunder, who were down 2-1 in the series, and were facing an elimination game on the road in a typically tough environment for opposing teams if they did not win this game, and their star point guard is standing around, disengaged with the offense, and usually nowhere close to a favorable scoring position. This more than anything is why the Thunder were unable to win a championship when Durant was there, as Westbrook season-after-season finds himself consistently failing to add anything to his game.
You’ll also notice in these images that for someone who boasted to Lillard that he was “busting that ass for years”9, he seemed to be extremely unwilling to carry that same energy into the playoffs, when he was most needed. Paul George more often than not was picking up Lillard, and for whatever reason, the Thunder repeatedly gave him all the space necessary to bomb away from three-point land, which he is more than capable of doing. I’m assuming the Thunder felt like many of us who were unimpressed by the Trail Blazers outing in last year’s playoffs, and figured they could do the same thing Anthony Davis and company did last season. Judging by their responses to losing in five10, they were devastated to discover they were incapable of applying that same kind of defensive pressure.
These images define the 2018-19 Oklahoma City Thunder season extremely well actually; never learning from their mistakes. The series opened with a three-point dagger from Lillard, and ended almost exactly the same. I owe Lillard an apology, as my article11 before the 2018-19 regular season was skeptical of the Trail Blazers’ ability to maintain a high seeding in the Western Conference, and even if they had, I believed they were doomed to perpetual First Round exits anyway. Lillard’s shot in this series was more than just an incredible shot, it was both an extinguisher of the doubt people had, myself included, as well as being the torch that relit the already smoky effigy of Russell Westbrook.
Most would be content with ending on that sentence, but not I. I let Westbrook coast by as who I viewed as the second-best point guard in the NBA since 2015-16, and now I must pay my levy. Diving into his shooting stats reveals he ranks 214th out of 517 eligible players for field goal percentage in the restricted area, but that’s an incredible sample size, so I filtered it down only to players who averaged 4.5 shots per game in the restricted area, and to my shock, discovered he ranked 40th out of 66 players. Whittling the list down further to players who averaged at least 5 shots in the restricted area didn’t really help him either, as that made him 32nd out of 44 players, and since he actually averaged 7.6 shots attempts in the restricted area, I decided to cut the list all the way down to players who averaged at least 7 field goal attempts in this area, and once again, Westbrook disappoints by finishing 13th out of 18 players. For anyone curious enough, I did indulge your thoughts on making the cut-off point at 7.5 attempts per game, and found that he finished 10th out of 13 players.
Plenty are aware of Westbrook’s tendency to take contested pull-up mid-range jump-shots, but honestly, his mid-range shot in general is lacking. He shot a repulsive 31.8% from mid-range this past season, and even though the league average is likely a percent lower than it was just four seasons ago12 due to the ever-increasing usage of the three-pointer, that putrid shooting percentage is still unacceptable. It should be incredibly concerning for Thunder fans to realize what they view as Westbrook’s main strength is not up to par with other superstars, and even though last season saw him decrease his field goal attempts from 16-22 feet from 20.9% in 2017-18, the third-highest of his career, to 12.9%, the second-lowest of his career, his mid-range shooting still plummeted. Surprisingly enough however, it wasn’t this distance that hurt Westbrook’s shooting, as his actual shooting percentage from 16-22 feet was still not good at 35.8%, but his mid-range distance of 10-16 feet really dragged his percentage down. Despite taking a few less shots from that 10-16 foot range, dropping his attempts from 15.1% to 14.3%, which would still rank as the third-lowest of his career, his shooting percentage from that distance ended up as the worst of his career at a revolting 33.3%; remember, this also was the second-highest amount of three-pointers he took in a season for his entire career.
I know supporters of Westbrook will argue against these numbers and paint him as a great leader and passer, but in reality, he isn’t. Take a look at the assist percentage leaderboard on a yearly basis, and you’ll notice many of the players who lead the NBA in assist percentage did not go on to win the Finals that year, and in some cases, ever. Jason Kidd led the league in assists percentage in 2003-04, the same season his team hoped to return to the Finals for a third consecutive season, and instead fell to the Detroit Pistons in seven games in the Semifinals. Kidd didn’t win his sole championship until 2010-11, so keep that in mind as we go all the way back to 1985-86 to find the next player who led the league in assist percentage and won a championship; Magic Johnson. Magic was already a three-time champion, one-time Finals MVP, a three-time assist per game leader (winning his fourth this same season), and a one-time runner-up in league-wide assist percentage by the time he led the NBA in assist percentage, but yet, his team lost in five in the Western Conference Finals that same year to the Houston Rockets. The season prior saw Isaiah Thomas lead the NBA in assist percentage only to lose in six in the Semifinals to the eventual champion Boston Celtics. Has anybody else noticed a pattern of gluttonous ball-handlers who rack up assists falling short when their team needs them the most?
