The only uncontroversial opinion a person can have about Russell Westbrook is that there are no uncontroversial opinions about Russell Westbrook. No current NBA player spawns such divergent assessments of his play from any one of his performances.
Just look at this pair of back-to-back quote tweets assessing a stat about his play in Friday’s win against the Hawks:
What’s even wilder is that both seemingly diametrically opposed opinions are actually somehow kind of right!
Russell Westbrook’s 13 assists did help fuel some of the Lakers’ most “BEAUTIFUL BASKETBALL” of the season. However, the inherently minuscule sample size involved in individual plus-minus from a single game can obscure the reality of a player’s performance, effectively making it a “Fake ass stat.”
So goes the Russell Westbrook experience: In any one game, there are both things to love, and things to hate, giving his game a Rorschach test-like quality. Analysis of Westbrook tends to say less about Westbrook than it does the analyst’s basketball ideology.
If predisposed to appreciate the constancy of Westbrook’s playmaking gall, one could easily come away with a glowing review of his play. But if one is particularly keyed-in on his shot selection, finishing ability, and attention on defense, it’s possible to argue his performance was so inefficient as to be ineffective.
In recent seasons, a particular image of unknown origins has become popularized on the internet, an apparent attempt to account for these GOAT and WOAT descriptors thrown at Westbrook across the progressing months of the NBA calendar, an image we’ll dub “The Russell Westbrook Timeline Meme.”
In addressing the accuracy of this internet joke, I had two sets of questions:
- While each game typically encompasses ample moments of Russ either looking like a stud or a dud, why is it that as time has passed, his detractors have come to so significantly outnumber his Stans?
- Has the quality of his play actually tended to improve after a season’s mid-way point? And, if so, in what ways can we expect Russ to improve for this Laker team as we fully turn the calendar to 2022?
In 2017, no one really questioned whether Westbrook was good, only if triple-doubles were more than a statistical quirk of a base 10 number system (it is) and if he was really deserving of winning the MVP (he wasn’t). Now, the axis of debate has shifted towards, “Is Westbrook any good at all?”
Naturally, more and more folks have gone from believers to haters as Westbrook’s quality of play has objectively declined from his MVP-winning apex. Still, the shift in opinion seems to have radically outpaced the decline in Westbrook’s game. The novelty of triple-doubles has definitely worn off over time, becoming more of a punchline than a radically scarce accomplishment. But perhaps more significantly, Westbrook’s style of play has changed as he’s aged, with his wins becoming smaller and less perceptible, while his losses remain as loud as a Howitzer.
In Friday’s game, Westbrook had — per usual — a handful of glaring errors. Even worse than his couple of ugly turnovers were his 10 misses on 14 attempts from the field. Westbrook couldn’t buy a jumper, and forced some hopeless attempts at the rim.
Watching just the above clip might — as the meme posits — leave the impression that Westbrook is the worst player in the NBA. And unfortunately for his image, the advantages he creates nowadays tend to be quieter than in years past, and more often engulfed in what appears to be an efficiency analytics disaster.
Instead of his highlight hammers of yore, Westbrook’s dunks this season have been less aesthetically awesome and more inconsistent as his far too often losing war against the rim has raged on. In fact, he’s actually only shooting 56.3% on dunks, having made just nine of his 16 attempts to stuff a basketball through a cylinder nearly twice its diameter. And with his finishing stripped of its ferocity and highlights turning into blooper reels, Russ is simply a less exciting player to watch.
However, the athletic skill he’s retained into his age-33 season are his strength and straight-line speed. Sometimes, Russ’ move to the rim happens so fast it’s easy to overlook the craft he needed to get there. For example, he creates this transition bucket off of a miss by simply sprinting past four Hawks, and through the last one.
This seemingly free basket requires Westbrook to hit the jets early at a speed most players couldn’t reach, and power through Kevin Huerter without losing control of the ball. It isn’t particularly flashy, but these kinds of baskets count the same as any other, even if he’s struggled to make these looks at an optimal rate. He’s actually been one of the least efficient transition finishers in the NBA, even if (by my estimate) frequent Kobe Assists make his drives a tad more valuable than his points per possession on them (15th percentile) might suggest.
His biggest boon to the Lakers is his superlative playmaking, some of which is responsible for his frequently high turnover count. In their postgame interviews the Lakers continue to stress the difference between “attack” and “careless” turnovers, as the former are par for the course with any high-volume playmaker, while the latter are to be avoided. Russ is prone to both, but it’s worth remembering that even on his worst nights, Westbrook’s turnover total is usually dominated by attack turnovers, with an inconsistent smattering of the careless ones that earn far more attention online.
Still, he’s the leader of the second-most productive playmaking duo in the league. He (15.1) and LeBron (13.3) combine for more potential assists per game than any two teammates in the NBA except for Darius Garland (14.5) and the now-injured Ricky Rubio (14.0). His passes are rarely especially flashy or creative, like LeBron’s or Jokic’s, but a warp-speed drive-and-kick tends to open doors for other Lakers’ secondary playmaking.
Westbrook leads the charge towards the “paint-to-great” basketball Frank Vogel loves to preach. He praised Russ for just that after last game, saying, “I do think he set a tone for us to play extra pass basketball...He set a great tone for us in the first half.” Depending on your expectations for Russ, and whether you watched the game or your Twitter timeline, it’s easy for two people to fall into dichotomous glowing or scathing assessments of his playmaking on the same night.
