Keeping An Eye On Contenders: Westbrook is Driving Force for Thunder

Relentless is one way to describe the Oklahoma City Thunder’s point guard Russell Westbrook. Whatever adjective you use to identify his play, it’s clear that he’s the heartbeat of the Thunder and they go as he does. The idea that this team is a shared mission between him and Kevin Durant is a delusion that has dimmed that light on Westbrook’s impact.

As free agent rumors continue to cloud Durant’s future, Westbrook has performed almost obliviously to the assumptions and seemingly in spite of the implications that his co-pilot in Oklahoma City may not be with him next year. Westbrook recently notched his 14th triple-double of the season against the Indiana Pacers, in what could be a considered a sub-par performance for him (14 points, 14 assists, and 11 rebounds). To put that into perspective, Westbrook has done something that no one else has been able to do since Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson circa 1989. Interestingly enough, the Thunder have never lost during one of these performances.

Over the course of the Thunder’s 70 contests, Westbrook has been a part of every game and that has shown itself in his averages of 23.8 points, 10.4 assists, and 7.7 rebounds. His ability to stay healthy while playing with a type of reckless abandonment is an impressive feat in it of itself, but his growth as a point guard has been even more impressive.

Westbrook has turned his moniker as a scorer playing the point guard position into his own hybrid guard style that creates offense for himself and others. On average, Westbrook makes 58.5 passes, not assists, but passes. Of those passes, 35.9% of them go to Kevin Durant, 17.7% to Steven Adams, and 17.2% to Serge Ibaka. These opportunities usually come from Westbrook’s ability to get into the paint, where he’s averaging 10.5 points. The trend in paint production doesn’t end there, as the Thunder are third in the league in points scored in the paint (47.8).

His paint attack puts pressure on defenders to play him for the drive, which allows his mid-range game to flourish. In 29% of Westbrook’s shots, he shoots a pull-up jumper at an efficient 41%. This usually opens up passing lanes and drive and kick situations for other players, most notably Durant. The catch and shoot three-point shot is Durant’s most efficient long-range shot (41.6%), so this plays perfectly into each other’s strengths.

Another way Westbrook creates offense is when he crashes the boards. The majority of his 7.7 rebounds per game comes between 3-6 feet from the rim (2.3 rebounds per game), where he can start the fast break and put the defense on their heels. The Thunder are 5th in the NBA in fast break points (17.2) with Westbrook rattling in 6.3 fast break points per game.

The explosiveness of Westbrook allows him to play at a speed that is unmatched, but it also gets him and his squad into trouble. His shot selection has always been in question and he can erratically turn the ball over in bunches. He is only second to James Harden in turnovers with 4.3 per game and the Thunder are in the top five for most turnovers (15.8).

In a different time and place, the 48-22 Thunder might be a serious contender for the Larry O’Brien trophy, but this year doesn’t look like that at all. The Golden State Warriors have defeated Westbrook and crew three times this season. The San Antonio Spurs recently put the clamps on Westbrook, only allowing him 19 points and forcing nine turnovers. If those games are an indicator, and they are, then the only thing the Thunder have to look forward to is the continual evolution of the point guard position in Westbrook.

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