There Is No Right Way To Talk About Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook’s career makes no damn sense. It is a paradox within a paradox. It’s Inception, but in the form of a human, professional basketball player. And it’s why he’s been one of the most fascinating-yet-befuddling stars the league has ever seen. While the league features a number of stars whose greatness is manifest and relatively simple to digest — LeBron, KD, Steph, and Kawhi come to mind right off the bat — there is something so contradictory about Russ, equal parts exhilarating and confounding. What makes Russell Westbrook so hard to process?

First, there’s what makes him great: Russ is consistently, spectacularly productive. He’s played 943 regular season games in his 13-year career, averaging 23.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 8.5 assists, and 1.7 steals in 34.7 minutes per game. In 106 playoff games, he sports similar averages of 24.8/ 7.0/ 7.7/ 1.8 in 37.6 minutes a game. He is a 9x All-Star, 9x All-NBA selection, the 2016-17 MVP, and has led the league in scoring twice and assists three times (including this season). He’s played in four Conference Finals, and helped lead the 2011-12 Thunder to the Finals, the sort of young team that virtually never makes a run so deep. He has now amassed 184 regular season triple-doubles which, as you may have heard, is the new all-time NBA record after surpassing Oscar Robertson last week. His end-to-end athleticism has always been breathtaking. By any measure, he is a no-doubt, first ballot Hall of Famer, and will be remembered as one of the greatest point guards of all time.

Someone who knew nothing of Westbrook’s career and had never seen him play would look at that resume and then immediately question my sanity for ever typing any of these words. It’s a fair criticism. Beyond that, it’s not as though the intangible aspects of his personality render him some sort of locker room cancer. Nearly to a man — hold that thought — his current and former teammates love him and espouse the virtues of playing alongside him. His ruthless competitiveness and desire to win rub off on everyone around him. Early in Westbrook’s career, these traits drew the attention of none other than Kobe Bryant, with the late, now-Hall of Famer pegging Russ as the young player in whom Kobe saw the most of himself.

It’s not even possible to paint Russ as some kind of “empty calories” player. Again, he’s played in 106 playoff games and counting, and in the 184 games where he’s notched a triple-double, his teams have won roughly 3/4 of them. Setting aside his rookie season (when the rebuilding Thunder went 23-59), Russ has won 63% of the regular season games in which he has played, roughly a 52-win pace over an 82-game year. He wants to win at all costs, his production contributes to winning, and yet many fans and media members do not think of him as a “winning” player. This is the central paradox of the Russell Westbrook Experience.

When performing cost/benefit analyses, economists often employ the idea of opportunity cost. Simply put, it is the cost of what someone COULD be doing with the time/energy/resources the person has instead allocated to the choice in question. If you’re spending your time, money, or basketball possessions doing one thing, you are actively not doing a whole bunch of other things. It’s often difficult to quantify the counterfactual, but we know it’s there. This relates to Russ because while the on-court benefit he provides is so obvious, so visceral, he also comes with perhaps the largest opportunity cost of any modern superstar. With analytics taking on a major role in how front offices make personnel and salary cap decisions, teams have become more aware of both what Westbrook’s presence on a roster adds to the equation as well as what it potentially takes away or prevents. This is how a 32-year-old future Hall of Famer, still in the midst of slapping up a historic number of triple-doubles, becomes essentially an NBA journeyman.

Efficiency is not the be-all, end-all of modern offensive basketball, but most fans understand at this point how it has attained a level of primacy in the way we analyze value on that end. I’m not here to pass judgment on analytics as a whole, or the way they have shaped our perception of Westbrook’s career in a manner which would not have existed had he been drafted in 1988 instead of 2008. But the numbers do exist, and the way they commingle with his visible style of play on the court form the basis of this perplexing hesitancy to elevate Russ to the level of other all-timers. For his career, Russ averages 18.8 FGA per game, and he shoots 43.7% from the field. Nearly thirty percent of those attempts have been threes, but he shoots only 30.5% from deep, making him one of the worst volume three-point shooters in history. There has not been a single season of his career where his Effective FG% — which accounts for the added value of a made three — has eclipsed league-average, or really been anywhere close to it. His True Shooting Percentage (which also accounts for FT%) likewise lags well behind the median. On any given possession, there is virtually nothing a defense can do to stop Westbrook from getting the shot he wants, but in many cases, it’s also the exact shot the defense wants to allow. Once again, the paradox of Westbrook.

