Russell Westbrook’s start to the 2016-17 NBA season has been special so far. His f*** this attitude in the wake of Kevin Durant’s departure has been on full display, and it’s been exactly what we wanted.
Absurd numbers. Absurd drives. Absurd triple-doubles, all capped off with a 3-0 record. It’s almost the perfect opening statement to the year of Westbrook mania, and the (hopeful) possibility for him to seek out a dunk on Durant in OKC’s Thursday game against the Warriors in Golden State is looming. Even if he dashes our hopes and it doesn’t happen, how they greet one another and send signals to the over-analyzing NBA world about their altered friendship promises to provide quite the night of entertainment.
This is just one element of the Westbrook tear we’re witnessing right now, though. The numbers behind his performance so far are nothing but staggering, placing him in a realm of statistical production that, incredibly small sample size aside, is impressive.
Through three games so far, Westbrook is leading the league in scoring and assists with 38.7 points and 11.7 dimes per game to go along with 12.3 rebounds. Running on an extortionate league-high usage rate of 40.4, Westbrook has had all the responsibility to take control.
In doing so, he’s become the first player to record 100 points, 30 rebounds and 30 assists over the first three games of a season.
It’s a level of responsibility and pressure that he can embrace more than anyone, and breaking the usage rate record should be a definite possibility with a full season to overtake others and no Durant around.
The overall level of efficiency Westbrook has managed so far makes his start even more impressive.
His 51-point triple-double against the Phoenix Suns in an overtime win took an unsightly and trigger-happy 44 shots, made worse by his 17 makes. However, in his other two games, Westbrook has gone 11-of-21 from the field in each, raising his three-point percentage to an uncharacteristic 44.4 for the young season after going 5-of-6 from deep in Sunday’s win against the Lakers.
Sadly for Oklahoma City, this won’t last. In that 44-shot shooting spree, he was 2-of-10 from deep, and three-point marksmanship has never been in his nature for the last eight years. But at least this is a good start.
As remarkable and mind-boggling as all of this is, though, the incredible nature of Westbrook’s do-it-all play comes with a looming sense of just how unsustainable it is to winning games.
For a start, his three opponents so far had a total of 50 wins last season. While that doesn’t take too much away from his individual achievements, it does prompt the issue of how this one-dimensional offense can consistently be replicated against tougher opponents and defenses. A one-man-wrecking-crew isn’t how you take down top teams on a consistent basis, no matter how exhilarating the effort to do so may be at times.
There are times when a one-man Westbrook wrecking-crew can be enough. It has been in the past, and that’s what we’ve seen so far this season, somewhat eclipsing the need for a more well-balanced attack when that one man can drop the first 51-point triple-double since 1985 to go along with 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
Yet, when tougher defenders stand in Westbrook’s way, his limited range fails him and opposing defenses crash the paint and smother all his attempts inside, OKC’s isolation-heavy offense can unravel in a frantic mess.
Westbrook leads the league in points per game and points created by assists per game (tied with LeBron James at 25.7 in the latter statistic), meaning he’s singlehandedly accounting for 64.4 points per game.
In other words, he’s responsible for 58.7 percent of the Thunder’s entire offense (109.7 points a night). That much of the offensive load simply can’t hinge on one overworked player.
Plus, if Westbrook is exerting more energy to collect double-digit rebounds nonstop and create almost everything when he’s on the floor, he’s going to have even less energy to use on defense. And his efforts at that end of the floor are often lackadaisical already when his intensity reduces and he slips out of position.
It’s such a glaring problem for this much to weigh down on the shoulders on one man. Even if those shoulders belong to an angered, supersonic Russell Westbrook.
For instance, despite Westbrook’s ridiculous league-high assist percentage of 61.7 percent, the Thunder haven’t been a moving the ball with fluidity whatsoever. They rank 26th in assist ratio so far, with only 14.1 percent of their scores coming via an assist. The team’s ball movement can be painfully stagnant now that Westbrook has to create so much (despite the small sample size, we can get used to something similar without more help around him).
