Does Russell Westbrook Have to Change for OKC Thunder to Reach the Ceiling?
Russell Westbrook is just fine the way he is.
Would we like to see him hit the three-ball a little more consistently or become more accurate from the field in general? Of course, but for all he does, a 40.1 percent conversion rate is something we can live with.
Strike that, it's something we should live with.
Last season, I watched and listened as pundits such as Skip Bayless chastised Westbrook for his style of play.
To some degree, I understood where his critics were coming from. He toiled with the reality of attempting more shots than star forward Kevin Durant, and such stylings were not indicative of a conventional point guard.
Westbrook needed to pass more. He needed to make a bigger impact without shooting as much. He needed to change.
Nearly halfway through the first James Harden-less season the Oklahoma City Thunder have experienced in three years, one thing has become clear: Westbrook hasn't changed. He's evolved, yes, but he hasn't compromised his tactical ideals.
Nor should he.
Because he's improved the Thunder—he's made a difference playing his genre of basketball.
Westbrook is still an attack-first point guard. He's still at his best when he drives toward the basket with reckless abandon; he's still most comfortable with the ball in his hands.
The difference between last season and this one, though? He's more aware of his skill set and his surroundings.
Once Harden departed for the Houston Rockets, the negative stigma surrounding Westbrook doubled in strength.
How were the Thunder supposed to survive without their best playmaker? How were they supposed to win basketball games with Westbrook running the show? How was Durant supposed to succeed alongside a trigger-happy point guard?
That wasn't even half of it. Westbrook's reputation as a scorer continued to precede him. Without Harden to bail him out, Oklahoma City was in trouble.
Or so some thought.
Westbrook has responded to Harden's absence with a career season. He's scoring 21.4 points per game, but he's also posting career highs in assists (8.6), rebounds (5.1) and steals (2.1). His 40.1 percent shooting is the second worst of his career, but he is converting on a passable 34.8 percent of his treys, another career best.
His improvements haven't stopped there either.
The point guard is committing just 13.9 turnovers per 100 possessions—yet another career high—and is assisting on 42.1 percent of his team's field goals when on the floor, which is fifth best in the league among point guards who average at least 20 minutes per game.
Defensively, the Thunder's floor general has taken great strides as well, to the point where head coach Scott Brooks believes he's in line for All-Defensive honors.
He's holding opposing point guards to a PER of 14.9, down from the 15.7 his adversaries tallied last season. The result is a point guard who has never been more valuable to his team.
Sure, the individual numbers are impressive, but the effect he's had on his team is even more awe-inspiring.
With Westbrook on the floor, Oklahoma City is scoring at a rate of 113.9 points per 100 possessions. This mark falls to 110.9 once he's off.
The Thunder's defense is also allowing 102.8 points per 100 possessions with him in the lineup, a number that increases to 105.7 upon his departure.
I think Russ deserves a lot of credit. He's really locked in. He's getting everybody involved and we just keep building. He's kind of been the catalyst for (success).
I think his decision-making has been better. And I think he's really understanding the tempo of the game, like when we need to run a play and when he need to push it and try to create something himself. And then defensively he's been a lot better. He's just more locked in.
The operative word here is "catalyst." Westbrook hasn't stalled the offense or disrupted its flow—he's created it.
Why would we want that to change? Why would the Thunder want him to change?
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I understand that he's taking more shots a game (18.4) than Durant (17.4), but he is still taking fewer shots than last season all the same. His assists-to-turnover ratio (2.51) has never been higher either.
Plus, we must not neglect to acknowledge what Durant (via Mayberry ) offered to the Westbrook naysayers less than a year ago:
We’re worse when I take more shots. Like I said, that guy doesn’t know a thing. I don’t think he watches us. I think he just looks at the stats. And traditionally, a point guard is not supposed to take more shots than everybody else on the team. But we’re better when he does do that and he’s aggressive. And I’m better when I’m out there facilitating, rebounding, defending and being more efficient on my shots with less shots.
Yes, Westbrook lost his cool in a heartbreaking loss to the Miami Heat, but I personally admire such frustration. If anything, it's a sign of his commitment.
Westbrook was irate that he had just missed a game-tying three. He was beside himself for shooting 26.3 percent from the field and dishing out a meager three assists.
But where he was agitated, I was encouraged.
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That game against Miami marked just the second time he dished out fewer than five assists this season. It also marked the second straight game in which he grabbed 11 rebounds. And it was the fifth time all season he attempted more than 10 free throws.
Is Russell Westbrook holding the Thunder back?
I know the Thunder lost, but they still possess the second-best record in the NBA. Westbrook is still the only player in the league averaging at least 20 points, eight assists, five rebounds and two steals per game. He's the only player in the top 10 for points, steals and assists per game as well.
Most importantly, he is still a huge part of the reason why Oklahoma City has proved to be a better team without Harden.
So, should Westbrook change?
The Thunder are one of the best—if not the best—teams in the Association, a state of existence they've achieved not in spite of him, but because of him.
Just ask Kevin Durant.
*All stats in this article are accurate as of Dec. 25, 2012.
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