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Myth Buster: Russell Westbrook Edition

2014-15 Season Stats: 28.1 ppg (1st), 7.3 rpg, 8.6 apg, 2.1 spg, 4.4 tpg, 42.6% FG, 29.9% 3PT, 83.5% FT, 29.1 PER. 10.6 Win Shares

Career Stats: 21.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 7.1 apg, 1.7 spg, 3.6 tpg, 43.2% FG, 30.4% 3PT, 81.9% FT, 22.1 PER, 53.0 Win Shares

Russell Westbrook is easily the most polarizing player the league has to offer. He’s essentially the NBA’s version of the Tasmanian Devil, constantly attacking the basket with a rage and ferocity that’s both wildly entertaining and extremely frustrating at the same time. He reminds me of Allen Iverson in the sense that they both defy traditional NBA logic by their inefficient playing styles — Iverson did so with a sheer volume of shots while taking a beating in the paint in the process, while Westbrook can beat teams with sheer relentlessness attacking the basket and sprinkling in pull-up jumpers because #WhyNot.

He captivated us all last season when he went on an Oscar Robertson-like run, forcing his way into the MVP discussion like he wills himself to the basket. Through February, March, and April (34 games), Westbrook averaged an insane 31.4 ppg, 9.7 apg, and 8.4 rebounds while racking up ten of his NBA-leading 11 triple-doubles along the way.

He almost led the consistently under-manned Thunder to the postseason by his lonesome. The “Who would you rather build around” question between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was a real discussion this year! In hindsight, though, that was extremely unfair to Kevin Durant.

Being as polarizing as Westbrook pretty much guarantees little to no objectivity when discussing him as a player or person. You either love him and applaud the relentlessness or “killer instinct” that nearly had the mostly Durant-less Thunder in the postseason, the “swag” as the young people used to call it, and his Marshawn Lynch-like persona towards the media, or you loathe the quantity and the quality of shots he takes, the utterly ridiculous outfits he wears, and how difficult he made it for Thunder media to do their job.

Oh, and about those shots — Russell Westbrook has no problem taking them:

Since the 2012-13 season, most games with 25 or more shot attempts, regular season and postseason combined, via Basketball-Reference.com:

 

 Name  Total Games FGM-FGA  FG%  Win-Loss Record
 Carmelo Anthony  56 698-1555  44.9% FG  29-27 (.518)
 Russell Westbrook 39 467-1118  41.8% FG  16-23 (.410)
 Kevin Durant 36 468-1007  46.5% FG  22-14 (.611)
 LaMarcus Aldridge 33 427-902  47.3% FG  20-13 (.606)
 LeBron James 30 416-866  48% FG  23-7 (.766)
 Kobe Bryant 25 295-724  40.7% FG  6-19 (.240)
 Stephen Curry 18 239-494  48.4% FG  7-11 (.389)
 Kyrie Irving 18 242-505  47.9% FG  7-11 (.389)
DeMar DeRozan 14 166-377 44% FG 4-10 (.286)
James Harden 14 172-387 44.4% FG 8-6  (.571)

 

However, Westbrook not being gun-shy is what helped make him the player he is today. Amidst the extremes of praise or criticism of Russell Westbrook, like most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Like I’m going to do with other players in this Myth Busters series moving forward (creative name, I know), I’m going to attempt to bring things back to Earth as it pertains to a perceived strength, and a perceived flaw.

MYTH #1: Russell Westbrook is a (shot-jacking) ball-hog

I think a lot of people criticize Russell Westbrook’s shot attempt numbers without providing the necessary context. Sure, it may not be ideal to have your starting point guard taking more shots than the NBA’s best scorer in Kevin Durant, but as Durant will tell you, Westbrook’s attacking is important to the Thunder’s success.

Personally, I think Westbrook’s shot selection is worse than his actual shot totals. Most coaches will tell you that finding mismatches are critical to getting open, good looks within the offense. With that in mind, how many point guards have the size and the strength and the speed and the defensive ability to guard Russell Westbrook? I think it’s fair to say you’d have an easier time picking a defender to throw on Kevin Durant than you would with Westbrook — of course, that’s while acknowledging that both of them are nearly impossible to defend to begin with.

What’s also seemingly ignored is the fact that Westbrook is actually one of the better distributors in the league. He may never have the natural feel for the game like a “pure” point guard — man do I loathe that term — or be able to shift defenses in subtle ways to create passing lanes like Chris Paul. However, Westbrook does possess the ability to make solid reads in pick-and-roll situations, and the attention he draws when he attacks the basket opens up the floor for everyone else. Westbrook accounted for 19.8 ppg via assist last year, which ranked 5th behind Chris Paul (23.8 ppg), John Wall (23.1), Ty Lawson (22.7), and Ricky Rubio (19.9).

Since entering the league, Westbrook’s 7.1 apg ranks 7th among active players, and slides down to a tie for 9th if you add Steve Nash (2nd), Baron Davis (7th), and Jason Kidd (T-9th) back to the list. What makes Westbrook even more valuable is that, for all his craziness, he’s legitimately a threat to beat you by scoring or by passing.

