What is Going on With Russell Westbrook?

Is the Oklahoma City force of nature evolving, or declining?
February 1, 2019, 2:00pm
Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook.
Photo by Peter Foley/EPA-EFE

The below has been excerpted from this week's Outlet Pass, to get caught up on everything else you need to know in the NBA this week read the rest of the column here.

Most of the conversation about Westbrook’s season has deservedly centered around his crumpling efficiency. Now 30, his True Shooting percentage is 47.7 (about five points lower than the 30th-ranked New York Knicks) and, well, feast your eyes on this bad boy:


But look past the porous shooting and watching Westbrook is still not quite the same experience it used to be. He’s slightly less selfish in a way that’s unclear whether that’s good or bad. Take this stat: Westbrook is ending his drives with a pass way more than he normally does. Right now, he passes the ball on 51.8 percent of his drives, which, among all players who average at least 10 drives per game, ranks fourth behind Ricky Rubio, Ish Smith, and Joe Ingles. If you’re having trouble imagining the significance of this number, think about what Chris Paul looks like whenever he takes off for the basket. Westbrook’s pass percentage is slightly higher than Paul’s. That’s not nothing! (Last year, Westbrook’s pass percentage on drives was 35.9. Two seasons before that it was 33.7. In 2015, it was 30.0.)

Now, Westbrook’s assist rate and field goal percentage on drives are more or less consistent with his recent past, and there’s nothing inherently terrible about him moving the ball more often than not. But it’s still curious. Westbrook-ian rage doesn’t yield perfect results, but lousy things happen when he disconnects from that identity. There are countless examples in every game and here's one. Like, short of accusing him of hunting assists, why doesn't Westbrook finish through Nikola Vucevic here instead of forcing a difficult pass to Nerlens Noel?

Generally, given Oklahoma City’s non-existent outside shooting, this sort of makes sense. Maybe help defenders are able to rotate earlier and make Westbrook be a facilitator more often than he should? But the Thunder were even less effective from deep two seasons ago and that didn’t stop Westbrook from going ballistic during an MVP campaign in which he averaged over 20 drives per game. (Also—this may mean nothing!—but the percentage of Westbrook’s dunks that are assisted is up to 54.5 this season. Last year it was 40.4, and in 2017 it was 34.7.)

Paul George wasn’t around then, and perhaps his MVP presence tilts Westbrook’s (and the defense’s) thought process just a little bit. It also makes you wonder if some sort of decline is starting to materialize. Physically, Westbrook looks ageless. He’s still able to turn his body into a pole vault and his field goal percentage at the rim is higher than ever before. But his increased passing percentage on drives without seeing that translate to more assists may be an open wound over his greatest strength.

An optimist will say he’s steadily maturing into life as a more refined floor general. Or that what he does during the regular season is less critical than how aggressive he’ll be in the playoffs. Maybe he just doesn’t want to get fouled as frequently as he used to. (Westbrook has been curiously bad at the line this season.) I have no idea what all this means and one stat doesn’t come close to painting an entire canvas, particularly when Westbrook is averaging 21.7 points, a league-high 10.8 assists, and a career-high 10.9 rebounds, but it feels somewhat important. Or maybe it’s not. (I’m so confused.)