Russell Westbrook has had many nicknames throughout his basketball career: Mr. Triple-Double, Catalyst, Rim Wrecker, The Terminator, even Fashion Icon. Those are all great, but I’ve got a better nickname for Russ, one that actually gives his abilities justice and epitomizes his game – The Kraken.
When one thinks of the Kraken, they might first think of the seismic ugly octopus-looking thing from Pirates of the Caribbean. When I visualize the Kraken though, I see a leviathan displaying the highest marks of pure power, ferocity, agility, skill, and absolute demolition. Those attributes sound awfully familiar to a certain Oklahoma City Thunder point guard, don’t they?
Indeed, Russell Westbrook has owned the crown for most explosive and athletic guard for a while now. However, while his athleticism is an important part of the game, it is not the sole facet that propels him into the premier crop of players.
In fact, there is no single thing about Westbrook that makes him supreme, because he is elite at almost all aspects of the game, whether it be scoring, defense, facilitation, rim to rim attack, or leadership. His holistic dominance has made him flourish in the past, and is what will ascend him to omnipotence this upcoming season. It’s also what gives Westbrook another title to be called by after this season – the best point guard in the NBA.
Westbrook’s holistic supremacy begins with his underrated ability to create his own shot, and ultimately, score. While Steph Curry, through his unlimited range and rapid shot release, and Kyrie Irving, through his slicing handles and shooting finesse, are often seen as the virtuoso point guards for creating their shots and scoring, Westbrook definitively belongs in their company. He is an exemplary scorer, having averaged 23.5 PPG last year, ranked 8th in the league and 3rd among point guards, The year before that, winning the scoring crown after averaging 28.1 PPG put him on the elite radar.
Westbrook’s explosiveness and athleticism is his unique weapon that exempts him from scoring struggles. While Curry and Irving can be bullied and harassed by bigger defenders and have their shooting strokes inhibited, Westbrook cannot be bullied. Instead, he blows by defenders and explodes to the basket, attacking the rim and pouncing to the hoop as if he were a lion hunting his prey.
About 38% of Westbrook’s shots last year were taken within 3 feet of the hoop, and his FG% in that range was about 60%, an admirable number for a 6’3” guard. When he wasn’t converting at the rim, he was often fouled too – Westbrook ranked 6th among all players and 1st among point guards in free throw attempts at 573, and was 4th in the league in free throws made at 465. Easy points simplify his game which augments Westbrook’s scoring prowess.
Admittedly, he isn’t the best perimeter shooter, but it’s Westbrook’s ability to create shots and score points, even in the midst of a cold shooting streak, that makes him an elite scorer.
Another aspect of Westbrook’s game that shows his superiority is his defense. While Westbrook has never been recognized with All-NBA Defense honors, and Chris Paul resoundingly owns 8 of those titles, he has established himself as arguably the top point guard defender. One important aspect of defense is turning defensive possessions into offensive ones, essentially creating turnovers or getting rebounds. Westbrook excels in both.
Last year, Westbrook was 2nd in the league in total steals with 163, and also T-2nd in steals per game with 2.0.
In regards to rebounds, Westbrook ranked 1st among point guards, averaging an astounding 7.8 rebounds a game, and was 2nd among point guards in Defensive Rebounding Percentage at 18.1%, only trailing Giannis Antetokounmpo. His ability to change defensive possessions to offensive possessions is virtually unrivaled, and this is while guarding the opposing team’s best guard, something that can’t be taken as a given with premier point guards of the NBA.
More defensive accolades. He ranked 1st among point guards in Defensive Box +/-, and 2nd among point guards in Defensive Win Shares. Westbrook’s individual defensive success positively affects his team’s defense, an important factor to consider. While not known for it, Westbrook posts elite defensive numbers, furthering the claim to his title as best point guard in the league.
In order to be the best point guard in the NBA you have to be elite in your point guard responsibilities. Traditionally, a team’s point guard is the primary ball handler who runs and facilitates the offensive plays. Fortunately for Westbrook, he happens to excel in these roles.
Westbrook was involved in his team’s plays almost more than any other player, ranking 6th in the league and 2nd among point guards with a usage percentage of 31.6%. Westbrook is heavily involved in his team’s offense, handling the basketball the vast majority of possessions. When the ball was in his hands though, he wasn’t just meandering around the court. On the contrary, he was creating lanes and shots for his teammates, racking up assists.
Last year, Westbrook averaged 10.4 assists a game, good for 2nd in the league, in addition to owning an assist percentage of 49.6%, also 2nd best in the league. Westbrook, like Kobe Bryant before him, has the reputation as a ball hog, but when it comes down to metrics, one can clearly see that Westbrook is actually looking for and finding his teammates.
A big worry for Westbrook is if he’ll continue to thrive without his running mate of the last 8 years, Kevin Durant. When Durant fled to Golden State during free agency, leaving Westbrook in the Oklahoma City dust, some put Westbrook’s success in correlation with Durant’s presence, and presume that without KD, Westbrook will statistically falter. Those same people would be surprised to learn that Westbrook is more than capable of raising his level of play when Durant is absent from the court.
Look no further than the 2014-2015 season when Durant was plagued with foot injuries that kept him sidelined. That year, Westbrook led the league in scoring at 28.1 PPG, while averaging 8.6 assists and 7.3 rebounds, all while leading the league in usage %. Compared to the previous year, these totals were 6.3 points, 1.7 assists, and 1.6 rebounds higher.
It’s clear that Westbrook raised his level of play with Durant out in the 2014-2015 season. He understood his new role as the sole alpha, and responded with a career year. This makes me believe that this upcoming year, an even more improved Westbrook can repeat this ascension of greatness sans Durant.
Playing without Durant must’ve been quite a learning experience, as this past season, Westbrook actually improved in key statistical categories including eFG%, 2-point %, FG%, rebounds, and assists. His surrounding cast will be much better than what he had during the 2014-2015 season, advancing the case that Westbrook will lead this team, even without Durant, and have a monster year.
What people don’t realize is just how good a player Westbrook is. He has been the sidekick to Durant his entire career. Westbrook was already a top-5 NBA player with Durant on his team. Metrics show that he could be even better than that, as Westbrook ranked 3rd in PER, 3rd in Win Shares, 2nd in Box +/-, and 2nd in VORP.
Now that Westbrook, or The Kraken I should say, has been unleashed, he can mold the Thunder into his own image and ascend to heights even higher. It is very feasible for Westbrook to put up a 30-10-10 triple-double stat line this year, a feat only previously accomplished by Oscar Robertson in the 1961-1962 season, 55 years ago.
Westbrook can dominant all aspects of the game to an unachieved degree, showing how holistically supreme he is.
While the other elite point guards in the NBA are three or four trick ponies, Westbrook is a Swiss Army Knife on steroids. That makes him scary as hell. It also makes him the best point guard in the NBA.
photo via llananba