Heart. Determination. Domination.
All these words described the 2016-17 NBA MVP Russell Westbrook; the 6’4″ powerhouse guard averaged a triple double and broke the single season triple double record against the Denver Nuggets late in the regular season. “He can’t be stopped” was a phrase that was often used to describe the explosive point guard. Whether he was breaking down defenses and dishing a no-look pass to an open teammate or elevating over his defender at the elbow, the only thought that could go through your head was “he can’t be stopped.”
Nobody In The League Could Stop Him
Everyone knew where Westbrook wanted to go with the ball, but few were able to contain him. He accumulated 42 triple doubles on his way to averaging 31.6 points, 10.4 assists, and 10.7 rebounds a night. He feasted at the free throw line, setting career highs with 10.4 freebies a game and 84.5% from the stripe. His VORP (Value Over Replacement Player: a stat that measures a player’s value and how many points he adds over an average, replacement level guy) was at a league high 12.4. He even made a career best 34.3% of his attempt from behind the arc. Simply put, Westbrook was a statistical monster, finishing the year top 15 in 3 pointers made, free throws made, rebounding, assists, points and steals last season.
Westbrook DID average 5.4 turnovers last season, but the raw number is a bit deceiving. His 15.9 turnover percentage was in line with LeBron James (16.1) and John Wall (16.2); James Harden’s sat at 19.2. His turnovers weren’t an issue for a player who’s usage rate was at 41.7%.
The season before, his usage rate was at 31.6%, and his assist rate was 49.6%. With his increased usage rate last season, his assist rate ballooned up to 57.3%. Westbrook often appeared to play out of control, but that worked for him. He found seams in the defense that few would find. He attacked until the defense was basically forced to foul. His play was thunderous in every sense of the word.
Where Is That Russell This Season?
Sacrifice is often a buzzword in conversations in regards to forming super teams and how the players need to play in order to gel. While some sacrifice (of shots, touches, minutes, etc) IS required for super teams to function (Kevin Durant went from averaging 28.2 points per game with the Thunder in ’15-’16 to 25.1 per game his first season with the Warriors), efficiency should rise with the drop in usage and better spacing. Westbrook might benefit from being a little more selfish when it comes to attacking. It’s difficult to watch Westbrook pass up open looks to force feed his all star teammates.
A combined 56% of Westbrook’s passes go to either Anthony or George. He’s not setting them up for easy looks though, he’s passing and deferring to them. He makes 18.2 passes per game to Paul George; only 2.2 are converted into assists. George is only connecting on 38.7% of his shots created by a Westbrook pass. In 2015-16 Russell Westbrook passed the ball to Kevin Durant 20.6 times per game, with 3.2 of those passes being counted as assists. The difference there is that Durant shot 51.3% off of a Westbrook pass.
The MVP of the 2016-17 season has been noticeably worse this season. We’re seeing a 10 point drop in his points per game- the 21.6 points per game he’s putting up is his lowest since his second season. He’s getting to the line 40% less than last season, and converting those free throws at a 73% clip, by far the worst of his career (Russ shot 85% from the free throw line last season). The 40.1% from Westbrook is shooting from the field is his lowest mark since his 39.8% rookie season. After being top 15 in 6 of the top statistical categories last season, Westbrook only cracks the top 15 3 times.
One thing that surprises me has been Westbrook’s performance on the road. In years past, he hasn’t had any real drop off in performance while playing away from home. This season, he is struggling on the road and performing much better at Chesapeake Arena. In enemy territory, Westbrook is averaging 18 points per game while taking 18.2 shots on 35.7% from the field. He’s shooting 63.2% from the stripe and shooting 25.5% from the 3-point line. At home, all the numbers spike; he’s averaging 25.6 points per game on 19.7 attempts while shooting 44.6%. His free throw percentage and attempts improve from 63.2% to 80.6%, and he’s earning 2 more free throws per game. His 3-point percentage is up to 38.3% at home. Lastly, there’s an 11.8 point difference in his net plus-minus.
It’s hard to outdo the individual season that Russell Westbrook had last year, especially when you add two ball dominant players like Paul George and Carmelo Anthony into the equation. The Thunder were the worst 3 point shooting team percentage-wise last season, connecting on a measly 32.7% of their attempts. This year they’re making 34.5% of their 3s as they have jumped to 25th in the league. Although that is not a huge jump, that should be an indication that Westbrook has a wider driving lane this season and should be hitting his shots at a better rate.
There could be many reasons for his recent struggles. He could be taking a backseat to his new star teammates. He could very well just be tired. While him taking a backseat might be the more viable explanation, he seems to be chasing last season like a dog chases his tail. Westbrook looks to be chasing his numbers from last season and sometimes it’s evident. As James Holas puts it in this tweet:
I’ve watched Russ stop passing and go into attack mode the second he notches his 10th assist. Vs GSW, up 15+ in the 4th, he’s passing up layups to try to get assists. Wack https://t.co/thQU5gAG0x
— James Holas (@SnottieDrippen) November 26, 2017
For whatever reason, Russell Westbrook has not been himself, and not coincidentally, the Thunder sit at 8-11, out of the (very early) playoff picture. The Thunder have over 60 games to right the ship, but if the real Westbrook doesn’t return soon, OKC will be just treading water in a shipwrecked season.
Basketball-Reference and NBA.com/Stats were used to gather stats for this article.