The Unconventional Russell Westbrook

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The Unconventional Russell Westbrook
Brett Deering/Getty Images
Russell Westbrook

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James might be the two most polarizing individuals in the NBA today. Depending on the day of the week, one of them is either the best player in the league or second best.

In addition, depending on one particular game to the next, they are either overrated in crunch time, bad or good, but not Kevin Durant-level good.

Bryant and James invite a specific level of scrutiny with respect to their overall talents for a multitude of reasons, none of which seem to be completely logical.

It’s important to note that some players tend to face a lot of criticism simply because they are unconventional.

Different is peculiar.

Kobe Bryant loves to shoot the heck out of the basketball and is perfectly fine with telling you that he will continue to do so and that the Lakers will win games based on his philosophy. This may irk fans simply because many of them have been taught to share the ball, involve teammates and completely take over when the situation calls for it.

Some would call that the Michael Jordan complex.

LeBron James won the MVP award in the spring of 2010 with the Cleveland Cavaliers and then left the team on national television, in what has been dubbed the Decision, to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to play with the Miami Heat.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images
LeBron James on The Decision

The Decision, coupled with the Heat pep rally turned the Chosen One into a villain who many rooted toward failure. On the path of hatred for the league’s best player, many marginalized his talent, questioned his character as well as his toughness. It was said that he lacked the intestinal fortitude to be a superstar, given that he left Cleveland to play with another superstar.

Some still share that opinion despite the fact he just led the Miami Heat to the 2012 championship crown. And truly if we dig deep, much like Kobe, the problem that many had and that some still have with LeBron is that he took a route completely different to that of his basketball predecessors.

Fast-forward to now, and this leads us to Russell Westbrook.

The former Bruin was a shooting guard in college, and when he joined the professional ranks, he was asked to change his game and become a point guard. In this respect, Westbrook is a bit of an oddity because for the most part, playing point guard is almost a birthright.

The best floor generals in league history have not only had the talent to make every single pass in the book, but also ability to anticipate rotations and defensive strategies to take advantage of them.

An argument could be made that the UCLA product came into the Association possessing neither skill.

Thus, he had to work at developing them and has done a masterful job doing so. And yet, he is still not what a basketball purist would define as a great point guard, regardless of the accolades he has already received.

The two biggest knocks on Westbrook are that he shoots the ball far too much to be a lead guard, and snatches big moments away from the guy who was built for them, in his teammate Kevin Durant.

The criticism on Westbrook’s shot attempts is somewhat valid. The issue isn’t necessarily the volume itself, but rather the shot selection. For good measure, have a look at the career field-goal attempts of quite possibly the two best point guards in NBA history and how they stack up with the Thunder guard:

Player

Career FGA per Game

Magic Johnson

13.2

Oscar Robertson

18.9

Russell Westbrook

15.9

 

This isn’t to suggest that Westbrook is on the same level as these greats, but rather that his shot attempts fall right in between the two Hall of Famers. However, if we concentrate on his numbers this season, what stands out is that he is taking a few more shots per game than KD; a big no-no for several fans and experts.

Mind you, it’s worth noting that Oklahoma City’s point guard has actually reduced his usage rate (percentage of a team’s possessions a player uses) from last season, all the while increasing his assist rate.

Also, Durant has reduced his amount of field-goal attempts in favor of improving his assist rate to also help teammates get easy scoring opportunities with James Harden no longer being on the team to help them on this front.

Pool/Getty Images
Westbrook attacks rim in 2012 Western Conference Finals.

Thus, the amount of shots that Westbrook takes isn’t truly problematic, but the quality is.

Indeed, the two-time All-Star is only converting 42.3 percent of his shots from the field, which is a direct result of his recklessness with the ball. The Thunder’s second-leading scorer loves to drive and get into the lane, but isn’t always patient. Instead, he likes to force the issue with his speed and superb athleticism, and throw himself into the pack of big men waiting for him at the rim.

Russell Westbrook is talented and athletic enough to finish under these circumstances, but it’s not exactly a prudent approach either.

According to Hoopdata, Westbrook converts 57.5 percent of his shots at the rim, which is an extremely poor conversion rate for a player of his skill. Have a look at the conversion rate of some of the other point guards in the league (per Hoopdata):

Player

FG% at rim

Mike Conley

.623

Kyrie Irving

.611

Tony Parker

.641

Chris Paul

.714

Rajon Rondo

.641

Russell Westbrook

.575

Deron Williams

.701

The one trait that all of the players on the list above have learned, Russell Westbrook notwithstanding, is that patience is important when entering the lane. Westbrook either gets into the paint with a bang or a dud, with no in between.

He is still, nonetheless, productive in terms of his scoring, and is a constant threat to hurt opponents.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook

The second issue where Westbrook is a lightning rod for criticism is his “theft” of crunch-time shots from his superstar teammate. There have been instances throughout his career where the guard has hijacked the Thunder offense and called his number a little too often down the stretch of games despite having the most lethal scoring machine in the NBA on his team.

But for whatever reason, the instances where this has happened has been extrapolated to levels that could potentially lead one to believe he is the biggest fourth-quarter ball hog in NBA history.

The statistics paint a different picture on this front, though.

According to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, Kevin Durant is second this season in total clutch scoring (clutch is defined as the last five minutes of the game with the scoring margin within five points) with 42 points on 11-of-20 field-goal shooting.

NBA.com also tells us that the UCLA product has scored 28 points on 6-of-21 field-goal shooting in the same situation. This speaks a little to the first issue with Westbrook; the quality versus quantity debate if you will.

Kevin Durant has had multiple touches down the stretch of games and has found ways to beautifully maximize them with his crisp ball handling and silky jumper. His teammate, on the other hand, as taken some much tougher shots, which have resulted in multiple misses.

Granted, it’s important to bring context into the equation.

For the most part, Westbrook looks to run the offense and get the ball to KD in the half court late in games, but there are times when defenders latch on to Durant and defend him quite physically and do not allow him to break free to catch the ball. In these situations, the Thunder point guard ends up endlessly pounding the ball and waiting for the play to unfold as the shot clock ticks down and then ends up having to take a tough shot.

It’s important to note, though, that the former Bruin will occasionally take a tough jumper early in a possession late in games, and those few awful attempts tend to stick out and become the so-called evidence in the statement that the mercurial guard hijacks the offense.

And really, these issues are what make Westbrook such a beloved and at the same time vilified player.

Because he is such an unconventional point guard, it’s awfully easy throw a lot of the blame onto his shoulders when the team under-performs, and then give all of the praise to his teammate when the team is successful.

Had Westbrook been a shooting guard, most would probably have been perfectly fine with his style of play and embraced it more than anything.

Sound ludicrous?

How is it that everyone was fine with Allen Iverson pulling off the “Westbrook” when he played with Carmelo Anthony then?

Ah yes, unconventional wisdom.

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