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Russell Westbrook Will Never Be the Same Without James Harden

Nov 8, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket past Chicago Bulls small forward Luol Deng (9) during the second half at the United Center. The Thunder beat the Bulls 97-91.  Mandatory Credit: Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE
Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE
Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 9, 2012

James Harden's departure changed everything for the Oklahoma City Thunder—Russell Westbrook included.

It's not that Westbrook isn't an explosive talent without Harden, because he is. However, without his backcourt sidekick, he isn't the same kind of player.

In a bad way.

Though the shoot-first, find Kevin Durant later point guard has never been a well of efficiency—especially from behind the arc—his displays were more than passable.

Alongside Harden, that is.

In the three years Westbrook played next to the bearded wonder, he averaged 20.5 points per game on 43.9 percent shooting from the floor. He reached his peak last season, though, putting up 23.6 points per bout on a career-best 45.7 percent shooting.

Delve even deeper and you'll see that Westbrook's success as a scorer alongside Harden is no mere coincidence.

Last season, of the 20 five-man units that Westbrook performed best in, Harden was in 15 of them. During the times Harden was on the floor, the point guard posted an effective shooting percentage of 48.5, slightly higher than the 48.1 he posted on the season, and significantly higher than the 47.1 he posted without Harden on the floor.

Clearly, the numbers are there to support that Westbrook was most successful with Harden by his side. 

That said, life with Harden was almost all Westbrook knew. Westbrook was drafted just one year prior to Harden, so three out of his four seasons in the NBA were spent running next to his undervalued teammate.

Which brings us to this season. 

This is the first year Westbrook is operating as a superstar without Harden, and the impact his absence has had is staggering.

On the one hand, Westbrook is averaging more assists per game than last season—he's at eight per contest, up from 5.5 last year. On the other hand, though, he has averaged eight or more assists per game alongside Harden twice, so this is really nothing new.

What is brand spanking new, however, is Westbrook's near-inability to be a dominant scorer. He's averaging 19.1 points per bout, but that comes on just 37.1 percent shooting—a career low.

After three consecutive years of improving his accuracy from the field—years that were spent alongside Harden—Westbrook appears to have regressed as a scorer.

Without Harden, the team's most efficient passer, the point guard is now forced to create more—not only for himself, but also for the entire team. 

Sure, Westbrook's assists-to-turnover ratio is at a career-best 3.08, but he hasn't been this underwhelming of a scorer since his rookie season, when he shot just 39.8 percent from the field.

Not-so-oddly enough, that was also the last time Harden wasn't a part of his offensive crew.

And while we could easily chalk his inaugural numbers up to rookie struggles, what are we to chalk this season's struggles up to?

Westbrook is fresh off an Olympics appearance, fresh off his second All-Star selection, fresh off a season where he set a career high in both field-goal attempts and shooting percentage.

Yet now, although he is on pace to set another career high in shot attempts, he has never shot worse, never rebounded less and never defended as poorly.

Are we to chalk those trials and tribulations up to the fifth-year wall?

Absolutely not.

That's not how it works. 

Westbrook's rise to prominence was fueled, in part, by Harden. He allowed Westbrook to make scoring his primary focus when he was on the floor. Without him, though, the Thunder's point man is being asked to lead the offense more while scoring just as much.

As we've seen early on, though, that may be too steep a request. Already, the added burden has negatively impacted every area of his game.

Except for passing.

Yes, passing.

The job that was once Harden's; the responsibility Westbrook hasn't primarily had to shoulder in three years.

But now, he does. The ball is now in his hands, and there's no one else—save for Durant—to help ensure he gets his and to ensure he's on the end of a perfectly placed pass.

So of course, Westbrook won't be the same without Harden.

His absence forcibly changes the point guard's mindset—changes it to the point where Westbrook doesn't merely need to adjust to life without Harden, but evolve as a direct result of it.

So no, he isn't going to be the same player we saw last season.

Without Harden, he can't.

 

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