Furthermore, looking at the stretch of time where Stockton led the NBA in assist percentage for ten seasons yielded no Finals appearances for the Utah Jazz, and while he was second in assist percentage in 1996-97, when his team made their first Finals appearance, he ultimately led the NBA in assist percentage five more times in his final six seasons, and only made the Finals one more time in that stretch before retiring. From 2005-06 until 2015-16, the assets percentage crown was won by two point guards who are viewed by many to be some of the best passers in NBA history; Steve Nash and Chris Paul. They both lead the NBA in assist percentage six times during this stretch, and yet, neither of them made an NBA Finals appearance during this time; their best years in the NBA. What does all this ultimately say about what we as a basketball fandom have traditionally viewed as the superiority of a “traditional” point guard? Assist numbers can be inflated, and while Stockton took his team deeper in the playoffs than these other passing-dominant point guards who never won a championship, it was due to the other things he brought to the table that contributed to his team overall performing better, not strictly due to his passing ability.
Counterarguments can be formed, but it’s more rewarding to accept that the leader in assist percentage the last three seasons, as well as the leader in assist average and total assists for the previous two seasons, is simply padding his numbers to achieve this position as “The Triple-Double King”, even as his teams consistently fail to go anywhere in the playoffs. How can he be a great leader when he’s more concerned with his numbers and demeaning his competition’s success over him? How is it that his assist percentage dropped from 49.8% to 46.5% even though the Thunder jumped up from their 17th ranked pace of 96.7 in 2017-18 to their sixth-ranked pace of 102.8 this previous season? He even outdid himself from last season, increasing his 10.3 assists per game to a career-high 10.7, so what’s the reason for this?
Glancing over the advanced stats answers those questions, because despite playing faster, taking less shots from 10-22 feet out, and decreasing his usage rate from the fourth-highest of his career at 34.7% to the third-lowest of his career at 30.9%, his turnovers per game and subsequently, his turnover percentage, remained virtually the same. 16.4% only dropped to 16.2%, and his per game averages were only separated by a .3 differential; 4.8 to 4.5. His 5.4 turnovers per game in the 2016-17 season aren’t even as bad as these two seasons, since his turnover percentage that season was actually the fourth-best of his career at 15.9%, which was the same season where he also had his best assist percentage at 57.3%, and registered the highest usage rate for a season in NBA history at 41.7%; likely the only reason his turnover percentage wasn’t higher, on account of him using the ball so damn much. Don’t forget, this was also the season where he shot his best behind the three-point line, and when you factor in his career-high 840 total assists and 10.4 assist per game average, you begin to better understand his passing limitations.
It becomes harder for teams to win games when they don’t have efficient scorers, and without a point guard who can properly facilitate an offense, it’s usually up to the team to commit to their defense, and out-rebound the other team to muscle their way to victory. That has become harder in this three-point centric era, but the Thunder have consistently been in the top-five for total rebounds per game as a team, often finding themselves at that top spot, as well as being a top-10 defensive ranked team during the past three seasons. The epicenter of this system is Westbrook, who has infamously been known to box out his own teammates to grab a rebound, as well as steal rebounds from them, or even force them to box out for him, so he can grab easy, uncontested rebounds. It’s not incredibly productive, as many times it limits what the Thunder can do on the fast break since the other team has ample time to run back and set up their half-court defense, and it makes one of the best rebounders in the league, Steven Adams, look worse than he really is as a result of this strategy.
Adams came into the NBA averaging 14.8 minutes as a rookie and still managed to grab 1.8 offensive rebounds a game; 4.1 total rebounds per game. That was during the 2013-14 season, and unfortunately for Adams, his career has coincided with Westbrook discovering he could monopolize the team system, because 2013-14 was the last time Westbrook averaged less than 6 rebounds per game, as his 5.7 rebounds per game in 2013-14 were a career-high, until he set a new career-high the next season with 7.3 rebounds per game. Adams, as a result of this, only managed to grab 7.5 rebounds per game, and yet, his total rebounding percentage went down .1%, while Westbrook’s went up from 10.5% to 11.4%. Westbrook’s total rebounding percentage this previous season is more than double his career-low 7.4% total rebounding percentage in 2011-12, and yet, his career-high 11.1 rebounds per game only registered at 15.8%, while his 10.7 rebounds per game, the second-highest of his career by the way, registered as a 17.1%; the highest of his career. The reason for his total rebounding percentage hanging around the 15-to-17 percent mark these previous three seasons is exclusively due to his stat padding.
This is the easiest one to point out, not only due to the numerous amount of video compilations of him hawking away rebounds from his teammates, but also due to his skewed uptick in defensive rebounding percentage since the 2013-14 season. I did say that was his final season grabbing less than 6 rebounds, but this also was his worst season in terms of offensive rebounds per game, as he grabbed a career-low 1.2 offensive rebounds per game, and what was his lowest offensive rebounding percentage at 4.8% until this previous season wrapped up and he ended the season with an offensive rebounding percentage of 4.1%. He did average 1.5 offensive rebounds per game this previous season, but keep in mind the Thunder did play at much faster pace in 2018-19 at 102.8 than they did in 2013-14, when they were ninth in pace at 95.4.
