HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Any player as talented and accomplished as Russell Westbrook will be a bit reticent when the subject turns to his continued evolution after he’s ankle-deep into what has the makings of a long and illustrious NBA career.
That would explain the pained look you see on Westbrook’s face when he’s asked about any strides he might have made the past few years when it comes to playing the point guard position that his critics swear he’s unsuited for.
A closer look at the Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star’s performance this season reveals a player who is absolutely in the midst of transforming himself into the sort of effective hybrid facilitator/scorer that could lead the Thunder not just back to The Finals, but to the end of the rainbow they fell short of last season.
The complaints that Westbrook looked for his own offense at the expense of others, namely three-time scoring champ and fellow All-Star Kevin Durant, is true at times. That criticism, though, doesn’t look nearly as prevalent in Westbrook’s game so far this season.
So what if his 104 unassisted field goals this season rank second only to Kobe Bryant‘s 108. Westbrook is delivering on both sides this season. No player in the league has been assisted by a single teammate more than Durant has been assisted by Westbrook (53). In fact, Westbrook holds the top two spots on the list, with 47 to Serge Ibaka.
That’s a substantial improvement for a player whose assist percentage dipped dramatically from the 2010-11 season (42 percent) to just 28 percent last season. Westbrook is assisting on 41 percent of his teammates’ field goals this season, a figure impacted by the increased playmaking responsibility he’s assumed since the Thunder traded James Harden to Houston. That move altered OKC’s late-game philosophy of having Harden handle the ball with both Durant and Westbrook deployed primarily as scorers.
It’s the sort of statistical rebound most players would be praised for, yet you hear little in the way of praise for that part of Westbrook’s game. Most of his most ardent detractors are waiting around for those instances and games where his scorer’s instincts come out and he shoves the facilitating portion of his duties to the side (the Thunder’s Fan Night matchup against Deron Williams and the Brooklyn Nets on NBA TV, 7:30 p.m. ET, serving as the next prime-time opportunity).
Thunder coach Scott Brooks has been one of the most vocal and constant supporters of Westbrook sticking to what comes natural, be it scoring or facilitating, so long as it is for the greater good. And his loyalty has been rewarded this season in the form of a star guard whose scoring average hasn’t suffered (from 23.6 last season to 20.7 this season) all that much as his assist (from 5.5 to a career-best 8.7) and rebound (from 4.6 to a career-best 5.1) stats soar.
Toss in the fact that Westbrook’s overall impact is strengthened by the slight tweaks he’s made to his game and the fact that he’s nowhere near his ceiling just five seasons into his career, and it should be easy to see why the Thunder didn’t miss a beat when Harden departed.
None of that will satisfy Westbrook’s biggest critics, of course … but something tells me that Westbrook doesn’t care much what anyone has to say about his game these days.