Russ has been one of the highest-usage players in the league for most of his career, culminating in his 2016-17 MVP season, when he set the all-time NBA record with a Usage Rate of 41.7 percent. The heliocentricity of that team was borderline comical, and while it resulted in historic numbers and a big ol’ piece of hardware for Westbrook, it simultaneously highlighted the limits of such an approach with a player who does not produce particularly efficient offense. That team was short-handed personnel-wise (having lost Kevin Durant to the Warriors in the offseason, which you may have heard about), so it required a big lift out of Westbrook. It was also, however, the logical endpoint of his seemingly insatiable need to be the center of gravity on whatever court he was on, even when he had more efficient offensive options available to him, like KD, James Harden, and now Bradley Beal.

His unquenchable desire to win fills him with both the primal need to be the one making the play, as well as the boundless confidence to try, for better and worse. The opportunity cost of Russ shows itself on defense as well. He frequently is among the league leaders in steals and deflections, but this is in part because he often over-helps and gambles for steals, leaving his teammates in a compromised position when he doesn’t make the highlight play. We can’t quantify what might have happened on all those possessions had he just stayed home and played solid team defense, or not taken an ill-advised elbow jumper in transition, or not whipped a pass three rows into the seats with 90 seconds left in a playoff game, but we can see the deleterious effects of them just as clearly as we can see how much value he adds with his production.

It’s not as though he’s a low-IQ player, either. He has a tremendous feel for the game, he maps the court well (hence all the assists), and he understands how to leverage angles to get to his spots. He has simply never figured out how to take his foot off the gas when the situation requires it because it is not in his makeup to do so. His confidence in his own ability to go win the game for his team is so unshakeable that he appears to be blind to any other way to play. When that mindset meets a skill level which can consistently execute on it, you get the Michael Jordans and Kobe Bryants of the world. When the player’s abilities even slightly misalign with his estimation of them (or begin to deteriorate over time), you end up with great players like Westbrook and Allen Iverson, who have difficulty accepting a lesser role, often to the detriment of the team. The only way to escape the gravity of these guys is to forcefully eject, which explains both Durant’s decamping for Golden State as well as Westbrook being on his third team in three years.

And this isn’t entirely fair to Russ, which is yet another one of his contradictions. This year’s Wizards have been miles better since he got healthy and back on track. Washington started out 6-17 as Russ struggled with a lingering quad injury and the team was ravaged by COVID, but have gone 28-21 since to move all the way up to the 8-seed in the East, pending this week’s play-in tournament. [Their turnaround has been truly remarkable. At one point as late as April, the Wiz had only a 4% chance of cracking the play-in tournament at all, much less getting up to eighth.] He’s averaging yet another triple-double for the season, including a mammoth 24/13/13 since the All-Star Break. [He leads the league in rebounding since the break, which is just an insane stat for a 6’3″ guard. On a related note, it’s highly unlikely he’ll make any of the three All-NBA teams. You may be noticing a theme here.] This undermanned Wizards’ team is without question better for having him (and appears to have gotten the best of the Westbrook/John Wall challenge trade prior to the season), but could also benefit from tilting the offense even further in the direction of the more efficient Beal, particularly down the stretch of close games. [Of which the Wizards have played MANY. Seriously, all their games seem to come down to some crazy nonsense at the end, and Russ tends to be in the middle of it all. Keep this in mind when the Celtics/Wiz play-in game tonight invariably winds up as a two-point margin with ten seconds to go.]

Even after thirteen years, when it’s all over, I still have no idea how the epitaph of Russell Westbrook’s bonkers career will read. No one does, and that’s the fun part. He defies being put into any kind of statistical, narrative, or historical box. I do know the game will feel a bit less weird and a bit more homogeneous when he’s gone, like getting off a roller coaster and onto that attraction where the swings just go around in circles. So strap in and enjoy the crazy ride while it’s here.

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