Russell Westbrook Is a Man Without a Plan

His fiery competitiveness has made him into one of the NBA's true superstars, but after another playoff flameout, it's clear the eight-time All-Star's unwillingness to adapt is hurting OKC and his legacy.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterApril 24, 2019

The snapshots and GIFs and viral videos all captured some version of the same joyful scene Tuesday night: Damian Lillard, master of clutch time, connecting from 37 feet as the final buzzer sounded. Lillard, wryly waving buh-bye to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lillard, mobbed by teammates and grinning.

Beyond the happy mayhem, in the distant background, another star silently strode away, shoulders slumped, never looking up.

If Lillard was a portrait of dynamism and precision and triumph, Russell Westbrook was his polar opposite—a picture of despair.

Both men earned their fate.

With a 50-point game and a buzzer-beater for the ages, Lillard powered the Portland Trail Blazers to a thrilling closeout victory and a trip to the Western Conference semis.

With his ghastly marksmanship and a fitful final stretch, Westbrook dragged the Thunder to another horrific first-round collapse.

His shooting line in Game 5: 31 shots, 11 makes. His totals for the series: 111 shots, 40 makes.

It's been three years since Kevin Durant severed his partnership with Westbrook and fled to Oakland. In that time, Westbrook has set fire to the record books, made triple-doubles routine, claimed a Most Valuable Player award and accomplished virtually nothing for his franchise.

The Thunder have yet to crack 50 wins in the Westbrook eranot even this season, with Paul George making his own MVP run. The Thunder have yet to win a playoff series in the Westbrook era. Their postseason record: 4-12.

"He's a transcendent player," a veteran Western Conference executive said, "but I'm not convinced he's a transcendent winner."

The failures are not Westbrook's alone, of course. The Thunder need more shooting, more depth. But what they need most is a franchise star who is willing to confront his shortcomings and adapt, and Westbrook has long resisted any such self-awareness.

"Now I do what I want," Westbrook sang after Durant left town, and so he hasshooting as much as he wants, from wherever he wants, results be damned.

Westbrook shot 29 percent on three-pointers this season—poor even by his standards—and yet he attempted 411 of them, the 40th-highest total in the league. Westbrook is among the league's most lethal rim attackers, and yet he keeps launching deep twos in transition and pull-up 26-footers in crunch time.

"When I've watched Russ play, I'm wowed at the effort and the energy that he puts into the game," said former NBA center Brendan Haywood, now an analyst for NBA Radio and NBA TV. "But I think there's another step, there's another layer that he needs to get to, and that is thinking the gameunderstanding that it's not just 'Go hard, play aggressive, play with a chip on my shoulder.' Sometimes you have to understand the defense and the game plan and attack the game a little bit differently. And I don't think that he's gotten that down just yet."

Though he only connected on 29 percent from beyond the three-point arc this season, that didn't stop Russell Westbrook from firing almost six three-point attempts per game.
Though he only connected on 29 percent from beyond the three-point arc this season, that didn't stop Russell Westbrook from firing almost six three-point attempts per game.Zach Beeker/Getty Images

Of the 30 players who averaged at least 20 points per game this season, Westbrook ranked dead last in effective field-goal percentage, at 46.8. Widen the field to players with at least 15 points per game, and he's 69th of 70 players, sandwiched between Dennis Schroder and Andrew Wiggins, and behind such scoring legends as Jordan Clarkson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jeremy Lamb.

For all his ferocity and pyrotechnics, Westbrook is a drag on his team's offense. The Thunder ranked 17th in offensive efficiency this season, despite having two of the league's top 15 players.

And now they're out of the playoffs, losing to a Blazers team with less star power and without its starting center. Before the series, 19 of 20 ESPN analysts predicted the Thunder would win the series. Instead, they were dispatched in a gentlemen's sweep.

"Clearly underperforming," an Eastern Conference team official said of the Thunder, citing the talent of Westbrook and George. "That alone should be enough to get out of the first round, and it's not happening."

No, it's not all on Westbrook. But every glitch in his game was on display Tuesday night. After playing a measured (and effective) game early on, setting up teammates and fueling an early Thunder lead, Westbrook reverted to old, bad habits. OKC blew a 15-point lead in the final eight minutes, with Westbrook misfiring from 19 and 21 feet, forcing tough shots in the paint and throwing the ball away on a critical late possession. Just as Lillard's mesmerizing buzzer-beater symbolized his night, so, too, did Westbrook's final play: a wild, barreling layup attempt that clanged off the rim with 18 seconds left.

"There's a difference between playing hard and playing to win," Haywood said. "I think that's the difference right now between Russ and Dame."

Survey scouts and analysts and former players, and the advice for Westbrook is generally the same: Either refine your jumper, or stop firing so many deep shots. Shoot less, pass more. Westbrook can collapse a defense anytime he wants to, which should provide plenty of open looks for teammates.

Westbrook's confidence and passion are admirable, but those qualities quickly bleed into overconfidence.

"I think that Russell has to take a step back," Charles Barkley said on the TNT broadcast late Tuesday. "He's always going 100 percent speed all the time."

To his credit, Westbrook dialed down his usage rate this season (to 30.1 from 32.5 last season) and gave more of the floor to George. But he still shoots at a rate that far exceeds his actual ability to convert. The Blazers defense repeatedly played off Westbrook, daring him to shoot, as if he were Tony Allen.

For a time, Westbrook's fierce charisma and passion charmed the world. But with every passing season and every premature playoff exit, his flaws become more pronouncedand the list of detractors grows.

"I wouldn't want to coach Russell Westbrook," ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, a former college coach, said on Tuesday's edition of Get Up. "As exciting, as tough, as physical, as competitive as he is, in the end, is he a winning player? … Can you win with a guy dominating the ball like that all the time?"

Even satirical news sites are crushing him now. "Dedicated Russell Westbrook Stays Late After Practice to Miss 100 Extra Shots," The Onion wrote this week.

Westbrook wove his stardom out of his athletic gifts, and it's possible those gifts are eroding. His free-throw ratea ratio of free throws per field-goal attemptdipped to a career-low 30.6 percent this season. He drew fewer fouls. He attacked less. His field-goal and free-throw percentages were down.

Given his age (30), his punishing style of play and his 11 seasons of heavy minutes, it's likely Westbrook is already past his peak.

Though Westbrook has averaged a triple-double in the three seasons since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, the Thunder have yet to win more than 49 games  in any of those years.
Though Westbrook has averaged a triple-double in the three seasons since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, the Thunder have yet to win more than 49 games in any of those years.Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

"There's no debate," the analytics director for an Eastern Conference team said. "You just look at what his metrics are this year versus the past, and where his age is and the amount of minutes and style of play, and there's no debate."

Players who rely solely on athleticism often age poorly, with no broader skill setshooting, playmaking, defenseto fall back on.

It all leaves Westbrook with a clear, almost-Darwinian choice: adapt or (metaphorically) die.

Three years ago, Durant fled town and Westbrook got everything he wanted: total control of the offense and the Thunder franchise. "Now I do what I want," he sang. Maybe it's time to do something different.

     

Howard Beck, a senior writer for Bleacher Report, has been covering the NBA full time since 1997, including seven years on the Lakers beat for the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as a staff writer for the New York Times. His coverage was honored by APSE in 2016 and 2017.

 Beck also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes.

 Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.

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