Put up enough points in the NBA and you'll be lauded as a star. Continue shooting and scoring beyond that point and you may be marked as selfish, or at least self-serving. This is the league's most integral point of tension: The fight between individuals capable of amazing, unimaginable things and teams pursuing simpler, predetermined ends. Those two forces aren't always in opposition, yet their clash—or even its potential—defines the NBA discourse.
In Russell Westbrook we see what happens when a supremely talented player puts his head down, barrels through that discourse without apology, and emerges the better for it. There is no compromise in his game. Westbrook tears through an opposing defense as he wills, and he wills to destroy. The force of that approach has never been more evident than at this very moment. In his nine games played since the All-Star break, Westbrook—operating without the counterbalance of the injured Kevin Durant—has averaged a triple double: 34.3 points, 11.4 assists, and 10.2 rebounds, all in around 36 minutes a night.
His most recent demolition was a 30-point, 17-assist, 11-rebound run over the Raptors on Sunday. In it Westbrook went to the free throw line for 13 attempts, out-assisted Toronto's entire starting lineup, and scored or assisted on 24 of Oklahoma City's 28 third-quarter points. When isolated, that performance would rank among the most uniquely dominant of the season. In context, it made for a standard Westbrook workday.
No player in the league operates at the same voltage. Westbrook has a hand in most everything the Thunder do on the floor, as is corroborated by the box score. He shoots a lot. Yet the way in which Westbrook asserts himself forces the opposing defense to buckle and collapse, bringing ruin to tactical structure. No team in the NBA has the defensive architecture to ward off Westbrook's onslaught. All that can be hoped is to weather it.
The lazy will still look at Westbrook's shooting totals (he attempted 38 field goals in Phoenix, 32 in Portland, 33 against Philadelphia, and 32 against Chicago before scaling back against Toronto) and see selfishness where they should find necessity. Oklahoma City's roster wasn't engineered to take the ball out of its stars hands. It was assembled and oriented as to play off of what Westbrook and Durant do best. With the latter absent, Westbrook is more responsible for the health of the offense than ever.
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He's responded by lifting his already league-leading usage rate to historic levels. Only 17 times in NBA history has a player* used over 35 percent of his team's possessions. Among those, Westbrook ranks among a select trio in hyper-usage while still maintaining impressive relative efficiency:
Westbrook has the highest assist percentage of the bunch by far. We've never seen a creator like him. All-time scorers like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were never directly responsible for so much of their teammates' offense, even as they managed seasons of similar usage. No high-volume playmaker has ever neared the number of field goal and free throw attempts necessary to match Westbrook. Even the ranks of astounding shot creators this season—Durant, LeBron James, James Harden, Stephen Curry—don't come close to the same marks for both possession usage and assists, each checked internally and externally in ways that Westbrook is not. There is no passivity in Westbrook nor any allowance for it in his current role.
NBA Players In Face Masks
Russell Westbrook started wearing a protective mask in March 2015 after an inadvertent knee to the face by teammate Andre Roberson led to surgery. Of course, Westbrook isn't the first NBA player to don a mask in the name of safety. Here are a few of the others.
For too long, every Westbrook shot attempt has been regarded as one that Durant could have taken. Hopefully the evidence of this past month and a complete, brilliant season in all help to show the error of that characterization. Balance between the two stars is crucial, but Westbrook is an offense unto himself. He leads the league in per-game scoring and assist percentage, doing everything for the Thunder not only because he can but because he should.
Some calibration will be in order once Durant returns for the stretch run. Yet in a broader sense, Westbrook and his evident greatness are immutable. His approach might tweak or turn slightly, but there's no stepping back from his success at full blast.
*Among qualified statistical leaders.