Russ the (Not) Best Player

It was nice while it lasted, two years of Russell Westbrook doing just about everything except mopping up the Chesapeake Energy Arena floor in the absence of an elite player. But that it is over. Paul George has arrived and has filled in the Kevin Durant hole.

George isn’t Durant. He is not. But he is a nice 1A, and a few months after signing a max deal with the Thunder, he is not just paying dividends, Paul George is the Thunder’s best player. He is their best defensive player. He is their most consistent offensive player. He is an unstoppable threat.

Confident after one OKC year behind him, George has never been better. A career high in shot attempts and field goals made, three pointers attempted and three pointers made, eFG%, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists, steals, and points. George’s Offensive Rating high before this year was 112. It is 116 this season. His defensive rating is 101, a four year best. His 24.1 PER and 29.4% usage rate are complimentary instead of one fighting the other for attention. In short, Paul George is on the MVP short list.

It’s as if George and everything he went through- good and frustrating- with the Pacers, and his inaugural year with OKC last year, has led to this. Paul George tapping into his potential and being the player he was always going to be before that gruesome knee injury.

Last year, the Russ-PG chemistry was questionable because the third wheel of Carmelo Anthony mucked it all up, like too much salt in the gumbo. To unmask the brilliance of George as more than a Westbrook sidekick, Melo had to go. So far, George is filling in the Kevin Durant role. And Russ is more than willing to let him.

Similar to how Dwyane Wade took a backseat to LeBron, Russell Westbrook is letting Paul George shine as the Thunder’s best player. Westbrook’s numbers have fallen. Sure, he still gives a triple double but the details matter.

Westbrook’s shot is off, a nine year low. He is making 24% of his three balls. He can’t make free throws either, 60%. His offensive rebounds are a career low but he is still Russ so he’s dishing and stealing the ball for run outs. He hasn’t scored just 20 ppg since his second year in the league.

There’s more. His offensive rating is the worst it has been since his rookie year. He is still defending like a mother and continues his streak of 20.0+ PER, nine years running. But he has never shot 15% from 3-10 feet until now. And his 28% on jumpshots makes you shake your head.

Late in quarters is where Westbrook has really struggled. Last year with three minutes left in the quarter, he was 44% on point. This year he is 33%. In close games, he is shooting 39%.

And still he has that usage rate of 30.6.

How much does it really matter how Westbrook’s offense has fallen with Paul George looking fabulous?

When the Thunder win, Russ shoots the lights out the ball, 44%. When they lose, he is anemic, 38%. The Thunder need George and Russ to be dominant. What is the most troubling part is that against the West, Westbrook is shooting 39%. That just won’t do.

With Westbrook’s offensive struggles, Paul George has been a life raft. He has carried the Thunder all year long and is their MVP. He is making 40% of his jumpshots and late in quarters makes 42% of his shots.

While Westbrook has been a work in progress in December, George has shined, shooting 50% and making 43% of his threes. This is the Paul George the Thunder expected when they inked him to the max deal on the first day of free agency. But the Thunder were also expecting Westbrook to thrive next to him.

So far, Westbrook’s numbing inefficiency hasn’t hurt. The Thunder have a top-4 seed and expect to stay that way all year. But in the playoffs, the Thunder cannot be a one man offensive attack. To go where they want to eventually be, the Western Conference Finals, they need Russ. MVP Russ. Best player on the team Russ. Russell Westbrook whose game went up a notch after Durant’s exit. This Westbrook isn’t unfamiliar. It is the Westbrook who took a backseat to Kevin Durant.

That’s a bad recipe after everything Westbrook has proven to the league. He needs to recapture who he used to be before George came into his basketball life. The Thunder need Russell Westbrook’s A game, not this imposter who can’t find consistency.