After starting off the season with a surprisingly mediocre 5-4 record, the Oklahoma City Thunder have rebounded with a 7-3 stretch over their past 10 games, giving them a 13-6 record, which is closer to pre-season predictions than their initial record suggested they would be at this point. When searching for a reason the Thunder have turned things around in recent weeks, don’t look towards the obvious answer of Kevin Durant willing them to victory. No, its been a combination of better defensive play and the blossoming of a superstar.
Russell Westbrook‘s ascension to the upper echelon is even more impressive than Durant’s jump last season because Westbrook is now one of the most complete players in the entire league. While Durant simply got more shots up and got to the line more last season, boasting his points per game average, which was the only significant change in his game, Westbrook has turned into the NBA’s most unstoppable player when going to the rim while mixing a steady dose of jumpshots at an efficient rate.
On the season, Westbrook is averaging 24.6 points, 8.6 assists, and 5.6 rebounds per game, all of which are career highs. Westbrook’s near 25 points per game average is just two points below Kevin Durant’s 27.3 points per game average despite taking three less shots per game and the six-foot-three Westbrook is averaging just one less rebound than the nearly seven foot tall Durant. Westbrook has also set career highs over the first 19 games of the season in field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free throw percentage with a line of 45%/27%/87%.
Perhaps the biggest reason for Russell’s success offensively this season that has allowed his scoring average to increase by nine points while his true shooting percentage has risen is his ability to knockdown a jumpshot. Westbrook has turned into a better shooter inside the arc than Kevin Durant. Durant is shooting 36% from 16-23 feet on the year while Westbrook is shooting 40%, which is right at the league average. And when a player with Westbrook’s size, speed and strength has a shot to keep defense honest, his athletic ability becomes an uncontainable asset.
Westbrook is averaging 9.5 free throw attempts per game this season, nearly double what he was averaging last season and when you combine that with his increased accuracy from the line and with his mid-range jumper, its easy to see why his scoring average has seen such a dramatic increase. Westbrook’s ability to attack the basket puts him in an elite group of players with the likes of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and a select few others. In fact, Westbrook has surpassed all of those players this season and currently leads the league in attempts at the rim with 6.7 shots at the cup per game. Add in the nine free throws he’s drawing and its safe to say that Russell is attacking the basket, easily, I might add, 10 times a game.
And perhaps more impressive than Westbrook’s contributions in everyone’s favorite stat column are the things Westbrook is doing that are more point guard-like. Coming into the league, most thought Westbrook would be better off as a slashing two guard because he is obviously most useful when attacking the basket rather than running an offense. But when the Thunder past on several promising point guard prospects in last year’s draft, selecting two guard James Harden instead, they solidified their commitment to Westbrook and it has started to pay off big time this season.
Westbrook is averaging just a tad under nine assists, giving him the best combination of points per game and assists per game out of any player in the league, edging out LeBron’s 24/8 combo. Russell has looked so much more comfortable running the offense and I really think that goes back to his ability to shoot. He knows when he can take his man off the dribble or pull-up and now that he has a feel for what he can do individually he’s started to grasp how and when he should get his teammates involved in order to maximize the production of the team as a whole. Westbrook’s chemistry with Jeff Green has been more apparent that his connection with any other player. Green has shot the ball extremely well from the mid-range this season and half of the looks he is making inbetween 16 and 23 feet have been assisted on.
Russell will never be a Nash or Kidd-like wizard on the floor when it comes to distributing the basketball but he is sure a lot better than most thought he would when it comes to moving the ball around. And for the second season in a row, Westbrook has decreased his turnover rate despite taking on a larger role in the offense. Westbrook has a career low 11.4% turnover rate, which is 2% lower than his rookie season. Westbrook is also averaging a career high in assists leading to shots from 16-23 feet and beyond the arc, which indicates increased efficiency in the pick and pop game.
Athleticism and aggressiveness have also turned Westbrook into an elite offensive rebounder at the point guard position. Westbrook’s offensive rebound rate ranks at the top of the charts with Rajon Rondo being the only other point guard in his area code. The difference between these two players shows the major difference in how rebounds are grabbed. The majority of Rondo’s offensive boards come on long caroms that he slithers into the paint grab. Westbrook just attacks the glass with ferocity and without a care in the world. If he has to bowl through a guy or jump over somebody, he’ll do it, and he’s been quite successful to the tune of 5.4% of all offensive boards available and 8.8% of all available rebounds grabbed (which, again, leads the league).
With this culmination of imperative skills, Westbrook has vaulted into the top two in the league in PER (player efficiency rating). Only Chris Paul (27.25) has a higher PER and Westbrook’s mark of 26.45 is a full point away from the third highest PER in the league and six points higher than his teammate Kevin Durant, who ranks 28th overall. PER is not the end all be all of stats but when a player makes a jump in more than one area of his game, its generally a good number to look at to determine just how effective a player has become.
Earlier in the year, I criticized Kevin Durant and stated that he is overrated and all of my major points still stand. He’s taking 21 field goal attempts a night to score 19 points from the field and still hasn’t developed handles or the ability to pass the ball. The fact that he is being considered for the MVP award is a joke. Just because he’s scoring the most points per game, which is a product of his ridiculously high volume of shots, doesn’t mean he is the best player in the league or even the most valuable player on his team.
No, that honor belongs to Westbrook. Westbrook isn’t just a scorer, he’s a full-fledged point guard that has gone from a project at the point to the league’s second best (can’t give the edge over CP3 just yet). Perhaps Westbrook can’t sustain this level of production for the rest of the year, but there’s really no reason to doubt that he will keep this up. Westbrook has put in the time to become a great all-around basketball player. As a result, he’s no longer a an athletic freak playing basketball, he’s a complete basketball player that happens to be an athletic freak.