Why Russell Westbrook's Scoring Is Critical to Oklahoma City Thunder's Success
The national basketball punditry and many of the bloviators employed therein seem to enjoy razzing Russell Westbrook. When the superstar guard defers to his teammates on the Oklahoma City Thunder, he's ripped for trying to be something he's not (i.e. a pure passer). And when he takes over a game with his scoring, he's lambasted for seemingly ignoring the fact that he plays alongside Kevin Durant, a three-time scoring champ, and James Harden, the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year.
In the eyes of many, Westbrook simply can't win.
Except, the Thunder do...when Westbrook does what he does best.
Score, that is. However you slice it, OKC is better when Westy is putting the ball through the hoop. According to Hoops Stats, including in the playoffs, the Thunder were 21-7 last season when Russell scored at least 28 points, 34-11 when he converted nine or more field goals, 50-17 when he attempted no fewer than four free throws and 27-8 when he made six or more.
All of which is to say, when Russ is aggressive on the offensive end, the Thunder win far more often than not.
Of course, there's something to be said of Westbrook's role as the de facto point guard on the team. OKC compiled a merely passable mark of 19-13 when Russ racked up fewer than five assists.
Even though Westbrook's assist rate cratered last season—to an off-guard-like 21.5 percent of his possessions used—he still managed to dish out a respectable 5.6 helpers per night. Then again, despite the drop-off in dimes, Westbrook remained startlingly mistake-prone, averaging 3.6 turnovers against 5.5 assists.
In Russ' defense (and more to the point), by no means is he the sort of pure point guard that traditionalists might expect him to be in OKC's lineup. Yes, Westbrook can distribute the ball effectively when called upon—he averaged better than eight assists per game during the two seasons prior to the lockout.
But to pigeonhole Westbrook at the point is to squander his talents as a scorer. He's always been more of a scoring point guard, if not an outright combo guard, ever since his days as a collegian at UCLA.
After all, it's not exactly the norm for a "pure point" to finish fifth in the league in scoring, as Westbrook did last season when posted 23.6 points per game.
That's not to suggest that Westbrook isn't still one of the best at his position, but rather that the comparisons need to be reframed. Russ will never be a steady, pass-first visionary like Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo or Steve Nash.
If anything, Westbrook is more accurately measured against a healthy Derrick Rose. Like the former MVP, Westbrook is a strong, explosive athlete who's at his best when his physical abilities are fully "unleashed."
That is, when he's given free reign to attack the basket at will and humiliate those who'd deign to impede his progress.
Westbrook may not be as natural or as frequent a facilitator as Rose is, but his mid-range game is far superior. Compare their careers so far head-to-head, and you'll find that Rose has been only a slightly more efficient shooter and scorer, while Westbrook is the better rebounder and thief, with nearly identical assist, usage rate and PER numbers between them.
The biggest difference between the two? Perception. Rose is praised for dominating possession and filling up the scoring column because the Chicago Bulls need him to do just that if they're to win basketball games as presently designed. Westbrook, on the other hand, is often panned for his Rose-like qualities because of the notion out there that by playing like Derrick, he's detracting from the rest of OKC's "Big Three."
What do the Thunder need most from Russell Westbrook?
Frankly, though, the Thunder need Westbrook to play his game his way if they're to maintain top-dog status in the Western Conference. Westbrook, Durant and Harden are all scoring savants, but the gap in such ability between those three and the rest of OKC's roster is immense. In fact, they were the only three Thunder players to average 10 or more points per game last season.
The next best, Serge Ibaka, checked in at 9.1 points, though he'd hardly be considered a consistent scoring threat. Sure, he can throw down the occasional dunk and pop out to 18 feet, but those are hardly Ibaka's best strengths as a player.
Beyond Ibaka, nobody in OKC contributed more than the 5.5 points per game posted by Daequan Cook. Thabo Sefolosha was the team's most accurate three-point shooter, at 43.7 percent, but only attempted 1.7 of them on a nightly basis.
Take Westbrook's production out of the equation, and the scoring burden shifts ever more onerously onto the shoulders of Durant and Harden.
Not that those two couldn't handle it, but rather that doing so would likely exact a severe toll on OKC's prospects of contention.
Which is precisely why the Thunder need Westbrook to be a destructive force on the offensive end, and are willing to take the bad with the tremendous good he does. When Westbrook scores, they usually win. When he doesn't, they usually lose.
Simple as that, and, hopefully, simple enough for Skip Bayless and talking heads of his ilk to comprehend.
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