Russell Westbrook has always been an awful three-point shooter, and it’s no different this year. Of course, his shot selection directly impacts the Thunder’s success.
Russell Westbrook is in his 10th NBA campaign, and only once has he posted a three-point percentage above 34. That came last season. He finished at 34.3 percent. Including this year, Westbrook’s career clip from downtown is 31.2 percent, which is the third-lowest mark in NBA history among players who have attempted at least 2,000 triples. The guys below him are Charles Barkley (26.6), Jerry Stackhouse (30.9) and Lamar Odom (31.2).
When gauging Westbrook’s numbers in their totality, it’s easy to brush off that meager percentage because the three-ball isn’t a huge part of his game; according to Basketball Reference, just 18.9 percent of his career shots come from downtown. That, however, has changed dramatically in recent seasons. Since 2015-16, that metric has risen to 26.5 percent, but nothing good has come of it. He’s attempting more threes, but the clip is faintly better — we’re talking 1.8 percentage points (32.2 compared to 30.4).
A Spanish proverb states that “a wise man changes his mind, a fool never will.” That ancient saying is directly related to Westbrook, who manages to be both the wise man and the fool depending on what day it is. The Oklahoma City Thunder have been the NBA’s most inconsistent star-studded team. They’re 21-17 at the time of this writing. On multiple occasions, a winning streak has followed a losing streak and vice versa. It’s fascinating to look at their talent and see them struggle before figuring something out.
Carmelo Anthony and Paul George were acquired this summer for very little. Sam Presti’s wizardry was praised throughout the offseason. He managed to flip a few role players for a potential All-Star and a star scorer (at times). More importantly, these moves signaled the end of the Russell Westbrook show, which was the headlining event last year where he gobbled up stats and blazed a trail through opponents without Kevin Durant. The team performed as well as we expected.
Now, Westbrook has two players that are OK with being complementary. No longer will there be a struggle between two alphas. The hierarchy is simple: Westbrook, George, Anthony.
The Thunder had gotten used to Westbrook taking a majority of the shots. Even with Durant, the reigning MVP found a way to get 17 to 22 attempts a night, and that was fine because Russ had a reliable outlet in Durant who needed fewer chances to produce more points. Compared to last year, Westbrook isn’t taking as many triples, but there are still times when he goes rogue and starts hoisting up head-scratching shots. And the Thunder are worse because of it.
There have been nine games thus far that Westbrook has launched eight or more triples. Oklahoma City is 3-6 in those contests because the ball hog emerges. Russ takes ill-advised jumpers like multivitamins. On those nights, it’s normal to see him shoot nine triples without second-guessing himself, and they fall at a rate of 29.3 percent. Furthermore, he begins taking shots from everywhere, thus putting everyone out of rhythm.
You’ll notice that the team’s winning percentage begins to increase when the shot selection is improved. So much so that the Thunder are 13-3 when Russell Westbrook limits himself to three or fewer threes. And 11 of those 16 games have come since the start of December. It’s not a coincidence that Russ is currently playing his best ball of the season. When he doesn’t try to do too much, Oklahoma City can compete with anybody. They’ve played 18 games since the start of last month and are 13-5. Westbrook is now the wise man.
The severe uptick of bombs during his MVP campaign came because Russ had to fuel the entire offense. His team finished dead-last in three-point shooting. It was a constant case of taking the lesser of two evils. Things are different now. Collectively, the Thunder connect on 35.6 percent of their threes, good for 18th in the league. George and Anthony are shooting 43 and 36.7 percent from downtown on the year, respectively, giving Russ the safety nets that he needs. No one expects him to force the ball to his teammates, and the offense is noticeably better when the shots come organically.
“I think the fact that Russ is just playing — not trying to defer to anybody, to any one of us — just playing his game and letting us play off him,” said Anthony back on Dec. 28, according to ESPN. “I think he’s much more effective by doing that rather than deferring to myself or Paul (George).
“We know what we bring to the game. We understand it. We accept it. And by that, [Westbrook’s] able to just play his game, relax and do what he does best. We need that. We need that Russ out there. Not the one who defers to us. Let us figure it out.”
Westbrook is at his best when doing one of two things — attacking the basket or shooting mid-range jumpers. Analytics will always persuade players from in-between looks, but a coach should never try and change one of his stars completely. (It didn’t work when Gregg Popovich did it with LaMarcus Aldridge. That’s all the evidence you need.) Over the last 15 games, Russ has begun supplementing his triples with shots he knows he can make.
According to the data on NBA.com, Westbrook is shooting 64-of-139 on mid-range shots, and 106 of those looks have been pull-up twos. He’s made 46. The second type isn’t as efficient as the first, but 43.3 percent is more than serviceable.
Defenders have a particularly hard time contesting those attempts because they’re already sagging off of him. Upon reading the scouting report, the man who draws that assignment knows Westbrook isn’t a threat from three, so they give themselves a little more than an arm’s length buffer to prevent getting blown by. Russ, someone who thrives going downhill, hits his man with a slight hesitation after a dribble or two inside the three-point line.
The defender must respect his ability to get to the basket. Because of that, he begins backpedaling, and Westbrook catches him on his heels. He also has excellent elevation on his jumper, so it’s difficult for the person guarding him to get back into the play and challenge the shot without being late.
As the Oklahoma City Thunder look to gain some momentum, watch Russell Westbrook’s shot selection. His right arm carries much weight. If he continues to be the wise man, the Thunder’s offense will be able to consistently fire on all cylinders because he’s straying away from the three and letting more accurate shooters make up the bulk of the attempts. Westbrook will then be able to take (and make) the shots in which he’s most confident.
Stats are current as of games finished on Jan. 3. All data is from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.
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