Russell Westbrook is one of a handful of players having outstanding seasons. James Harden has become the NBA’s second-best facilitator under Mike D’Antoni. LeBron James is doing LeBron James things in Cleveland. Kevin Durant has cemented himself as the most efficient scorer in the NBA. That is, unless you ask his teammate Stephen Curry. And players like Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan, and Jimmy Butler all have been outstanding.
Yet, Westbrook is doing something more special than all of them. He is having an individual season of the likes that has only be seen a handful of times in NBA history. To the degree that analysts could prognosticate, this is not something that should surprise people. Hell, there were more articles about the “Russell Westbrook Revenge Tour” than anything else in the NBA this summer.
Nonetheless, the idea that Westbrook could do something that only Oscar Robertson had done before while still leading his team to an over .500 record is mildly startling. He has played every game this season at 110%, and while I keep reading how he is going to tire out, I simply do not buy it.
Before I did research for this article, Russ’s season made me think of what I saw from Kobe Bryant between 2005-2008 and from Allen Iverson in his famous 2000-01 season. After doing a bit more thinking and some additional research, however, I came up with a few other comparisons: Dwyane Wade’s 2008-09 season, Tracy McGrady’s 2002-03 season, and Carmelo Anthony’s 2012-13 season. Below, I have compared their simple box score stats per 100 possessions:
Points Per 100 Possessions
Assists Per 100 Possessions
Rebounds Per 100 Possessions
Russell Westbrook 2016-17
Allen Iverson 2000-01
Kobe Bryant 2005-06
Dwyane Wade 2008-09
Tracy McGrady 2002-03
Carmelo Anthony 2012-13
Thus, while all six players had great seasons, Westbrook’s box score metrics ranked far ahead of the rest. Additionally, what happens when you compare Russ’s numbers – when adjusted for pace – with Oscar Robertson? Robertson is the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double, therefore, he creates a great comparison to Westbrook.
So why does adjusting for pace show Westbrook is actually having a better season than Oscar Robertson’s legendary 1961-62 campaign? The answer is, while contemporary NBA opinion-givers will argue that the league is playing faster than ever, this is quite simply a myth. In the 1960s and 1970s, the league played at a significantly faster pace than we are seeing today. Yet, when big, slow, lumbering centers like Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and Tim Duncan came into the league, the pace significantly slowed down. Consequently, while this is the fastest the NBA has been in nearly four decades, it is still slower than when Robertson was king.
And this is what is so impressive about Westbrook’s season. Part of the reason it was inconceivable for anyone to ever touch Oscar Robertson’s record was because players just did not have the opportunity anymore to do what he did. Russell Westbrook not only is doing it, but moreover, he is doing it better than Robertson did.
As many would argue – myself included – these individual box score metrics do not mean anything. They do not measure efficiency, a player’s value to his team, defense, or turnovers. So let’s take a look at what the advanced metrics are saying about Westbrook’s season in comparison to the five other similar players mentioned above.
Win Shares Per 48 Minutes
Box Plus-Minus
Russell Westbrook 2016-17
Allen Iverson 2000-01
Kobe Bryant 2005-06
Dwyane Wade 2008-09
Tracy McGrady 2002-03
Carmelo Anthony 2012-13
Not surprisingly, Westbrook’s Box Plus-Minus – a stat that measures a players value by solely looking at his box score numbers and creating formulas about the value of each metric – ranks leagues higher than the other players mentioned. As good of a season as those players had, their pure box score numbers are not even close to Russ’s.
With that said, Win Shares and Value-Over-Replacement-Player (VORP), look at how a variety of efficiency metrics as well as how a team performs with a player on and off the court, and then provide a numeric value to evaluate the player. For these stats, Westbrook ranks towards the bottom of these six separate, elite seasons. Thus, when the value of simple box score stats is reduced, Russ’s season is less impressive.
