Is Russell Westbrook a Game Changer? Or an Influencer
As the NBA season winds to a close, there rages a debate on who the MVP of the 18/19 season is. Cases can be made for all three candidates, Paul George, James Harden, and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but the race likely comes down to Harden and Giannis. The third candidate, Paul George, has had a remarkable season, where he averaged the most minutes played since 2012/2013 with 36.9 minutes per game and averaged a career high in points per game (PPG) and rebounds, and tied a career high in assists per game (APG). He averaged about 28 points a game, and shot 48.4% from the field. A remarkable season by all measures, but you would be shocked to find that a lot of people don’t consider George the best player on his team, let alone the league.
Enter: Russell Westbrook (Russ). Russ is a player who plays with a gigantic chip on his shoulder, and his fire and passion are unmistakable. A man of plenty of accolades, the 2016/2017 MVP and 8 time NBA allstar has made a name for himself among the best point guards in the game today. Westbrook has become one of two players (see Oscar Robertson) to average a triple double over the span of an entire season, and he has done this twice! In 2018/19, Westbrook’s final stat-line was 22.9/10.7/11.1, yet another triple double season. Statistically, Westbrook is etching himself among the top statistical performers in basketball history, and continues to re-write record books. However, there is one area where Russ has yet to excel, and this area is known as the postseason.
Westbrook has only been to the NBA finals once, and that was with his “good friend” Kevin Durant. He has been to the western conference finals twice (both with Durant), and has never been able to call himself an NBA champion. When the topic of the greatest players of all time comes up, names such as Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, and Michael Jordan are mentioned. Westbrook is averaging statistics similar to or better than these three legends, but is not even considered to be close to being in that conversation. Why is this?
This can be answered with one simple question. What do the players mentioned in the greatest of all time conversation all have in common? Championships. Their championships and successes have allowed them to etch their legacies as NBA greats. These players all put up statistically great seasons, just like Russ. What is the difference? The great players can turn it on when it matters, and make their teammates around them better. They know what it takes to win in the playoffs, and what it takes push their team into championship contention.
In a superstar and super team dominated NBA, the common perception is a team needs two to three superstars along with solid depth to win a championship. LeBron needed help from Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland to win his championships. Stephen Curry needed Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and then Kevin Durant to lead Golden State to three titles in the last four years. Westbrook has been surrounded with plenty of all stars, and a supporting cast that is nothing to joke about. But, he has yet to be able to crack the NBA finals. What gives? Let’s take a look at some of the stars that he has played with:
- Kevin Durant
- James Harden
- Victor Oladipo
- Paul George
- Carmelo Anthony
Now, let’s take a look at some of Westbrook’s supporting cast over the years:
- Serge Ibaka
- Steven Adams
- Andre Roberson
- Dennis Schroeder
- D.J. Augustin
- Taj Gibson
An argument can be made against Melo, but with all these superstars, and a very strong supporting cast, Westbrook has never been able to find the recipe to playoff success. With a first round exit against Portland this year where he was thoroughly outplayed by Damian Lillard, the criticism around Westbrook has risen significantly.
Why is this the case? To understand why this is, we must take a look at the Thunder offense under Billy Donovan. The offense the Thunder run revolves around Westbrook. Westbrook shoots arguably the most midrange jumpers in the game. His effective field goal percentage is down, and since 2000-01, only 7 players have finished with a lower scoring efficiency at such a high shooting volume per Basketball reference. Westbrook is able to run the pick and roll with Adams against lesser competition, and kick out a lot of assists to his teammates, but come playoff time, where the defense is better and the kick outs become a lot harder, a lot of those assists turn into turnovers. The Thunder offense, with Westbrook’s midrange jump shot and forced passes and drives, isn’t sustainable in a 7 game series against a quality playoff opponent.
What does this tell us? While Westbrook can jack up shot after shot with no pressure during the regular season and steal rebounds from his teammates, he cannot do it when it matters the most. The assists that come easy during the regular season when he drives end up as turnovers in the playoffs. He has a huge impact on the game, and can influence the game towards his team’s favour during the regular season where the result has no meaning. But come playoff time, where everyone is locked in every possession, the defensive detail and intensity is higher, and the competition is better, Westbrook looks lost. He can’t take over the game like he did in the regular season. He lacks that clutch factor that all the greats had, and if you need proof of that, see the first round series where Westbrook was so thoroughly outplayed by Damian Lillard, and watched his Thunder fall in 5 games to Portland.
One can make the argument, “oh, he averaged 37.4 PPG in the 2017 playoffs!”. That is true, however, Westbrook was averaging 6 turnovers a game himself in the playoffs that year. His usage climbed up to 47% that year. This team had to rely on Russ, and Russ let them down. His effective shooting percentage goes down even more in the playoffs.
So while Westbrook can rock as many imaginary babies as he wants, he continues to face adversity regarding his playoff track record. There is no argument that statistically, he is one of the greatest to ever play the sport. But, as we can see, when his team really needs him the most, he folds under the pressure. His regular season greatness never transforms to playoff success, due to the flawed streetball model of basketball he plays. This is why Russell Westbrook will always be an influencer, and never a game changer like Lebron, Kawhi, Curry, or any other superstar in the NBA today.