Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Russell Westbrook and Creating "Luck"

Russell Westbrook is an apex predator. Give him a straight line to the basket- even the slightest slit through a defense- and the alpha athlete of the NBA will lock in on the rim and ferociously attack, concluding his assault with a thunderous dunk.

That's the instinctual, aggressive side of Westbrook.
With RW, it's not just the dunks anymore.

But there's another, more controlled side of the point guard's game that has been in the works for quite a while now. Slowly but surely, Westbrook has been developing habits such as recognizing when his teammates are in rhythm, taking a patient approach to getting good shots for himself, and setting up the offense without the intent of gaining a stat (field goal, free throws, or an assist) for himself to conclude the possession. He took a statistical quantum leap in his third year but is taking an incremental yet no less important leap this year as far as providing what his team needs.

Kevin Durant is the Thunder's Constant, the consistent provider of efficiently scored points. Although Durant himself has made leaps as far as creating shots for himself, he isn't a primary creator. As a perimeter scorer, he belongs in the score-in-the-flow category, though again, he has made improvements.

Westbrook can be the wild card, the push-us-over-the-top creator of variance and "luck," the player whom the opposition plans for yet realizes that surrendering an explosive offensive performance isn't always in their control. He's always had a game tailor-made for being that type of player. It's an advantage of behaving with a "survival of the fittest, only the strong dunk" attitude.

But as great as Westbrook was last year, he had the propensity to shoot his team out of games as much as he had the ability to shoot them over the top. That's not creating "luck." That's gambling, and when a team already has a player as consistent as Durant, it's unnecessary.

What the Thunder need is what this calmer Westbrook has become. RW has upped his scoring volume this season from 21.9 to 24.2 points per game, all the while scoring more efficiently than ever before (55.2 percent True Shooting). His assists have dropped from 8.2 to 5.5 per game, but that's more a function of issuing the ball to James Harden and Durant to accommodate their respective ball-handling and improved iso scoring capabilities. He has improved his ability to play off of others.

And that's why defenses are having a much harder time corralling him. Westbrook is shooting at career-high percentages from 3-9 feet, 10-15 feet, and 16-23 feet, all the while shooting the same or a greater volume from those spots on the floor compared to 2011. Perhaps most importantly, he's developed a potent 3-point shot. He's assisted on 45.8 percent of his 3's, but he has also more than doubled his volume of total attempts, meaning he's even more of a threat off the dribble from deep.

Oklahoma City is ranked first in the NBA in offensive rating this year, and Westbrook's change in behavior is a contributing factor in the team's offensive improvement. He's using his creative ability and energy not to gamble but to take responsible risks at appropriate times in games. It's a much more useful approach, especially come playoff time when he can create that "luck," that variance when necessary, and push his team over the top.

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