But while the critical appreciation of Westbrook’s overall play has certainly soured in recent years, there is still some expectation, per the aforementioned meme, that he tends to improve over the course of a season. His pre and post-All-Star break splits closely mirror each other over the course of his career (albeit with slightly improved 3-point shooting), but that hasn’t been the case in either of the past two seasons — each of which Russ spent with a new team, adjusting to new coaches and new teammates.
During the 2019-20 season in Houston, Westbrook struggled to find a groove in the halfcourt until the Rockets traded away Clint Capela and opted to play five-out in favor of maximizing the space for Russ and James Harden to operate. In the 42 games he played with Capela, Westbrook averaged 26.4 points per game on 45.4% shooting. In the 15 subsequent games, his scoring jumped to 29.7 points per game on 52.0% shooting. With Capela off the floor and the paint cleared for takeoff, Westbrook shot five percentage points better at the rim, going from below average to above average efficiency on high volume.
His tenure in Washington the following season started out even shakier than his time in Houston. However, it wasn’t the lack of spacing that crippled Westbrook’s efficiency, it was the Wizards’ struggle to build chemistry amongst their regular rotation players due to the inordinate strain a wave of COVID-19 infections placed on the roster. Just a couple of weeks into the season, on Jan. 12 of 2021, the Wizards began a string of cancellations that lead to almost two weeks of time away from the court. Only by the beginning of February did they get the bulk of their roster back, and then still needed some time to get into playing shape and gain trust in each other on the floor.
Prior to the March 7 All-Star Game, Westbrook was at 20.3 points per game on 42.8% shooting. After the break, Russ averaged 23.6 points per game on 44.7% shooting. He also maintained a turnover rate of 4.8 per game, but earned almost 3.5 more assists per game in the last 38 games of the season.
In each of his previous two single-season stops before arriving in LA, only once the moving parts around him settled was Westbrook able to access the best version of himself. It’s also worth noting that Westbrook was able to subtly bend his game towards his team’s needs, playing more of a scoring role in Houston and a distributing one in Washington.
This season, the Lakers have only now just started to overcome the exact same issues that plagued the Rockets (spacing), and the Wizards (COVID). Continuity-wise, they are just now exiting the first of the meme’s three brackets. The Lakers only have three lineups that have shared the floor for more than 100 possessions. Most contenders have five or six such lineups by now, with those teams’ most-used lineups quickly closing in on 1000 possessions.
Now, with most of the Lakers healthy and having been reformed around small-ball lineups, they’ve ripped off five wins in six games, quietly creeping up the leaderboards with the league’s fifth-best point differential over the past two weeks, and its second-best offense.
Westbrook has been a big part of that development, as the Lakers have posted a +12.1 point differential per 100 possessions with Russ at the point and LeBron at the 5. The most-used permutation of that lineup — the one the Lakers have run out to start in four of the last six games with Stanley Johnson paired beside LeBron in the frontcourt and the Lakers’ third lineup to clear 100 possessions — is cruising past opponents to the tune of +24.8 points per 100 possessions.
He’s been crucial to that identity working, as those lineups have craved his offensive energy when he sits. LeBron-at-center lineups without Westbrook are getting outscored by 7.5 points per 100 possessions in 234 possessions.
As the Lakers continue to log minutes together and grow on-court chemistry, sifting out the worst player combinations while leaning harder into the most effective ones, Westbrook may have an easier time getting to his spots and making shots, lifting his shooting efficiency as he has in each of the past two seasons on new teams. In fact, he’s boosted his field goal percentage by at least two (and as many as five) percentage points after the All-Star break in each of the last five seasons
Although Westbrook has espoused his intention to be as consistent as possible on a night-to-night basis, per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, former Thunder and Wizards Head Coach and current Blazers Assistant Scott Brooks suggested that because Westbrook refrains from playing five-on-five basketball during the offseason in an effort to protect his body, his feel improves as the season goes on. Perhaps Westbrook will start to win more of his battles against the front-iron, and raise his finishing efficiency with additional time to get his legs under him.
The meme’s final piece, the farthest from our present moment, is the thousand-yard stare that accompanies the onset of the playoffs. Over Westbrook’s entire career, whatever gains are made in the regular season are lost in the playoffs. He’s shot under 40% from the field in six of his last eight playoff series, and is a career 40.8% shooter overall and 29.6% from three in the postseason.
Although the Lakers are a far-from-finished product, and LeBron’s versatility as a master of everything on a basketball court will help continue to help put Westbrook in the best possible positions to thrive, Russ’ lack of success against the stiffest competition portends a massive obstacle at the end of this Laker season. Conversely, LeBron and Anthony Davis’ health are far more important obstacles for the Lakers to clear if they hope to make good on their championship-or-bust aspirations. Assuming their top two stars are in peak condition, however, Russ will be the third-option on a playoff team for the first time in his career, something the Lakers are surely banking on elevating his postseason efficiency.
But no matter what you think of him, only time will tell if reality will imitate the meme, or if Westbrook can shake his viral reputation when winning time comes around. If the new-look, small-ball, Big 3 Lakers can win a championship, Russell Westbrook will go down in NBA history as a champion first, and internet punchline last. To crib a line from The Sandlot, “Memes get remembered, but champions never die.”
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.