Russell Westbrook Shifts From Destroyer to Creator

Russell Westbrook had the greenest of green lights last season, but the reigning MVP is now sharing the rock with Carmelo Anthony and Paul George in Oklahoma City.
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Every supernova is transient by definition—even Russell Westbrook. For eight months, no one in or around the league could look away from his MVP season. What held the league’s interest was his perpetual explosion. The backstory behind his MVP season may have made for good theater, but the power of Westbrook came in making an otherwise nondescript game from the glut of the NBA calendar into essential viewing. Westbrook himself, all blinding light and furious energy, became an event. The creative weight. The inexhaustible push. The unprecedented production. The NBA has seen star after star erupt over the years, but never quite in this way. 

It could not last. Even if Westbrook drew again from his boundless stores of energy, the circumstances around him would always be changing, specifically in address of his need to do just that. A team doesn’t extract the highest usage rate in league history from a player because of stylistic preference. It does so because a collective calculus has rendered that, right or wrong, the strategy gives the team its best chance to win. Westbrook relished his extraordinary burden, but the responsibility of the front office was always to relieve him of it.

Relieve it the Thunder did. In came Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, two stars who would modify the architecture of the team. One cannot help but see the three in constellation. And if there were any doubt, Westbrook connected the dots by shifting his style of play dramatically. Last season’s scoring champion currently ranks No. 34 in the league in points per game, trailing or equal to the likes of Evan Fournier, Dennis Schröder, and, most notably: George and Anthony. The explosion is still there, as any defender frantic to keep up with Westbrook in transition can attest. It’s the way he channels the explosion that’s changed. If last season was a roar through multiple defenders, this one is a smooth drive, riddled with options, that ends in a dunk almost as an afterthought.

There is a subtlety to this version of Westbrook, so much so that he is effectively averaging a triple-double again but in relative quiet. Seven games in is a bit soon to project end-of-season stat lines, but it should be accepted at this point that this—leading the league in assists, averaging around 20 points per game, and snatching down double-digit rebounds on a nightly basis—is just something a prime Westbrook can do. If anything, the triple-doubles (clerical errors notwithstanding) have seemed to come more easily. Having the ability to pick his spots has given Westbrook a far more efficient shot profile and the ease of even greater assist opportunities. 


And yet one can find spots in every game where George works from a slight disconnect or Anthony might overstep slightly. The balance between players of this caliber is subject to constant adjustment; as the focus of the defense turns from night to night, so, too, will the team’s calibration. George stands to eventually benefit. Westbrook knows how to get his, and is drawing even more of his offense from forays into transition. Anthony, as the star staggered to the second unit, is well fed with isolations against opposing reserves. The way the Thunder deploy George is a bit more variable, and thus more reliant on feel between new teammates. Some of his shots should be even easier than they are.

Thus far, Westbrook is keeping the talent around him involved to the point that it just doesn’t matter. Most any time the Thunder’s core stars have shared the floor, the results have been brilliant. Outfit the usual starters with Andre Roberson for defense or Alex Abrines for offense and the margins are equally impressive. There is room for everyone involved to get their touches, though the formula starts with Westbrook averaging his fewest field goal attempts since his second season in the league.

Because of that, Westbrook can actually control the ball in equal measure to last season. Oklahoma City still draws on the ever-present danger of their lead guard with a live dribble. Within a halfcourt setting, however, Westbrook runs his pick-and-rolls more often as a means to an end. He’s puzzling out coverages to set up Anthony and George for their own scores and short-circuiting opposing defenses at the moment of their rotations.

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The proof of a changed Westbrook is in the turnovers. Proportionally speaking, Westbrook’s turnover rate has skyrocketed; without as many shots to ground the numbers, Westbrook is officially turning the ball over on nearly a quarter of his used possessions. That said, he’s also not barrelling into the heart of the defense with the same abandon—a leap-before-you-look mentality that occasionally got Westbrook into trouble last season. So many of his turnovers are instead the product of ambitious passes between defenders or over the top of them. 

Steven Adams—often forgotten by the defense in their rush to cover Westbrook, George, and Anthony—is a frequent target. The Thunder, in some cases, benefit most from the presence of their two new stars by not passing to them. Surrounding a high pick-and-roll with players of their caliber strains the internal logic of standard tag-and-recover defense. Anthony and George, after all, are not just career shooters who can be run off the line. Each can step inside the arc and capably make the next play in sequence, be it a drive, a pull-up jumper, or a pass carrying all a possession’s momentum.

Such is the motivation for an MVP with the greenest of green lights to dial back his game’s most overwhelming tendencies. Some of Westbrook’s raw power will be lost in the Thunder’s translation, as the makeup of the team now calls for him to think differently. The event of it all has met its end. In its stead is a twinkle of possibility: That Oklahoma City, star-driven and staunch in defense, might actually build upward from the league’s second-best net rating to date.