All this data suggests is that Westbrook has suddenly, and rather dramatically, almost tripled his defensive rebounding percentage from the first four seasons of his career in these past three seasons, but the warning signs were there from 2013-2016, as it slowly creeped from a career-high 11.8% in 2012-13 to 18.1% in 2015-16. The past three seasons have seen those numbers jump to 28.8%, 25.7%, and 28.3%, meaning Adams’ defensive rebounding percentage of 19.3% and total rebounding percentage of 15.8% from 2014-15 have remained his career-high in both statistical categories. While his offensive rebounding continues to improve and remain integral to the team system, he was never again given the same opportunities to crash the defensive glass, and the team has suffered as a result. How is Westbrook taking away rebounds from the big man a good idea when you’re paying Adams $25-to-$27 million dollars the next two seasons? Why marginalize Adams’ role when he could be the one grabbing defensive rebounds to heave downcourt to Westbrook on the break?
So, what does Westbrook do well, other than attract other talented players and stars who aren’t too particularly concerned with winning a championship13? He is still extremely athletic, and he can wear down defenses with his relentless drives, but it clearly doesn’t always result in good shots or passes. It’s tough to make recommendations on what a player should do, but wouldn’t it be much better for the Thunder if Westbrook returned to his rebounding numbers from 2011-12 and 2012-13? Rather than sagging off his man on the perimeter to maintain a better rebounding position, he could instead focus more on sticking to his man and playing tough defense, which he certainly possesses the physical tools and intensity to do. He’s never made an All-NBA Defensive Team, he’s only been in the top-20 for defensive rating twice, one of which was top-10, and this is all in spite of the fact that he’s fairly adept at collecting steals in any variable you’d like to measure; total, per game, and percentage. Of course, he’s also sensational at giving away the ball, as he’s led the NBA in total turnovers three times, one of which was during 2017-18, and has finished second in three of the previous four seasons as well.
In fact, if we go back to his rookie season, when he led the NBA in turnovers, you’ll quickly discover Westbrook has always had a propensity for turning the ball over. His best finish, other than 2013-14 when he only played a little over half the season, was in 2012-13, when he was fifth in turnovers. It’s fair then to look at Westbrook’s 2012-13 season as his best season overall, as it appears to have been the one where he began maximizing his potential in his new role within the team system: one where his strengths were still balanced. This unfortunately, also was the season where the Thunder were determined to prove they could return to the Finals without Harden, the one where the team earned themselves a 60-win season and the first seed, and was the same season where a raw Patrick Beverley dove after the ball14 when the Thunder called a time-out at 5:36 in the second quarter of Game 2 in their First Round matchup in the 2013 playoffs. This injury changed the future of the Thunder’s franchise completely, they just didn’t know it yet.
Durant got a taste of the playoffs without Westbrook, after already stating he was tired of being viewed as the second-best player15 in the NBA, and then got a taste of what winning MVP feels like the next season, when he carried the Thunder for two months from late-December to late-February without Westbrook. That very same season, he also got to feel what it felt like to lose in the Western Conference Finals, and then after that injury, the following season, when Westbrook began discovering the art of inflating numbers, well, refer to my allusions above about Durant leaving the Thunder. That injury is what began the downward process, although to be clear, the organization trading Harden because they didn’t want to pay the luxury tax is the biggest reason for them never winning a championship. Westbrook was forced to handle the ball more, and was even able to find a nice balance in his all-around game, if only for a brief moment, but it did suggest he was capable of performing well in that role. Although the Harden trade and the injuries to his team over the years were out of his control, not everything on the path that led to his current situation was, and as we’ve seen, when given the option to show restraint, Westbrook instead proved he was indeed the one thing critics had long denounced about his game; uncontrollable.
- Sports Illustrated – 9/20/2013 – Top 100 Players of 2014: Nos. 10-1
- Black Sports Online – 7/26/2013 – Chris Palmer Doesn’t Seem to Be Employed Anymore by ESPN
- Bleacher Report – 6/14/2012 – NBA Finals 2012: Why Russell Westbrook’s Emotion Is Thunder’s Biggest Weapon
- The Denver Post – 6/16/2012 – Mark Kiszla: Give me Ty Lawson over Russell Westbrook
- The Oklahoman – 2/24/2012 – Kobe Bryant: Lakers star says ‘everybody needs to lay off’ Russell Westbrook
- Lakers Nation – 12/10/2015 – Kobe Bryant Wanted Competitive Edge Over Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant In 2012
- Catch-and-Shoot Stats
- OKC ThunderWire – 1/23/2019 – Westbrook yells at Lillard that he’s been ‘busting that ass for years’
- YouTube/The Oregonian/OregonLive Sports – 4/24/2019 – Paul George calls Damian Lillard’s game-winner ‘a bad shot’
- Havarti – 9/3/2018 – Derailed Blazers
- YouTube/Jon Bois – 7/6/2016 – Chart Party: We decided to erase the three-pointer/2:43
- ESPN – 7/1/2018 – Paul George agrees with Thunder on 4-year, $137 million deal
- SB Nation – 4/26/2013 – Russell Westbrook (and Patrick Beverley) just turned the NBA playoffs upside down
- CBS Sports – 4/23/2013 – Kevin Durant: ‘I’m tired of being second… I’m done with it’