Since the 2008-09 season (Westbrook’s rookie year), most games with 25+ points and 10+ assists, regular season and playoffs combined, via Basketball-Reference.com:

Name Total Games Win-Loss Record
LeBron James 62 51-11 (.823)
Chris Paul 61 44-17 (.721)
Russell Westbrook 49 37-12 (.755)
Deron Williams 44 24-20 (.545)
Stephen Curry 42 34-8 (.810)
Dwyane Wade 28 16-12 (.571)
James Harden 22 19-3 (.864)
Derrick Rose 21 16-5 (.762)
Tony Parker 19 17-2 (.895)
John Wall 18 11-7 (.611)

 

There’s the tier with LeBron James and Chris Paul, two of the best passers the NBA has ever seen, but right below it is Russell Westbrook, who doesn’t seem to get recognized as one of the league’s best dual-threats. His contested pull-up jumpers early in the shot clock can be disheartening to watch, as are his wild attempts at the rims over two defenders. It’s also fair to point out that his overall aggressiveness is still a major positive, one that frees up his teammates because of the attention he draws.

He has gotten a little better changing his pace when maneuvering within the offense over the years, but there’s still room for improvement for him. Once he can hone his aggressiveness more effectively, we’re going to be watching the most unstoppable point guard in the league — if we aren’t doing so already.

MYTH #2: Russell Westbrook is an elite defender

There’s a common misconception out there that defense is all about effort.

While effort and energy are big parts of playing defense successfully, there is more to it. There’s a certain level of awareness a player has to have — they must know what their individual or zone assignment is, when and where to provide help and where their help is coming from, how hard to hedge on pick-and-roll if they have to hedge at all, and things of that nature. In other words, it’s not just about wanting to play defense; there’s a lot that goes into how to play defense. When you have an understanding in those areas, you’ll know when or if you can afford to gamble.

To be frank, Russell Westbrook just doesn’t seem to grasp many of those concepts. He surely didn’t check out well as an overall defender last year. Like, at all:

Defensive Play Type Average/Points Per Possession (PPP) Rank/Percentile*
Steals 2.1 spg/140 total 2nd/8th
Isolation 0.89 PPP 38.9 percentile
P&R Ball-Handler 0.88 PPP 20.9 percentile
Cutter 0.88 PPP 43.4 percentile
Off-Screen 1.17 PPP 14.3 percentile

*In terms of percentile, the higher, the better

The issue with Westbrook isn’t his overall effort or energy — the issue is that he doesn’t know how to use it effectively. Much like he is on offense, Westbrook is very aggressive. He doesn’t mind hounding guards as soon as they cross half-court and causing havoc.

The pressure he brings, along with his quick hands, are a reason he’s finished in the top ten in total steals and steals per game in four of the last five seasons. You can see a few examples of Westbrook picking pockets here:

However, Westbrook’s aggressiveness and desire to make a play on the ball also puts him out of position quite often. That puts unnecessary strain on his teammates to cover for him when his man blows by him, if he fails to make a steal in the passing lanes, or if he’s ball-watching when playing defense off-ball, leaving him open to getting beat on backdoor cuts. Because he’s so antsy defensively, trying to guess where his man is going so he can go for the steal, he’s been a big liability in pick-and-roll defense for most of his career.

As you can see in the first play of the video, Westbrook picked up Chris Paul and tried to jump the pick early, but all that did was give Paul a wide-open three. On the third play (~0:21), Westbrook came out too high trying to fight over the screen, which led to an easy jumper for Paul. At the 1:31 mark, you can see Westbrook jump out on the screen again, but he wasn’t in position to recover on the Darren Collison drive, even resorting to the James Harden Wrap-Around from his no-defense days. At the 1:49 mark, Westbrook jumped out to deny Paul’s initial drive (before Paul even committed to driving right). Serge Ibaka stepped up to compensate, and that opened up just enough room for Paul to thread the needle to Blake Griffin who finished the play at the basket.

Of course, Chris Paul is the NBA’s best pick-and-roll maestro so it’s difficult to criticize anyone too harshly when it comes to pick-and-roll defense against him, but mostly, Paul just used Westbrook’s aggressiveness against him to generate open looks for himself and teammates. That’s a bit of a common theme for opposing point guards, especially if you look at how the Spurs and Tony Parker have targeted Westbrook in pick-and-roll throughout the years.

Westbrook is going to be good for a couple of steals a game. He’ll make your jaw drop with a weak-side or chase-down block like this (even here. his initial gamble for the steal was a terrible decision):

Or like this:

But until Westbrook can become more disciplined on the defensive end, he’ll never be the elite defender that so many people proclaim him to be — or even a good defender for that matter.

Russell Westbrook is one of the most perplexing players the NBA has seen in some time. He’s arguably the most athletic point guard the NBA has ever seen, and that ridiculous athleticism defies conventional wisdom — for better and for worse. His relentlessness offensively overshadows how good of a play-maker he is, while his relentlessness defensively actually hinders him from being much of a net positive on that end. With all that said, you still can’t name more than two point guards or six total players better than Russell Westbrook. It’s scary how good he is, and how much better he can become.

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