Russell Westbrook is on his own now with the Oklahoma City Thunder with the odds stacked against him. Can he be a successful lone wolf?
The odds are firmly stacked against Russell Westbrook this season. It will be his first season without playing alongside fellow superstar Kevin Durant; the expectations have significantly lowered around the league.
ESPN’s real plus-minus system projects the 2016-17 Oklahoma City Thunder to finish sixth in the Western Conference with 45.6 wins. Their over/under win total at the Westgate Superbook in Las Vegas is 45.5. The Thunder played the 2014-15 season largely without Durant and finished with, you guessed it, 45 wins.
Westbrook played with Durant for eight seasons in Oklahoma City. They tried to make it work. Together they won five division titles and one conference title, but the two were never able to go all the way and win a championship.
Durant split to form a super team with the rival Golden State Warriors hoping he’d never have a problem closing the deal again.
Russ has always had a lone wolf mentality on the court anyway. Maybe playing without another superstar to share the ball with is what he wanted. His comments since Durant’s departure indicate that he’s already moved on from his former teammate.
Westbrook’s a unique talent who plays the point guard position like an NFL running back, measuring in at 6’3″, 200 pounds. He ignores efficiency and therefore mucks with the league-wide trend of using analytics to determine what makes a great player.
Some people call him reckless and think he’s overrated because of the opportunities he wastes with his inefficiency and mistakes. It’s easy to take a stance like that, but as an analytics nerd myself I’m going against what I believe in to say that Westbrook is one of the league’s five best players.
He averaged 10.4 assists last season but only finished 28th in assist to turnover ratio due to his staggering 4.3 turnovers per game. So yes, Westbrook has his faults, but he’s at his best when he puts his head dead and attacks the rim like a man on a mission.
His game is about more than just the points and assists. It’s the threat of him being in that lane at all. He opens up so many options for other players whether on the wing or the block.
Per NBA Miner, over 50% of Westbrook’s assists have resulted in 3-point shots in three of the last five seasons. Thabo Sefolosha and other spot up shooters have routinely been beneficiaries of Westbrook’s aggressiveness.
Russ’ efficiency might not be at Chris Paul level, but he’s just as valuable to his squad. Take a look at what he did in 2015-16 on his major play types.
Westbrook should be prepared for this. During the Durant-less season of 2014-15, he set records for his usage. Russ had the second-highest single season usage percentage of all-time at 38.37% (according to Basketball-Reference). More importantly, he was successful.
He led the league in points per game and box plus-minus, finished second in PER and assist percentage, and third in VORP.
He’s been in the top five of true usage (a metric that estimates a percentage of offensive plays on which a player contributes to the end result while he is on the floor. “Contributing” is defined as a scoring attempt, turnover or potential assist) since it was introduced by Nylon Calculus for the 2013-14 season.
Even when Durant was around, Westbrook was putting up plenty of shots. According to Howard Beck of Bleacher Report, Westbrook’s style of play is part of why Durant left.
When Russ signed a 3-year, $85 million contract extension, he showed OKC the loyalty that Durant wasn’t willing to give them. The doubters will only fuel him to win his way. They say 45 wins and a middle of the pack finish in the conference, but Russell Westbrook still has a championship mentality.
If anyone can do it alone, it’s him.