Watching Russell Westbrook play basketball this season is, in a word, confusing. Is he the NBA’s worst star or most captivating stat monger?
Since the All-Star break, Westbrook is averaging 24.5 points, 11.8 rebounds and 12 assists per game, a nightly harvest that would’ve placed his name on the tip of every NBA fan’s tongue five years ago. Today it barely induces a yawn.
Also since the All-Star break, he’s made 35.1% of his threes, launching five per game. His looks aren’t the same as what Bojan Bogdanović, Seth Curry or Tyler Herro see, but in this very small sample size, their numbers are comparable.
Last year with the Rockets he didn’t play in any back-to-backs. This season, Westbrook has opted in for most, including a 35-point, 13-assist, 15-rebound sledgehammer hurled at the Jazz, one night after he logged 39 minutes in a two-point loss against the Kings (a game that featured two missed dunks, one so violent the ball nearly flew back to half court).
That battle vs. Utah was an indefatigable, astonishing, out-of-body experience. Vintage Westbrook. He pulled up for transition threes and received every sliver of daylight as an invitation to humiliate Rudy Gobert. When the league’s top defense prerotated to show him multiple bodies, Westbrook fed Alex Len and Rui Hachimura until they looked like stars. During the fourth quarter, Wizards announcer Drew Gooden summed up Westbrook’s umpteenth dagger by assuring viewers that “there’s no defense for a jump shot.” Moments later he rocked the baby on Donovan Mitchell. For a night the Jazz were helpless.
Performances like that are magical. They’re also few and far between, on a team that probably won’t even make the play-in tournament. Even Westbrook’s most cinematic box scores are overshadowed by how they’re formed, with a hyperintense competitiveness that’s become his own worst enemy, marred by obscene shot selection and reckless resolve. Out of 165 players who’ve played at least 1,000 minutes this season, Westbrook is 155th in total RAPTOR, a rating system that uses tracking data to calculate players' value based on plus-minus and wins above replacement. He also ranks 37th among point guards in real plus-minus, with more turnovers than any other player.
When Westbrook shares the floor with Bradley Beal, the Wizards score 110.7 points per 100 possessions (or good for about the 19th-best offense in the league). When Beal is alone that number ticks up to 113.1 points per 100 possessions (right outside the top 10). When Westbrook plays without Beal the team’s offensive rating is ... 98.6. This is “makes the Cavs look like the Lakers” bad. And at -221 he ranks 504 out of 514 players in plus-minus.
Westbrook’s game was once infused by an enviable degree of fearlessness. He’d set off for the basket with more confidence than a knife in combat with giant sticks of butter. But there are now stretches when he’s unable to harness the first gear that made him unguardable whenever he wants, while the second and third gears that could really help his aging body have yet to be acknowledged. Westbrook isolates more than everyone not named James Harden without being very good at it, forcing awkward floaters and runners that used to be dunks.
Only 29% of his shots come at the rim right now, down from a whopping 49% last season. Those looks have shifted to the midrange, where Westbrook is one of just 10 players who’ve attempted at least 250 pull-up two-point jumpers. He’s only made 40.4% of them, though, which is last in the group and doesn’t come close to justifying such a high volume.
The 32-year-old is languishing in a high-usage role that draws attention to his deteriorating influence and mastodon of a contract. But next season perhaps a solution can be found. In the aftermath of Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Andre Drummond receiving buyouts to chase a championship, the thought of Westbrook sharing a similar fate is at once depressing, absurd and perfect.
The NBA landscape can and will change next season, but the possibilities and questions that would sprout from a divorce between Westbrook and the Wizards should still be fascinating. Would he give back millions of dollars to streamline his role, play fewer minutes and possibly come off the bench? (Westbrook is due $44 million next season and has a $47 million player option the following year, which is considerably more than Griffin had remaining on his own maximum contract.)
After hearing comments Westbrook made in response to Stephen A. Smith’s recent criticism about the nine-time All-Star’s inability to win big, he may not be interested in that type of sacrifice—which is understandable. “I don’t have to be an NBA champion. I know many people that got NBA championships that’s miserable, haven’t done nothing for their community, haven’t done nothing for the people of our world.”
For the sake of this hypothetical let’s say Westbrook wakes up one morning in 2022 and decides he really wants to make the Finals. Of equal importance then is another question: Will a contender even want him? The answer can be found picturing today’s version of Westbrook on, say, the Clippers, surrounded by three-point shooters, constantly attacking the paint, turbocharging one of the slower offenses in the league and adding a level of dynamism that Paul George and Kawhi Leonard don’t spark. In other words no team wants to pay Westbrook $90 million, but most should be thrilled with him in their bullpen for the veteran’s minimum.
Imagine him on the Celtics or Heat or Bucks, as a spared-down, tighter version of what he is right now. At virtually no cost all those squads (and several others) would love to throw the embers of Westbrook’s Hall of Fame prime onto their own bonfire, knowing the risk is low but the reward can be an unparalleled adrenaline boost. These theoretical someday relationships could, of course, end in disaster. They might even be sad. But there’s also a chance that Westbrook moonwalks his way back into relevance as a sharper, more efficient and pressureless version of himself.
His broken outside shot won’t be helpful in crunch time of a Game 6; there are obvious fit issues that restrict what he’ll ultimately be asked to do, should we ever arrive at such an exciting day. But undeniably positive qualities are still alive in Westbrook. He’s a voracious rebounder in traffic, and defenses continue to fear the typical result of his downhill drives.
With the days of Westbrook single-handedly lifting a team’s floor over and done, it’s worth thinking about a world where he agrees to a buyout and finds a way to raise a very good team’s ceiling. It’s a far more satisfying reality than the one currently lived, where one of the sport’s all-time individualists is wasting the autumn of his career chasing triple doubles that are all but forgotten two minutes after they’ve been achieved. Westbrook belongs in the playoffs, warts and all.