Russell Westbrook's Versatility Proves He's at Top of Young PG Class
Among the best young point guards in the NBA, including Rajon Rondo, Stephen Curry, John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday, Russell Westbrook is standing out as the best so far this season, despite the fact that he doesn't average a jaw-dropping number of assists.
What a lot of people don't realize is that just one NBA Champion since 1988 has had a point guard average at least nine assists—Isiah Thomas in 1990.
The last time a championship team had a point guard average double-digit assists in a season was Magic Johnson with the 1988 Los Angeles Lakers.
That's right, the mighty Rajon Rondo, with the super-long double-digit assist streak, averaged only 5.1 assists a game when the Boston Celtics won the NBA Championship back in 2008.
I'll put it out there straight-up; huge assist numbers are overrated.
So, unless you've got a once-in-a-generation point guard who is built like a power forward like Magic Johnson or a guy not afraid of punching opponents in the stomach while dishing out assists like Isiah Thomas, then you've got a better chance of relying on a point-by-committee approach that has been used by the best teams for the past quarter-century.
If you're looking to win an NBA Championship with a young point guard this year, your best option, and the best player you could pick, would be Russell Westbrook.
Derrick Rose might prove an equal argument, and I'm not ready to rule out Kyrie Irving, but both of those guys are hurt, so for the time being we've got Westbrook.
Let's take a look at what Westbrook has been able to do this season.
First of all, he's the second-highest scoring point guard with 20.7 points per game, right behind Kyrie Irving.
He's right above that eight-assist mark, averaging 8.7 dimes early on in the season, he picks up two steals a game and he plays terrific on-ball defense. Hell, he even rebounds well, averaging 5.1 boards per game.
There are plenty of knocks on Westbrook. He's got eyes for the rim a bit too much, he tends to shoot a low percentage, he needs to learn to defer to Kevin Durant a bit more often and he needs to stay away from chucking at times.
However, for every complaint, there's an equal and opposite compliment. Westbrook is not afraid to take a big shot, and miss it or make it he's going to own up to it after the game. And as Zach Lowe tells us, there's more value in chuckers than we care to accept.
Now that he's not competing with James Harden at the point guard spot, Westbrook has stepped up in a big way.
He's doing a better job of controlling the game, and while his field-goal percentage is down a notch (just 42 percent), he's shooting a much better clip from the three-point line (35 percent compared to 32 percent last season) and taking fewer shots in general.
Instead of settling for mid-range jumpers, he's doing a better job of getting to the rim, or finding himself open along the three-point line and taking a jumper from the elbow, rather than just inside the line after dribbling the shot clock down.
His shot chart shows a huge difference in the way he's playing. Just 34 percent of his shots came at the rim last season, compared to 38.4 this season. His biggest change in shot selection, however, is from just outside the paint. Just 27.6 percent of his shots are mid-range jumpers, compared to 34.8 percent in 2012.
What he's done this season is play in a way that has been most beneficial for his team, deferring to Serge Ibaka in the post, who is shooting an amazing 59 percent, along with Thabo Sefolosha and Kevin Martin, all of whom have made the Oklahoma City Thunder the best team in the NBA.
The old problems still remain; Westbrook wants to be the hero at the end of games, but even that has better results than we would expect.
In the end, at least Westbrook is playing an over-aggressive role at the end of games because he seems to genuinely want to win for his team, rather than needlessly chasing self-satisfying statistics.
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