Wizards: Russell Westbrook is trending up at the right time

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) /

Over the last few seasons, Russell Westbrook has become a player who many people like to point to as an answer to questions such as “Who is the most overrated NBA player today?” or “Which player isn’t nearly as good as his numbers suggest?”.

That’s part and parcel with most players who haven’t won a championship and have the ball in their hands as much as Westbrook does. Add in his now-fourth season out of the last five in which he has averaged a triple-double — a feat that often spawns plenty of “he’s a stat-padder/rebound hog/assist hog” takes — and those opinions only intensify.

The main issue rests with his inefficiencies as a scorer, which looked like it would become a problem once again this season, as his true shooting percentage sat well below 50 percent for the first three months of the 2020-21 campaign. Thus, any questions and concerns about Westbrook’s viability as a lead guard for a good team were and are more than fair.

Since then, however, Westbrook has turned things around, and his uptick in performance has helped propel the Washington Wizards back into playoff contention.

Russell Westbrook is peaking at the right time, as he has helped the Washington Wizards climb back into the postseason picture.

Since April 7, the Wizards have gone 13-4 with a +6.5 net rating; the wins are the most in the NBA during that stretch and the net rating ranks third behind the Philadelphia 76ers, Utah Jazz, and the equally hot New York Knicks.

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Not so coincidentally, Westbrook has posted these numbers during that stretch: 21.8 points, 13.6 rebounds, and 13.1 assists per game with a .469/.333/.722 shooting line, per Basketball-Reference. These aren’t numbers for the sake of numbers, either: The Wizards’ net rating through this space of time jumps from +1.7 to +7.4 when Westbrook is on the floor, per NBA.com. Plus, his single-number metrics for the season (2.31 LEBRON, 0.9 Estimated Plus/Minus, 2.9 Box Plus/Minus) are now trending in the right direction.

Much of that success centers on the gravity Russell Westbrook still generates despite knocking down jumpers at about the same rate that a good baseball player gets hits. Per BBall Index (subscription required), Westbrook ranks in the 99th percentile in Box Creation, a metric that tracks how often a player creates open shots for their teammates, and in the 92nd percentile in overall scoring gravity.

This extra attention the former league MVP commands is due to his willingness to drive to the basket (eighth in the NBA in drives per game since April 7) and because he still finishes at a solid rate (62nd percentile in field goal percentage at the rim this season), teams have to respect that aspect of his game. If they don’t, plays like this will happen:

If teams have to send help to keep Westbrook out of the paint, that opens things up for his teammates. Take this play, for example. It looks like P.J. Tucker is staying close to help Thanasis Antetokounmpo, but Westbrook quickly recognizes that Davis Bertans is open off the pick-and-pop and fires a pass to him.

Here’s another example. Look at all the purple near the basket following the Spain action. Sure this signifies the Los Angeles Lakers’ lack of concern over Ish Smith in the corner, but Westbrook’s aggressiveness in getting Smith that wide-open look, too.

This becomes even more pronounced when he picks up momentum in transition:

Most encouragingly, Westbrook has meshed well with co-star Bradley Beal during this run — since April 7, the Wizards have a +7.1 net rating with these two on the floor — as Beal’s off-ball effectiveness has given Westbrook some easy “in name only” assists while also opening things up for everyone else, like on this Alex Len dunk.

Now, this obviously doesn’t mean Westbrook will get the Wizards past the play-in, let alone to the NBA Finals. We’ve seen this play out in Oklahoma City and Houston: there’s only so much a player without a credible jump shot can do in a seven-game series against good defenses.

For now, though, those gaudy counting stats that become a point of criticism towards Russell Westbrook have been good enough to possibly get Washington back to the playoffs, and given how bleak things looked for him and the Wizards at the start of the year, that alone is pretty remarkable.

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