Who is Russell Westbrook?
The good, the bad, and the ugly – all of which you can expect to get from Russell Westbrook. The six-foot-three guard out of UCLA can be described in so many different ways, that he is almost indescribable. If one was to even attempt describing this whirl-wind of an athlete they would likely begin with terms such as phenomenal, record-breaking, explosive, driven, frantic, arrogant, relentless, unmanageable, and most of all unpredictable. Like I said, the good, the bad, and the ugly all at once.
Russell Westbrook — Face of the Franchise
It has been three years since the previous face of the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, the all-time great co-star and teammate of Russell Westbrook left the Thunder. In a move that shook the foundation of the National Basketball Association, Kevin Durant decided to pack his bags and leave the Thunder for the team that had just beaten him and Russell Westbrook only Thirty-four days prior to his decision. He did what almost no one anticipated and joined the Golden State Warriors, a team who had just beaten him and his teammate of nine years, leaving Russell Westbrook alone to be the leader of the pack in Oklahoma City. Critics ridiculed Kevin’s move as it showed a great lack of competitive fire, however, the critiques on Russell Westbrook had also spiked, following Durant’s decision. Many fans and analysts across the NBA world questioned heavily if Kevin Durant left because of Russell Westbrook and his unmanageable play style, and even more questioned if Westbrook was capable of winning on his own. With all the negative remarks and attacks on Westbrook’s game, coupled with the fact that his great friend, and career-long teammate had just joined forces with the “enemy”, Russell Westbrook accepted his role as the new leader of the franchise and was more driven than ever before.
In the season immediately following Durant’s departure, Russell Westbrook performed what any sane group of NBA fans would deem as something that would never happen again. He averaged a season-long triple-double, an accomplishment that had not been done since the great Oscar Robertson had done it in the 1961-62 NBA season. Not only did Westbrook achieve something that seemed so out of the realm of possibility for this generation of NBA fans, but he has since done it two more times, all of which consecutively accomplished in the three straight seasons since Kevin Durant left. The erratic Westbrook has proved to all the doubters that he is ferocious beyond limits, as he has won a scoring title, and an MVP since becoming the face of the OKC franchise in 2016. Three straight seasons of averaging a triple double, three straight season of sheer excellence, and three straight seasons of being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, the last segment is the most focused on, and rightfully so. It is truly incredible how Russell Westbrook has silenced almost every critique pointed at his game in the last three years, however there is one doubt-filled question that cannot be erased. Will Russell Westbrook ever win a championship?
Three Years — Three First Round Exits
We would like to think that for a player that produces unprecedented numbers, and plays with unforeseen passion and a relentless level of energy, the answer to this question would be yes. However, since Kevin Durant left, Russell Westbrook accompanied by his new superstar partner, Paul George, had only won an average of forty-eight games per season, a tally that is noticeably down from the fifty three win pace that a Kevin-Durant lead Thunder franchise enjoyed for the last seven years of his tenure there. With Kevin being the undeniably best player on the Thunder roster, the team had made it once to the Western conference second round, three times to the Western Conference Finals, and even one historic run to the NBA finals. Fast forward to 2016, where Russell Westbrook has now become the leader, and face of the OKC Thunder, and the thunder have had very different results, as they have yet to even make it past the first round of the NBA playoffs, since Durant’s departure. After each exit from the playoffs, the question of Russell Westbrook being able to win while being the leader of a team seems to gloom heavier and heavier, and the answer is simple – he can’t.
Historic Numbers — Disappointing Results
Russell Westbrook, an NBA MVP, a generational record-setting machine, a relentless force that can take over a game with the likes of only NBA legends, is a once in a lifetime player, without a doubt. The only player to lead the NBA in scoring, win an MVP and average a triple double, all in one season is none other than the extraordinary Russell Westbrook. He is the only player in history capable of sustaining a triple double average for three consecutive seasons, as well as the only player in NBA history to record ten consecutive triple doubles in ten straight games. He is a talent capable of taking over the game in more ways than possibly any other player in the history of basketball. He is tied for most points all time in an NBA finals fourth quarter, where taking over a game not only matters the most, but also becomes the most difficult yet impressive. He holds a spot on the list of top ten all time for total assists in any basketball game ever, at 24 assists. He has the highest rebounds per game average amongst any guard in the last decade. Simply put, Russell Westbrook can dominate a game in more ways than any other player we have ever seen, and the numbers are all there to prove this notion. However, as great of an anomaly Russell Westbrook may be, and throughout all of the criticism that he has put to rest, there is one critique that he has not and cannot silence, and that is the notion that he is incapable of leading a team to win an NBA championship.
The Leader Who Can’t Be Lead
It is both a blessing, and a curse to have Russell Westbrook as your starting point guard. He will be amongst the top three NBA leaders in assists per game, year in and year out, making the job of each of his teammates much easier. However, it is no secret that the hot-headed, temper flaring, loud-mouthed Russell Westbrook is simultaneously difficult to play with, and even more difficult to win with. He is a loose cannon, one that is simply unmanageable. He does whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and however he wants, and that is exactly the problem — no-one can tell him what to do, not even the coaching staff. The reasons Russell Westbrook will never win an NBA championship as the best player on the team are abundant, but can be narrowed down to three main factors; his decision making, his inefficiency, and his unwillingness to adapt his game to modern NBA needs.
