How the Washington Wizards are fueling Russell Westbrook’s charge

Russell Westbrook #4 of the Washington Wizards (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
Russell Westbrook #4 of the Washington Wizards (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images) /

Russell Westbrook’s late-season triple-double barrage has helped lift the Washington Wizards firmly into the playoff picture. Over the past 16 games, the Wizards have gone 13-3 and Westbrook has averaged a mindblowing 21.8 points, 13.1 assists, and 13.6 rebounds per game.

Prior to this run, Westbrook had “only” averaged 21.8 points, 10.5 assists, and 10.5 rebounds per game. However, his uptick in assists and rebounds is not a story of him reaching another gear but rather his surroundings improving.

First, over this 16 game stretch, Westbrook is averaging 37.6 minutes compared to 35.2 minutes per game in his first 42 games. On a per-36 minute basis, Westbrook’s improvement is not quite as large as it appears.

Per 36 minutes

                      Pts         Ast       Reb

First 42:    22.3      10.7      10.7

Last 16:     20.9      12.5      13

While Westbrook’s assist and rebounding numbers per 36 minutes have still improved significantly, his scoring is down a touch, although his efficiency has picked up, which is always a welcome sight. The truth remains he is still averaging 1.8 more assists and 2.3 more rebounds over the past 16 games.

Washington Wizards: Why Russell Westbrook’s assists have shot up

For a player to earn an assist they have to pass the ball to a teammate who then has to hit the shot. If the greatest passer of all time played an NBA game with me and you, it’s unlikely that they would post impressive assist numbers.

Westbrook’s increase in assists has, unsurprisingly, coincided with an uptick in the Wizards shooting. Before the Wizards’ late-season charge they had shot 46.3 percent from the field and 34.2 percent from behind the arc on 89.6 field goal attempts a game.

During their season-saving run, they’ve shot 51.2 percent from the field and 38.3 percent from 3-point range on 92.3 field goal attempts a game. The Wizards went from making 41.5 field goals to making 47.3, which means there are 5.8 more assists available on a nightly basis.

If you factor in Westbrook’s 47.5-percent assist percentage, which is an estimate of the percentage of field goals assisted while the player is on the court, with the added 5.8 assist opportunities you would expect Westbrook to add 2.8 assists per game. Now he isn’t playing a full 48 minutes, but if you scale it to his 37.6 minutes of court time it would portend an additional 2.2 assists per game.

The Wizards improved shooting could very well be a product of Westbrook improving his passing, but that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny as Westbrook’s assist percentage has actually dipped over this run to 46.1-percent. The primary driver of Westbrook’s improved assist numbers has been the Wizards’ improved shooting.

Washington Wizards: Why Russell Westbrook’s rebounding has improved

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In a similar fashion, players don’t have full control over their rebounding opportunities. For a player like Russell Westbrook, who gets most of their rebounds on the defensive end, their opponents’ shooting percentage plays a critical role in their rebounding opportunities.

Over the Wizards’ turnaround, their opponents have shot 46.5 percent from the field down from the 47.2 percent they shot over their first 49 games. Now, it is here where Westbrook has actually shown real improvement, even with the increase in rebounding opportunities.

Over the past 16 games, Westbrook has posted a 19.5 percent rebounding percentage and a 31.6 percent defensive rebounding percentage. That’s a sizable improvement from the 15.7 percent rebounding percentage and 26.5 percent defensive rebounding percentage he posted over his first 42 games.

The reality is that the Wizards as a team have simply played better over the past 16 games. Part of that is Westbrook leaning into what he does best, rebounding, and giving up some scoring opportunities in favor of passing.

Westbrook has remained Westbrook and if he is to be lauded for the Wizards’ recent success, he should be held accountable for their slow start. The small adjustments he’s made of taking fewer shots and prioritizing setting his teammates up on offense while crashing the boards harder than ever before have helped the Wizards find their groove.

Fixating on Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles misses the point, the Washington Wizards, as a team, should be celebrated for playing better. Westbrook has been who he is for the whole season, for better or for worse.

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