Injuries to star players drastically altered the NBA landscape last season, but none affected the championship odds more than Russell Westbrook’s torn right meniscus. If the Oklahoma City Thunder are going to make it back to the NBA Finals, Westbrook must come back from injury as a better basketball player.
He isn’t alone on the comeback trail—far from it—as there was an injury epidemic that affected numerous superstars. Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and Rajon Rondo will join Westbrook in the quest to return from injury better than ever, but what does Westbrook need to work on to elevate his game?
Point Guard Play
There might not be a more polarizing NBA figure on the court than Russell Westbrook. On the one hand, the Thunder need him to score the ball. The team is built around the firepower of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and it needs Westbrook to be aggressive for its offense to function at a high level.
Conversely, criticism is constantly heaped on his shoulders for his lack of point guard skills in the traditional sense of the position. He is disparaged for taking as many shots as he does when he shares the court with one of the greatest scorers in the game.
Contrary to popular belief, his overaggressiveness on the offensive end doesn’t hurt Kevin Durant, but it does hurt some of his other teammates who can’t create their own shots. Despite Westbrook posting the second-highest usage percentage (an estimate of the percentage of a team’s possessions that a player uses) in the league last year, Durant still came in at No. 6 on the list, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
Durant will still get plenty of possessions, but Westbrook’s high usage rate decreases opportunities for other players to get involved on the offensive end. As a result, he needs to do a better job of reducing his lofty turnover numbers (he averaged 4.6 turnovers per 48 minutes, one of the worst rates in the league) and facilitating scoring opportunities for other Thunder players.
A prime example is Serge Ibaka.
Heading into this season, Ibaka is Oklahoma City’s third option, but the bulk of his offense comes from mid-range jumpers. He needs Westbrook to create shots for him off pick-and-pop plays, and he struggled mightily when Westbrook went down in the playoffs.
Westbrook still needs to score, but he also has to make plays for his teammates so that the Thunder aren't such an isolation-dependent offense.
So much of the Thunder’s offense revolves around isolation basketball, so Westbrook needs to be aggressive, but he needs to do so while taking high-percentage shots.
Looking at the shot chart, you can see that 30 percent of his shot attempts last season were mid-range jumpers. Westbrook shoots an average percentage from the mid-range, but he has a tendency to fall in love with his pull-up jump shot at times and stop putting pressure on the defense by trying to get to the rim.
It’s reminiscent of the pre-championship LeBron James, who would forget that he was physically unstoppable and bail defenses out by settling for jump shots. Westbrook needs to be more assertive and focus on getting into the paint more, or improve his mediocre mid-range shooting percentage.
When he attacks the rim, he is an excellent finisher and draws fouls at a high rate (sixth in the NBA in free throws attempted per game last year).
This last category doesn’t require months of offseason training or a significant change of his basketball DNA. Westbrook already has all of the tools necessary to be a lockdown defender because that’s what he was at UCLA.
As his offensive game has blossomed, he’s moved away from being a defensive stopper, and he has a tendency to gamble too much while trying to go for steals.
According to ESPN Insider (subscription required), he was the worst Oklahoma City defender in 2012-13, and the defense wasn’t any better or worse with him on the court. This is unacceptable given the phenomenal athleticism and defensive instincts that Westbrook possesses.
He has all the tools to be one of the best all-around players in the game, but he needs to improve his defensive intensity to achieve that goal.
If Russell Westbrook can improve in these three categories, it will go a long way to silencing his many critics, and the Oklahoma City Thunder will be better for it.
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