Historical Inefficiency of Russell Westbrook
Approximately half way through the 2018-19 NBA season, reports surfaced proving that Russell Westbrook was in the midst of an all-time inefficient season in terms of scoring the basketball. In eleven seasons of playing, Westbrook has only managed to shoot above, or at the league average for field goal percentage twice, which is astonishingly rare for a player of his magnitude. Despite his poor efficiency from the field, Russ’ had maintained a competitively high PER (player efficiency rating) for the last eight NBA seasons. Inflated by a high quantity in both free throw attempts, and free throw makes, it is understandable that Westbrook’s PER would drop if either of these variables were affected. In Russ’ case, they were both altered. In the 2018-19 campaign, Russell shot a career worst percentage from the free throw line, and attempted less free throws this season than he has since 2009-10, his second season in the NBA. In addition to all this, Russell shot twenty-nine percent from three point territory, marking once again his worst percentage from that range since the 2009-10 season. The 2018-19 season proved to be Russel’s worst in terms of efficiency since that previously noted sophomore season, and in result, Westbrook held his lowest PER since the 2009-10 season. Unfortunately, while these poor percentages are amongst his worst, the extremely poor efficiency has been a theme of Russel’s career. Throughout his career, Westbrook has shot poorly from all areas considered to be a “jumpshot”, as the chart below details.
Distance of Attempt (ft.)
FG % by Attempt
Combine this career-long trend of astonishingly poor shooting, with his inability to make free-throws at an average rate amongst guards, along with his dropping three point percentages, and you create a player who can score, but only with volume, and gives you many more misses than he will be makes. Looking at these expected yet still surprisingly low efficiency metrics, it can be argued that Westbrook is a liability on offense, an attribute that doesn’t belong with a player that can be the leader of a championship team.
The Game is Half IQ & Russell is Missing That Half
Apart from Westbrook’s low scoring efficiency, Russell holds a very low Basketball IQ, measured by his poor decision making which shines brighter as the stage becomes bigger. There is no denying that Westbrook has hit many clutch shots in his career, especially since the departure of Kevin Durant. However, he has also cost the OKC Thunder countless games down the stretch due to his decision making. Whether it is an ill-advised deeply contested three, or a late game turnover while trying to force the ball into a packed lane, Russell cannot seem to make the right decision very often when it is most crucial. Take one random game, Thunder vs. Timber-wolves in January of 2019 as a classic example. In a match where Russell had an absolutely marvelous sixteen assists, and an overall greatly managed game, Westbrook ruined it all in just eleven seconds, the final eleven seconds. Westbrook was finding and helping teammates score all night, but all of a sudden with 11.5 seconds remaining on the clock Russell shot an unnecessary three right over the outstretched arms of a nearly seven foot tall center, Karl Anthony Towns, and then proceeded to get the ball back with about three seconds left just to shoot yet another heavily contested three, this time an airball. The worst part is: the team was only down two and did not need to shoot a three. Of course, this is only one particular occurrence, but this one occurrence exemplifies what critics mean when they claim Russell is a poor decision maker. In just these final eleven seconds of one game, Russ’ proved his lack of trust in teammates, his lack of awareness in that he had a wide open teammate, not once, but twice, and his lack of judgment shown by the fact that this was a two point game, and a three point attempt was not necessary. Unfortunately, Westbrook’s late game and overall decision making has cost them many more games, of much higher magnitude than just this one game in January, and resonates with why Russell Westbrook is not a winning player.
The Modern NBA
We are living in the modern era of the NBA, noted by factors such as a change in pace, a stricter officiating standard, and more movement amongst free agents, is most noticeably classified by a large increase in the quantity of three pointers both made and attempted. Most players have bought into this new barrage of perimeter shooting — most. Russell Westbrook is not amongst the majority in many things, especially not this movement of obsessing over the three ball. Since the 2002-03 NBA season, the average three points attempted per team has increased every single season, and has spiked dramatically since 2011. These signs amongst many other factors prove that this league has become revolved around the perimeter. With the league wide trend of shooting more three point FGA became ever-so prominent, Russell Westbrook also began to launch more threes — he’s just not very successful at doing so. In an association where the average three point percentage is marked at 35.5%, Russell shoots a measly 30.8% from three point range. Guards in the NBA in particular have adapted to the new world of shooting, and Russell, a point guard should have done so many ages ago. Due to his poor shooting from three point territory, along with his high volume of (usually erratic) attempts, the OKC Thunder have endured being in the bottom five of the NBA in three point efficiency for back to back years now. Again, in a league that is revolved around perimeter shooting, it is impossible to win a championship with a bottom level shooting team, and Westbrook is a major contributor to that.
On the fourth of July, 2016, Kevin Durant left the Thunder franchise, imposing the critics to question if Westbrook can be the best player, or leader on a championship team. Russell has been given three chances to prove that he indeed can, and has miserably failed each time, being bounced out of the playoffs in three consecutive seasons. Fast forward to the fifth of July, 2019, almost exactly three years since the departure of Durant, and Westbrook is hit with the loss of yet another superstar teammate — Paul George. George, who demanded a trade is now on the Los Angeles Clippers, alongside reigning NBA finals MVP Kawhi Leanord, and Westbrook is once again stuck, alone in Oklahoma. The unfortunate reality is that as forcefully dominant Russell is, and as historically great his career has been, he is not a winner, and great players who want to win recognize this. Westbrook has played with the likes of James Harden, Kevin Durant, and Paul George in his career, and has yet to win a championship. He may be an MVP, a scoring champion, one of the best athletes the NBA has ever seen, but Russell Westbrook is not a winner, and he never will be.