The Sudden Resurgence of Russell Westbrook

Tony Dejak – Associated Press

On July 4th, 2016, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant announced his intentions to sign with the Golden State Warriors after losing to them in the Western Conference Finals. Without Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder were left with a very unimpressive roster. Nonetheless, Westbrook managed to drag OKC to a 47-win season, good for the sixth seed in an extremely talented Western Conference. Westbrook averaged over 31 points per game over the course of the 2017 season along with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists. It was by far the best season of his career and it earned him the prestigious NBA Most Valuable Player award.

However, Westbrook was never able to replicate that magic. In his following two seasons on the Thunder, Westbrook’s efficiency dropped substantially despite a decreased workload with Paul George on the team.

Westbrook’s final game of the 2019 season came in the Game 5 of the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Thunder held a 15-point lead with under seven minutes to go in the game. From that point on, Westbrook committed two turnovers and went 1-4 from the field. We all know how the game ended.

In the following offseason, Westbrook was traded to the Houston Rockets in exchange for Chris Paul. It was a change of scenery and an amazing position for Westbrook. The Thunder often struggled to surround him with perimeter shooters and the team’s spacing suffered as a result. That wouldn’t be a problem in Houston. He could play as the sidekick to the best scorer in the game in James Harden while playing with other shooting threats like P.J. Tucker, Austin Rivers, and Eric Gordon.

Still, Westbrook struggled. In November, Westbrook averaged 21.9 PPG with a dreadful 48.7% TS%. He began to take more shots in December, scoring 27.1 PPG, yet his efficiency was still extremely disappointing (50.8% TS%). Opposing teams realized that the best defensive strategy was to let Westbrook shoot the ball:

The solution was obvious: stop shooting. That’s exactly what Westbrook did.

Over the course of this season, Westbrook has attempted less 3-pointers. That’s an extremely good development for the Houston Rockets. The fact of the matter is that Russell Westbrook is an awful three-point shooter. His 3P% of 23.8% in 2020 is the lowest among all players with at least 100 3PA. Yeah, it’s bad.

Fortunately, Westbrook has finally realized just how detrimental his shooting is. He went from averaging 5.69 3PA/G in November to merely 2.18 3PA/G in January. Now, Westbrook is focusing on what makes him so great offensively — his extraordinary ability to attack the basket. Since the start of the new year, Westbrook has been one of the most efficient players on drives to the rim in the NBA.

The size of each dot represents the total number of drives for each player.

I defined a positive play rather simply — a possession that ended with a made field goal by the driving player or an assist dished out by the driving player. Likewise, a negative play is a play in which the driving player missed a field goal or committed a turnover.1

Approximately 38.9% of Westbrook’s drives count as ‘positive’ in 2020. Only Jordan Clarkson has a higher positive play percentage, but he’s maintained it on just half of Westbrook’s volume. Furthermore, the difference between his positive and negative play percentage of 13.1% is behind only Chris Paul and TJ McConnell. Chris Paul is obviously one of the most efficient point guards in league history, while TJ McConnell has also had just half of Westbrook’s volume.

Westbrook’s field goal percentage on drives is 60.7% in 2020. His efficiency has reached a new level and it’s exactly what you’d expect from him on this Houston Rockets team. He’s taking advantage of the spacing provided by a team surrounded by perimeter threats along with the defensive attention that James Harden draws.

There’s still room for improvement, though. Westbrook’s shot selection has improved — the 3-pointers he attempts are primarily uncontested. However, his efficiency is so bad even with this shot selection that he’s better off not attempting any 3-pointers at all.

Approximately 91.7% of Westbrook’s three-point attempts this season have been either open or wide-open shots.2 Yet he is the least efficient three-point shooter in the league by a decent margin.

Mathematically, a possession that ends in Russell Westbrook shooting a jumper beyond the arc is a bad possession. The league average wide-open 3P% is 38.2%, so a wide-open 3-pointer is worth approximately 1.15 points. The league average 2P% on very tightly contested shots3 within 10 feet is 47.2%, meaning these shots are worth approximately 0.94 points.

That makes sense, right? A wide-open 3-pointer is a better shot than a heavily contested shot in the paint. Well, not for all players.

Westbrook’s FG% on very tightly contested shots within ten feet of the rim is 52.4% — he’s a great finisher, no doubt. That shot is worth 1.05 points for Westbrook. Meanwhile, his wide-open 3P% is an extremely low 30.5%. A wide-open 3-pointer shot by Russell Westbrook is worth 0.915 points. On an average possession, it is far more valuable for Westbrook to take a heavily contested shot within ten feet of the basket rather than a wide-open 3-pointer. Even a league-average player attempting a heavily contested shot within ten feet of the basket is more valuable than a wide-open 3-pointer from Westbrook.

Westbrook simply should not be attempting 3-pointers. Fortunately, he seems to be picking up on this and he’s playing his best basketball since 2017.

There’s another part of Westbrook’s game that’s a significant part of his recent rise: rebounding. Westbrook’s rebounding has gone unsung at times due to the public’s awareness of his tendency to hunt for triple-doubles. However, he’s still a great rebounder at the point guard position.

This season, Westbrook has converted 75.9% of his defensive rebound chances into actual rebounds. The shortest player with a higher conversion ratio is small forward Jae Crowder, who has three extra inches over Westbrook.

Westbrook’s elite rebounding is just one of his many skills that is immensely valuable to the Houston Rockets, especially in the current small ball iteration of their lineup. With no big men on the floor and extra spacing, Westbrook’s amazing ability to drive to the hoop and snag contested rebounds is invaluable. Right now, the Rockets are just three games back from the two seed in the Western Conference. If Westbrook keeps up his current level of play, the team could make some serious noise in the playoffs.

  1. This is admittedly a rather simplistic and imperfect representation of efficiency. However, the tracking data available is not expansive enough to delve much deeper.
  2. Open shots are defined as shots in which the closest defender is 4-6 feet away from the shooter at the time of the shot. Wide open shots are defined as shots in which the closest defender is 6+ feet away from the shooter at the time of the shot.
  3. Very tightly contested shots are defined as shots in which the nearest defender is less than 2 feet away from the shooter at the time of the shot.


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