There was a play late in the Thunder’s triple-overtime win against the 76ers in mid-December that encapsulates the Russell Westbrook experience. After getting stuffed at the rim by Joel Embiid earlier in overtime, and approaching his 50th minute of action that night, Westbrook went coast-to-coast in the third extra period, rising up in a sea of defenders for a ferocious dunk.
At a point in the game when most players could hardly run up and down the floor, with big men huffing and puffing with hands on their knees, Russ found another gear for that dunk—which was followed by a well-earned mean mug. Of course, that whole game encapsulated the Westbrook experience—bouts of greatness marred by inefficiency. Russ’s line in that game? 27 points, 17 rebounds and 15 assists, on a ghastly 10-of-33 shooting.
The Thunder need Russ to be Russ in order to be a contender in the West. He has to be the unquestioned leader in OKC, and the team will likely only go as far as he takes it. What they don’t need is MVP Russ. Westbrook can no longer afford to be the extremely inefficient version of himself, the one that willed himself to an MVP award through sheer force. Now nearly halfway into the Westbrook-Paul George-Carmelo Anthony experience, the results have been… mixed.
The good news is Westbrook, on the surface, seems to be improving. Since George’s Indiana homecoming, the Thunder have gone 9–3, their best stretch of the season. The starting five is finally playing well together offensively, and that group now has an 11.3 net rating in a whopping 440 minutes together this season. And in this current stretch of success, Westbrook has put together some of his best games. Russ shot over 50% only once during the month of November, when OKC went 4–9. Those struggles continued into the start of December, but Westbrook has shot over 50% eight times since the Pacers game on Dec. 13. His effective field-goal percentage in this 12-game stretch (51.5%) would be higher than any mark he’s posted in his career so far.
Of course, 12 games is a ludicrously small sample size when compared to the rest of Westbrook’s career, so every sign points to his shooting improvement being unsustainable. But what if a slightly improved Russ, slowly but surely, is starting to emerge? Even if he doesn’t keep up his current pace, Russ settling somewhere more efficient than his MVP campaign would be a significant improvement.
Last season, depending on which MVP voter you speak to, was either the peak or nadir of Westbrook’s career. This season, it was hard not to notice Thunder castoffs thriving in their new environments while George and Anthony struggled to recreate their earlier success. Now? Teams like the Knicks and Pacers are fading. OKC is hitting its stride. And those critiques on Westbrook’s ability to lift his teammates up are now a little murkier.
And for all the legitimate concerns over the Thunder’s rocky start, nearly halfway through the season, they entered Thursday in fifth place in the West, only two games behind the Wolves in the loss column, with the fifth-best net rating in the entire NBA, ahead of the likes of Cleveland, Minnesota and Milwaukee.
The dust is starting to settle, and the problems in OKC appear to be less about Russ and his All-Star running mates than the players around them. Of the Thunder’s 10 most-used lineups, every unit featuring Anthony, George and Westbrook has a positive net rating. The issue is when at least one of them sits, the team usually goes into the tank.
Overall, Westbrook is still playing at a less efficient level than he was during his why-not-shoot-everytime MVP campaign, which is a scary thought. But how much of that inefficiency can be attributed to martyrball and how much of it should be attributed to the adjustment period with his new teammates? Russ appears to be adjusted better over the last month, and it’s resulted in a slight uptick in his shooting percentages.
What we know without a doubt is when the moment calls for it, Westbrook can often find that extra burst of energy to quite literally rise above everyone else on the court. What we still don’t know is if Russ can find the gear that marries his sweat-pouring intensity with modern beliefs about what constitutes success on offense.
For now, Westbrook isn’t a wholly different player from the one he was last season. His usage is way down, but that doesn’t mean he’s refined his game. He’s also somehow only a half-rebound a game away from averaging a triple-double again. Expecting Russ to become a different person just because his teammates got better was always foolish. But counting him out completely seems like an equally risky proposition.