Coming off an inbounds, Russell Westbrook immediately dashed to the other side of the court with reckless abandon. A rampaging Russ going towards the rim with one defender trying to keep up, zero screens set by his teammates. It’s quite the normal sight when it comes to Westbrook. As normal as it may be, fans can’t help but get off their chairs by a little bit, anticipating the madness that is to come.
You can’t help but get excited at stuff like these by Russ. It feels so otherworldly every time stuff like that happens. In some aspects, Russ is the kind of point guard most you’d would want to be. Steph Curry’s shooting is a sight to behold, while James Harden’s isolation wizardry is remarkable, but they don’t hold the same kind of electricity Russ brings to the table. When you were a kid, you didn’t want to shoot from 30 feet. You wanted to dunk it, and to dunk it HARD.
Not the baby dunks you see by some local guards. The Shaquille O’Neal level dunks, ones that would break the rim. Shaq always felt TOO superhuman because of how big he was. Russ doesn’t feel that way, because his size can be relatable to many. Most kids today point to Russ and say, “I want to be like that. I want to break rims.” Ridiculously athletic with the strength of a bouncer, all packed into a muscular, 6’3” frame.
As Russ completes the dunk and the destruction of Basketball Twitter, you suddenly look down and read the score. ‘Sixers 32 Thunder 19’. Highlight play and all, the Thunder were still down by 13 points, AT HOME, to the Sixers who were still trying to #TrustTheProcess. The entirety of that play captures the very essence of Russell Westbrook.
A ridiculous individual force that even an entire army can’t stop. Key words: individual force. On his own. But with how his teams perform while he does what he wants, is nothing close compared to the excellence of Russ. There are plenty of reasons for this, but it’s time to say it.
Russell Westbrook is not the championship level point guard we think he is.
It’s difficult to study how Russ plays because statistics tell us he’s actually an otherworldly talent. Aside from averaging a triple double for the last two seasons, advanced metrics also paint Russ as someone you can build around as a floor general. He ranks in the top five in terms of Box Plus Minus (8.2) and VORP (7.5) — Value Over Replacement Player — , while ranking first assist percentage (49.8). He’s an all-around force, someone you can treat as the cornerstone of your franchise.
But statistics, as true as they may be, only tell a part of the story that is Russell Westbrook. Beneath the rim-rattling dunks and the petty scowls, the eye test shows us a Brodie that’s been doing what he wants, but not exactly for the benefit of the team.
Russell only goes on one speed: FAST. On that note, he’s a fit for how the NBA is played today. The pace of games have been revved up like crazy, and teams have taken advantage of the extra space this provides to players. Watch how Russ whips this pass to the trailing Steven Adams:
The added speed of the game not only entails a player to run fast. It also requires responsibility and control of how one moves. It requires players to think faster, not just for the sake of making a decision, but in order to make a SAFE decision. A choice that will result to a decent return for the amount of meters one had to run in such few seconds.
Russ at times, can get very careless with the way he uses his speed. In this possession, OKC gets a made basket, so yay! But, it could have very well gone wrong if Jerami Grant wasn’t there to pick up the miss (or was it a pass? Triple-double hunting Russ wishes it was a pass) to get the easy deuce.
It’s no surprise then Russ topped the league in turnovers, committing a whopping 381 this season alone. Last season, he ranked second, just behind 2017 MVP race runner-up James Harden, committing a total of 438 miscues. That’s far from ideal.
Russ’ inability to take care of the ball doesn’t just come from how he gets to the rim with reckless abandon. A big part of it is also how he struggles to perform well when the game slows down in the clutch, causing him to make bone headed decisions that would make any coach shake their head.
Let’s reiterate again: Russ wants to play FAST. When you try to play fast — especially with the way Russ does it — in a half court setting, it’s probably not going to end too well for you.
It’s been evident with the Thunder all season long that they have trouble executing in the half court. The slow game kills them, and versus the Jazz, it was incredibly evident.
With less than four minutes having passed by during the first quarter, OKC was given the chance to inbound the ball from their side of the court. Paul George brought it out, passing it off to Steven Adams at the top of the key. Adams immediately dishes the ball to Westbrook, and as he completes the pass, approaches Russ’ defender to seemingly set a screen.
Here’s the problem, however: Russ completely ignores this, which doesn’t make much sense considering how the defense was set up at that moment. Rudy Gobert is more than ready to help, and has a few inches to spare if Russ blows by with his speed. That’s exactly what happens, as Russ drives to his right, and meets Gobert who’s ready to protect the rim.
To add, the spacing around OKC is less than optimal for Russ to drive inside. Since Adams was expecting this to be a pick and roll, he immediately rushes towards rim. That also meant, he was also going to the same direction as Russ, which messed up the already bad spacing the Thunder had in that possession. The final result of that play shouldn’t surprise you:
Russ always goes in one direction and one speed. He’ll go hard to the hole, and FAST AND FURIOUS. But it’s this supposed strength of his which has also reared its ugly head and has turned into the major flaw Russ has as a player. We crown Russ as a point guard because of how he brings down the ball heavily and dishes out the most assists. But the reality of it is, he’s really a “points guard”, sometimes to the detriment of the team.
Russ is automatic, always going straight and fast. But a point guard should never be driving the offense of his team in automatic. He has to drive stick, with different gears to choose from depending on the situation.
Playing in crucial situations, especially in the playoffs, is just like a steep road. You think you can beat it with your speed, strength, and recklessness, but it doesn’t work that way. You need to be smart and to have control with your decision making. This is especially true of a point guard, as he’s the main driver of that offense. He chooses whether to step on the clutch and go faster, or to take it easy and stick to first gear.
Russell Westbrook goes in just one direction: FAST. Fast can beat the processing Sixers. But it can’t always win you games in the playoffs where roads are steeper and tougher to climb.
Russ does what he wants now, and it’s brought tons of entertainment to fans. But what he wants isn’t always what a team needs. OKC needs a point guard, someone to take control of the offense and stabilize. Russ is anything but. He is seen by many as a championship level point guard today. The reality of it is he isn’t. He could still be a franchise cornerstone. Just not in the way people hope him to be.
Photos from NBA.com