On one hand, this is because Russell Westbrook’s shooting efficiency and turnover numbers are problematic. Possessions are being wasted because of #0’s tendency to dribble, miss shots, and make gutsy passes that results in easy transition buckets for the other team. When you watch James Harden this season, for example, he does not have this fault. It is a big reason why many are favoring Harden over Westbrook for MVP.
On the other side, though, this problem should not be surprising. Per basketball-reference, Russell Westbrook has the highest usage rate – or percentage of plays that end with a shot attempt or potential assist – of all-time. With a higher percentage of plays that end with the ball in a specific player’s hands, the less likely that player is to reach optimal efficiency, and the worse his VORP and Win Shares will be. As an educated fan, it is important to see the forest through the trees, and acknowledge that Westbrook’s below-desired shooting efficiency is not something to judge his entire performance on. Given Russ’s usage rate, stats like VORP, Win Shares, the unmentioned Real-Adjusted-Plus-Minus, and others should be weighed separately.
Additionally, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Allen Iverson have all been plagued by this same problem at various points in their careers. The most recent example being LeBron’s first NBA Finals playing against the Golden State Warriors. With an injured Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, James was flanked by Matthew Dellavedova, JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, and not much else. Thus, facing the Warriors’ historic offense without as much as a secondary scoring option next to him, LeBron delivered one of the most marvelous yet inefficient Finals performances of all-time.
And while reaching a player of LeBron James is perhaps out of reach for Westbrook, Kobe and Iverson are both much closer comparisons. In his book 07 Seconds Or Less, Jack McCallum spends a full season with Mike D’Antoni’s “Seven Seconds Or Less” Phoenix Suns. During their first round matchup against the Lakers, the Suns plan to let Kobe score however many points he wanted, but not let his teammates get involved. This was a similar problem that Allen Iverson had every year of his career, sans his 2000-01 MVP season, whereby his ball dominance isolated other teammates and cost him higher efficiency numbers.
The latter two cases are undoubtedly worse than Westbrook’s problem. Quite simply, Russ does pass the ball a lot, and he does find the open man, he just is a pretty mediocre shooter. This allows defenses to sag off him and into the paint. Westbrook is then left with two choices: take the open shot, or, attempt to create a shot for a teammate while risking a turnover. For evidence, let’s look at the example below:
This shows Utah’s defender sagging off Westbrook, essentially daring #0 to shoot. Russ decides to drive to the rim and attempt to create a shot for a teammate, allowing Utah to key-in and swarm him, resulting in a turnover. This is the problem that occurs for the Thunder if Westbrook is left open and, rather than shooting, he tries to create.
Now, Westbrook can also try and shoot the wide-open jumper, but that comes with its own risks. Russell is shooting a respectable 42.9% on wide-open (no defender within six feet) threes, but a putrid 31.6% on open (no defender within four-to-six feet) threes. 
Consequently the Thunder struggle to deal with Westbrook’s poor shooting. He is shooting a slightly below league-average true shooting percentage of 53.8%, and while that is by no means a nightmare for Oklahoma City, it does make winning against smart defenses more challenging. Hence why this is the main accurate critique of Westbrook’s otherwise insanely good season.
I have heard one other, fairly common argument made against Russell Westbrook during the 2016-17 season: he is stat-padding. I am pretty sure the people who are raising this contention do not watch the Thunder play regularly, because if they do, it is abundantly clear Westbrook does not have many other options.
The main two forms of this critique are that he shoots too much and/or he pads his rebounding numbers by going for uncontested rebounds. Let’s assume for a second that the first one is true, Westbrook shoots the ball too much, who else on that team should be shooting? The common refrain is that Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, and Andre Roberson are all fine, young players who deserve their shots. Let’s examine each one in some detail.