You can see that in possessions like this:
In Westbrook’s first scoring attempt, he has little trouble blowing past Brandon Knight without needing a high screen, but ultimately gets bodied by Tyson Chandler and misses a well-contested layup. Such drives where Russ either takes flight too far from the rim, tries to contort himself too much in the air, or simply gets too ambitious through traffic are some of his most deflating possessions, and reasons why he’s only a 57.7 percent finisher within two feet over his career (59.6 last season).
To follow on from this drive after the Thunder grabbed an offensive rebound, Westbrook waits through the shot clock with no movement whatsoever or pick-and-roll action from his teammates to create a better look. 19 seconds pass from when Westbrook is in comfortable control of the ball, and the only movement at the end is Steven Adams sliding across the lane to position himself for a possible put-back.
If anyone can argue why the end result should have been a contested, pull-up Westbrook three, please go ahead.
The next play demonstrates just how easily defenses can collapse on Westbrook at times, including the not-so-elite Lakers:
As Westbrook hurriedly attacks the lane and looks to pass to a rolling Adams, four defenders swarm in. Timofey Mozgov covers the rim and Luol Deng shifts over to provide extra help. And knowing that this play is almost certainly going to stay in the lane rather than result in a perimeter shot (due to Russ’ style and the lack of shooters around him), Julius Randle can leave Domantas Sabonis unguarded, make the lane even more crowded, and completely eradicate the opening for Adams. Westbrook has to force the pass through a ton of traffic and Randle picks off the pass with ease.
Slinging a wrap-around pass down the baseline past Mozgov and Deng to Andre Roberson for a corner three would have been the best outcome here for Westbrook in heavy traffic. This play would be difficult enough as it is with so many defenders in the way, and that’s before even remembering that Roberson (and many others on OKC’s roster) aren’t great three-point shooters.
I won’t go into more examples because the issue is obvious when looking past the many amazing highlights that do go in Russ’ favor. This is the conundrum of the one-man machine that is Russ in a nutshell.
Through the terrific triple-doubles and breathtaking plays, there are going to be unavoidable, damaging isolation sets and 17-for-44 shooting displays. If he can’t create something and opponents smother him, the Thunder can grind to a halt.
For Russ himself, such circumstances only encourages him to go overboard and try too much at times, elevating the risk of losing the ball in the process. He had 12 turnovers in the last two games alone and averaged a career-high 4.4 per game in Durant’s injured 2014-15 season.
Options to deliver Westbrook and the Thunder to a more well-balanced approach aren’t easy to find. Giving talented rookie Domantas Sabonis a few more post-up opportunities, using more Steven Adams pick-and-roll, or feeding Enes Kanter more won’t save the day every time.
Victor Oladipo is the biggest man in question right now, the player we believed would be no more than a third option running mate to Westbrook and Durant before a certain Players’ Tribune article dropped.
Oladipo hasn’t offered that much so far. It’s clear by his 17 points on 34 percent shooting and 2.3 assists per game, and he’s going to have to be far more involved to alleviate some of the burden from his superstar point guard.
Westbrook won’t be a deadly three-point threat playing off-ball, though, and Oladipo hasn’t been controlling the ball much when they’ve been on the floor together. Ball handling will only change to a limited degree in these Russ-driven circumstances, but Oladipo’s assist percentage of 9.7 still pales in comparison to Westbrook’s 61.7. Oladipo’s usage rate of 25.4 is close to half of Westbrook’s, and there’s no way Oladipo can have a major impact if he can’t grow to thrive in a more ball-dominant role. Unfortunately, he’s also a relatively weak perimeter shooter.
Something needs to change if the Thunder don’t want to live and die by Russ more than they have to. Oladipo isn’t a point guard or an elite shot creator, and he’s clearly a downgrade on the ball from Westbrook. Yet, he can still score, and he’s OKC’s best bet. Billy Donovan will have to do anything he can to better share the load across his roster, and Oladipo is crucial to this.
Westbrook can rack up as many triple-doubles as he wants. He can do it all, and on many nights that’s what we’ll see. He just can’t do everything all the time.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.