Russell Westbrook’s Point Guard Evolution Still Incomplete

Jan 19, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 19, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports /

Even though the Oklahoma City Thunder and Kevin Durant are succeeding so far in the West, Russell Westbrook still has holes in his game to fix.

It’s been an unusual season so far in the Western Conference.

After what seemed like multiple seasons where teams needed at least 48 wins to make the playoffs in the West there are currently eight teams sitting under the .500 mark on the season. The postseason isn’t out of reach for a lot of squads that wouldn’t have been in the race just a year ago.

Where depth is usually a problem in the Eastern Conference it’s become evident that in terms of the number of good teams there’s been a changing of the guard in the NBA.

There’s just one thing missing: the top of the West is miles ahead of the East in terms of quality.

The Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are all better than the top dog in the East in the Cleveland Cavaliers thanks to their bevy of rotation players, exceptional coaching and star power.

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One of those teams has significant room for improvement. That would be the Thunder.

Oklahoma City has two superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. When those two are at their best the Thunder are awfully hard to stop because of breathtaking athleticism and scoring from anywhere on the floor.

Usually teams have one dominant scorer and complementary stars and role players. One could argue that both Durant and Westbrook are dominant scorers and viable candidates for being Oklahoma City’s number one option on offense.

Durant is a 6-foot-10 forward with range on his jump shot that extends out to about 30 feet. In other words, he knocks down shots from deep without anyone getting a hand on the ball because of his height and high release point. He also has a handle and is more than proficient at driving to the basket and either finishing in traffic or drawing a foul inside the lane. Once he gets to the free throw line he knocks down shots at a career 88.2 percent clip.

Westbrook is another story. Standing at only 6-foot-3 he’s as explosive of an athlete as you’ll find in professional sports let alone basketball. His strength, verticality and toughness combine into the deadliest competitive force in the NBA. He drives at the basket with such a ferocity many players end up getting out of the way, fearing they’ll be on his next poster.

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Being a career 57.6 percent finisher from within three feet of the basket, Westbrook knows how to break down the defense and get the shot he’s most comfortable with making.

If I had to choose one player to attack the basket and get me two in some form or fashion be it on the finish or at the charity stripe it would be Westbrook. It’s when he refuses to go after those looks and settles for his mid-range pull-ups and three-point shots that I have a problem with his offensive mentality.

For his career, he’s shot under 40 percent from 10 feet and beyond and 30.3 percent on three-point shots. He just doesn’t shoot at a high enough percentage for me to consistently give him the green light on those looks.

Durant, however, does shoot over 40 percent on attempts 10 feet and out for his career and he’s an even more devastating inside presence than Westbrook converting on 72.3 percent of his attempts from within three feet. He’s not always as explosive inside as Westbrook because he possesses length and size advantage on most small forwards trying to contain his drives to the basket.

Who would you rather have taking the most shots on your team? An inefficient ticking time bomb or a quality shot taker and maker from all areas on the floor?

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The good news for the Thunder is that Westbrook has limited his shot attempts this season down almost four from last year, but he’s still ahead of Durant (18.6 for Westbrook as opposed to Durant’s 17.9). Some of this has to do with Westbrook being the point guard and having the ball in his hands more but he’ll always be a more natural scorer than distributor.

“But Westbrook’s averaging 9.7 assists per game this year and is turning the ball over less!” That’s true, but until he concedes control of the offense permanently to Durant this Oklahoma City team isn’t winning a championship.

It boggles me that Westbrook will continue at times to shut Durant out of the scoring spotlight even though there’s literal proof that when he limits himself and acts as a true floor general the Thunder win more games.

In Oklahoma City’s last five games Durant has taken more shots than Westbrook and guess what? They’ve won ALL FIVE GAMES! Two of those contests were even against playoff teams in the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks. Westbrook also had double-digit assists in four of those five games and quarterbacked the offense around him as opposed to settling for bad shots.

I’m very glad to see Westbrook more concerned with the team around him than himself on offense, but now that mentality is required every single game, not just on occasion. When healthy, Durant is the best player on the Thunder — not Westbrook.

As long as efficiency and ball movement are the keys to Oklahoma City’s attack then they’re right there with the Warriors and Spurs in terms of title contention. However, selfishness and an obsession with iso-ball has been and will be the Thunder’s downfall.

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Westbrook’s drive-and-kick ability is the difference between a ring and a trip home. Now it’s time for him to go out and show the NBA world he’s evolved as a point guard.