NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder

Two games to understand Russell Westbrook

As ever, Russell Westbrook has taken it upon himself to be the yang to his own ying for the Oklahoma City Thunder this season. Even as a rejuvenated, re-signed Paul George has emerged as a borderline MVP candidate, leading the NBA’s best defense without its own best wing defender, Westbrook remains at the center of the storm, drawing equal parts adulation and condemnation every other night.

Westbrook’s dynamism as an athlete is only matched by his penchant for trying to overextend himself — I stop short of outright saying “overextending” because, even now, three years into a post-Kevin Durant existence and two after his MVP season, he can pull a rabbit dressed in a matching fishnet tanktop out of his multicolored vinyl hat and still shock and amaze us all, even in the direst of times.

On the latter note, though, when the Thunder are in trouble, Russell Westbrook shoots more threes. As you may suspect, this can be a problem, particularly given that Westbrook ranks dead last among all players in 3-point shooting percentage who take 4 or more 3-pointers per game. More has always been more with Westbrook, but then there are exceptions to every rule.

Those are the kinds of stats that reveal some of what Westbrook is as a basketball player, but of course, he wouldn’t be his own dichotomous cottage industry unless his own light sometimes blinded the darkness. He, perhaps more than any other player in the NBA, save ex-teammate James Harden, creates the most fervor over his practical basketball applicability in 2019 and what he means to the state of the game.

There are generally-accepted truths that concern players existing within the digital NBA ecosystem. For example, if LeBron is trending, it is the all-around manifestation of everything that was basketball before this point, and what it could be hereafter. When Kyrie Irving is trending, it generally means some poor bloke left his ankles around the free throw line at TD Garden because Kyrie decided to warp time and space on his way to the bucket.

If Steph Curry is trending, it means the entire Bol family couldn’t stop him if they were standing in front of him, in the Oracle parking lot, trying to stop him from hitting a shot. If Klay Thompson is trending, it means exactly the same thing, but in a more brief and joyous burst. If Harden himself is trending, it means that he has both broken a bloke’s ankles and likely visited the free throw line an inordinate amount of times on his way to 40 points.

These are all generally accepted as standards at this point. Whenever Westbrook is trending on a night in which he’s playing, however, it can mean one of two things: either he is playing rocks off, absolutely on fire and destroying the very idea of basketball in front of the defense’s eyes (this is the Good Russ Game), or he is playing rocks off, absolutely on fire and destroying the very idea of basketball in front of his teammate’s eyes (this is the Bad Russ Game).

To that end, I introduce to you the statistically-backed Russ Game (or Westbrook Game, if you prefer, but brevity being soul’s wit and all—). Before defining what the Russ Game is, it is important to point out when Russell Westbrook actually came into his own. We all remember the defining image of the 2012 Finals being the young Thunder core, Westbrook, Harden and, cloaked in a towel, Durant, hanging onto each other for mercy at the end of Game 5. Months later, the Thunder traded Harden to the Rockets, and the league shifted in a way from which it may still have yet to recover.

However, while Durant-and-Westbrook had been A Thing™ prior to that, only after that did it really reveal itself. All of the questions regarding who could do what without the other were essentially alchemy theory until the 2013-14 season when Westbrook finally took time away to address the lingering knee issues which had plagued him since Patrick Beverley bumped him in the previous year’s playoffs. Durant was magnificent and, of course, won the MVP that year.

But then, a season later, it was Durant who came down ill, a Jones fracture in his right foot and a toe injury causing him to miss a large portion of the season. In that season, Westbrook fully came into his own, going on a destructive tear that nearly got the Thunder to the playoffs without their longtime talisman. It was during that time that Westbrook established himself as a full-on force, recording 10 triple-doubles in the Thunder’s final 27 games, all without Durant, in a manic push for the postseason.

So it is the start of the 2014-15 season that we stake as the time that Westbrook became Westbrook. During that time, Russell Westbrook has led the league in two specific types of games, each reflective of his style, overwhelming athleticism, borderline-offensive self-confidence and intensity in its own way.

On the one hand, when he scores 30 points and dishes 12 assists but has fewer than 10 3-point attempts, which he has done 26 times in that time period, the Thunder are 19-7. He has dropped this on the Atlanta Hawks four times (!) and thrice hit the Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets.

On the other, well, when he shoots more than 20 times in a game and on less than 40 percent from the field, you know the Thunder are in trouble: he has done this a whopping 79 times since the start of the 2014-15 season, and Oklahoma City are 29-50 in those games, good for a .367 win percentage, which is better than his 3-point shooting at any point during his career.

Russell Westbrook is perhaps the one NBA player incapable of self-actualization; what would the ideal Westbrook game/season/career even look like? His usage rate is at the lowest it’s been since 2009, while his league-leading steal percentage and assists per game numbers are notably making up for some of his shortcomings on the other end.

Next: Nylon Calculus: No one else shoots 3-pointers like James Harden

Part of the fun — most of it, if we’re being truthful — in watching Russell Westbrook play basketball is that he leads the league in unpredictability. It’s what made his MVP season so captivating, and what still makes nearly every Thunder game must-see television, even as he flies into his 30s. Within the framework of the Russ Game, however, we can maybe at least start to understand what is happening incrementally game-to-game, on a macro level. Maybe then, well, we can better understand ourselves.

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