It’s What Russ Can Do That Matters

For the past eleven years, Russell Westbrook has been consistent. His drives to the rim are spectacular, his perimeter shooting is not. He can hold the ball too long in the worst moments and he has an electric personality on the court. Westbrook elevates average teammates and can annoy talented ones. He has charisma and energy, and his heart on the sleeve is the best thing about his game, the emotion he brings to the floor. It is his worst enemy too because sometimes precision is more valuable than passion.

Westbrook’s best three-point season was four years ago. He averaged more rebounds this season than Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. He averaged more assists than Dennis Schröder, the person he is replacing. Like Schröder, Westbrook turns the ball over a lot. Equally troubling, he stopped playing defense two years ago, and yet his lowest PER of the past 12 seasons was 17.8, a number Kemba Walker earned this year. Westbrook’s 17.8 PER season was in 2009.

He’s ball-dominant with a usage rate in the 30%+ range. His playoffs point-per-game, assists-per-game, and rebounds-per-game are strikingly similar to the regular season.

When Westbrook was drafted this was his outlook:

Featuring an outstanding first step and terrific strength once in the lane, Westbrook’s ability to elevate off the floor has made his highlight reels the stuff of Youtube legend. Offensively, Westbrook’s biggest source of production (nearly 30% of his offense) curiously comes in transition. (Only 8% of his offense comes from either pick and roll or isolation plays.) He lacks quite a bit of polish on this end of the floor, even if he is extremely effective at the few things he does well. Westbrook’s ball handling skills are fairly limited, as he has the ability to beat players off the dribble with his tremendous first step going left or right, and is solid getting the rim in a straight line, but he struggles when trying to do much more than that…His release is not the quickest or the most fluid around, and he lacks accuracy when rushed or forced to shoot off the dribble. (Jonathan Givony)

After 13 years in the league, Westbrook’s athleticism has taken a dip. He attempted 36 dunks this season, less than half the number of dunks he attempted four years ago.  Four years ago, he attempted 640 layups. This season 486.

In 2020-21, Westbrook was ranked the 15th best point guard (Real Plus-Minus) trailing the usual suspects: Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving. Add to the list Trae Young, Lonzo Ball, Luka Doncic, and even Jrue Holiday.  On the defensive side of things, in the Lakers lineup, he’s replacing a top-10 defender at the guard position in Dennis Schröder.

9 out of his 13 seasons, Westbrook has been All-NBA. (Two times on the 1st-team, five times on the 2nd team, and two times on the 3rd team.) In addition, Westbrook has been a top-5 MVP candidate four times, winning the award once. Among active NBA players, Westbrook is the 5th leading scorer, the 9th leading rebounder, 3rd in assists, 4th in steals.

But.

Russell Westbrook is one of those special players where the stats and the numbers are used to make the case for him or the case against him. He’s polarizing in a different way than LeBron James is polarizing. James is disliked for his accomplishments and his politics. Westbrook is disliked for how he plays the game, not for the results of the game.

A downhill player with tons of confidence and swag, Westbrook is a target for fans, some of whom are racist and he doesn’t back down. What you see is what you get. He isn’t interested in softening his perception.

Back in the day, they used to call the way Westbrook plays black basketball. He’s athletic, relentless, and not really interested in making friends. On the court, he personifies the team ethic, Us vs. You. And, oh, by the way: I hate you.

A year ago, the Westbrook trade to Washington was a way to get rid of John Wall, not because Westbrook was the prize, and he isn’t the prize for L.A. either. He’s a piece they need that might just work because Westbrook wants to win a title.

I’ve heard from a lot of Lakers fans, many in my family, about the trade. Very few warmed to Schröder and they know Westbrook from his UCLA days so he has this kind of family vibe attached to him. Some, not all by a long shot, are willing to overlook his flaws. The truth about L.A. is that the fans love the L.A.-born. And so Westbrook makes sense to them even if no one will be shocked if it gets a bit rocky.

Three Lakers will collectively earn $120 million in 2020-21. They all have red flags. LeBron’s age. Anthony Davis’s injury history, and Westbrook’s three-point sorrow. The rest of the roster isn’t filled out. Maybe Carmelo. Maybe not. Maybe DeRozan. Maybe not. Maybe Rudy Gay. Hope not. But all eyes are on Westbrook.

Davis and James have won a title. Westbrook hasn’t been to the Finals in 9 years.

With polarizing players like Westbrook, it’s easy to forget why they are an All-Star. Why they won an MVP. Why they average double-digit assists and rebounds. We get caught up in what they cannot do and in the culture of personality and we dismiss their positives.

If the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior then this is true. Westbrook is a willing teammate when he’s not the star. He’s unselfish and he competes. He wants to win as badly as any player in the league.

Of those drafted in the 2008 class, Russell Westbrook has played the most minutes, has the most points, assists, and Win Shares. His talent has put him in the history books (breaking Oscar Robertson’s triple-double mark). Difficult to define, he is that round peg everyone has always tried to fit into a square hole. They want Westbrook to be what he’s not. And then they ridicule him for being not like everyone else when being not like everyone else is why Westbrook has made it to his fourteenth season.

Here. In the land of milk and honey. His hometown. Los Angeles.