Victor Oladipo is, indeed, a very good player on both ends of the court. He also has the third highest usage percentage at 20.8% and attempts fourteen shots per night at a league average 54.2% true shooting percentage. These are absolutely a bit low, as his usage numbers are similar to both Wesley Matthews in Dallas and Kent Bazemore in Atlanta, both of whom are worse offensive players than Oladipo. Furthermore, given Oladipo’s ranking in the top-seventeen percent of isolation scorers, he does deserve more of these looks.
Yet, much of Oladipo’s success this season is not independent of Westbrook’s shooting. In the video below, Oladipo gets a wide-open three solely because the defense is shifted over to Westbrook’s side of the court.
Furthermore, Westbrook does pass to Oladipo. In fact, Westbrook passes the ball to Oladipo more than any of the former’s other teammates this season. This leads to some nice assists, such as this triple-double notting one a few weeks ago.
Therefore, Westbrook taking shots at the expense of Oladipo may be a small problem, but it is not one that indicates Russ’s shooting occurs at the expense of his team’s success.
In regards to Steven Adams, the notion that Russell Westbrook is taking shots away from him, and thus harming the Thunder, is fallacious. On post-ups – the offensive play type that makes up a total of 23.9% of Adams’ shot attempts and almost all of his unassisted shots – he is scoring on only 41.7% of tries, below average for the NBA. Consequently, the majority of Adams’ made buckets come on assisted shots, all but eighteen of which have come from Westbrook’s passing.
Enes Kanter barely deserves mention because he has the second highest usage percentage on the team at 25.7%. Thus, Westbrook is taking no shots away from Kanter, as the latter is using his fair share of possessions too.
Finally, my least favorite player in this example, Andre Roberson. I love Roberson as a player, especially because of his stellar defense. Quite simply, Roberson is one of the ten best defensive players in the NBA. That does not mean he should be shooting the ball. Roberson’s true shooting percentage is barely above 50%, and thus pretty lackluster. Moreover, only 12.8% of his made baskets have been unassisted this season. And finally, he does not spread the floor, making only 30.6% of his three-point attempts this season. Thus, it is difficult for Westbrook to cede shots to Roberson, as that as offensive suicide, as can be seen here:
Thus, the claims that Russell Westbrook is taking shots away from his teammates, or “jacking up shots” in academic terms, is completely unfounded. Outside of Victor Oladipo, there is really nobody else on the Thunder for Westbrook to give shots to. He is their best option. This situation is eerily similar to the Kobe and LeBron teams of the mid-2000s, where neither player had a teammate good enough offensively to actually shoot the ball. Consequently, while Westbrook’s shooting efficiency is somewhat problematic, there are no other options currently on this Thunder squad.
The second main stat-padding criticism is that Westbrook avoids transition attempts by going for uncontested rebounds. Harbingers of this contention point to Westbrook’s uncontested rebound percentage of nearly 80%. This means that only 20% of Russ’s rebounds does he actually have to fight other players for. What does not make sense to me, however, is the idea that this is bad. In reality, Russell Westbrook getting these uncontested rebounds allows him to push the ball in transition.
On the above play, if Westbrook were to have allowed Steven Adams to rebound the ball, there is no guarantee the Thunder would have begun their offense before the Hawks’ defense had a chance to set-up. This is why the uncontested rebounds that many view as “stat padding” are, in reality, an integral part of Oklahoma City’s transition offense.
Overall, there are fair criticisms to Westbrook’s spectacular season. His shooting efficiency and turnover rate leave a lot to be desired. But to claim that he is stat padding is, quite simply, an example of finding evidence to fit a pre-formed conclusion. Russ is doing nothing of the sort. Every meaningful play Russell Westbrook has made this season has been to help his team win, not to make his numbers look impressive.
So, if the MVP voting occurred today, would I vote for Russ? Probably, but it would be a very close race between him, Harden, and LeBron James. All three of whom are having spectacular season and are must-see television. Ultimately, though, I encourage everyone to watch these guys play this season. The “Russell Westbrook Revenge Tour” is only sure to come around once, so fans should make the most of it, because Durant can only spurn you one time.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here