Why Washington Wizards star Russell Westbrook is as great — and as inefficient — as ever

May 4, 2021 9:49 AM

The Washington Wizards are one of the hottest teams in the NBA, and their enigmatic superstar, Russell Westbrook, is a big reason why. Monday, in Washington’s win over Indiana, Westbrook became the first player in league history to record his second 20-rebound, 20-assist game. Wilt Chamberlain is the only other NBA player to ever do it, and he did it only once.

Since arriving in D.C. in the offseason, Westbrook has led a cultural makeover that is now beginning to yield eye-popping results on the court.

Following Monday’s win over Indiana, the Wizards have now won 13 of their past 16 games and are surging toward the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.

The young Wizards have adopted the ferocious personality of Westbrook, who remains one of pro basketball’s most brash superstars. But the Westbrook era in D.C. didn’t exactly get off to a great start.

The Wizards stumbled out of the gate, winning just three of their first 15 games. They owned the worst record in the league on Jan. 30, after dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak, weeks of contract tracing issues and multiple injuries.

But things have changed. Washington is 27-23 since that atrocious start, and is peaking at the exact right time. Starting with their win over the Orlando Magic on April 7, the Wizards have looked like a legit contender on both ends of the court.

Westbrook’s all-around contributions have fueled the turnaround. Since April 7, he is averaging 21.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 13.1 assists per game.

While Bradley Beal is clearly the top scorer on the roster, Westbrook has driven more production during their hot streak, accounting for an eye-popping 53 points per game when you combine both points scored and points assisted.

As a passer, Westbrook remains one of the league’s most talented and efficient forces. His shot creation is a huge part of the Wizards’ run. Per official NBA stats, since April 7, his assists are leading to a ridiculous 31.6 points per game for Washington, by far the highest such mark in the league (Luka Doncic ranks a distant second, creating 24.8 PPG via assists in that span).

Westbrook’s unique abilities to attack defenses and find shooters haven’t just made him the most prolific shot creator in the league this year. The shots he’s generating for his teammates are hyper-efficient relative to the other looks they usually get. The Wizards’ offense has struggled most of the season in part because of lackluster shooting. Their eFG% of 53.0 ranks 21st in the league this year, but that number balloons to 57.8 off of Westbrook’s potential assists.

That’s huge, but that’s not the whole story, and this is where it gets complicated. Yes, when Westbrook creates shots for others, the efficiency gods smile, however, when he creates shots for himself, especially jump shots, the numbers crater.

When it comes to offensive efficiency, Westbrook giveth and he taketh away. In year 13, Westbrook still has a jump-shooting problem.

The glaring issue with Westbrook remains his unhealthy shot diet. More than a decade into his remarkable career, he still insists on firing many ill-advised shot attempts. Only 15 players in the league have launched more jumpers than him this year, and while that list includes sharpshooters such as Chris PaulStephen Curry and Damian Lillard, Westbrook is once again arguably the least efficient volume jump-shooter in the NBA.

Out of 66 NBA players who have tried at least 400 jumpers this season, Westbrook ranks last in shooting efficiency, logging an eFG% of just 40.7 on his 621 jumpers this year.

But this blend of volume and inefficiency is more than just yucky trivia, it’s an anchor that weighs down the Wizards’ offense. While Westbrook the passer stimulates great offense for his team, Westbrook the jump-shooter hurts the cause.

Still, games like last night’s prove he is still a difference maker, and at 32, he still might be both the league’s best rebounding guard and its finest shot creator. Those aren’t minor traits, and they have fueled the Wizards’ recent hot streak, but can the Wizards really win important games against playoff competition if Westbrook continues to launch too many bad shots?

It’s a familiar refrain. Westbrook’s paradoxical stats have long made him one of the biggest lightning rods of the analytics era. There’s no question Westbrook is one of the most complete guards of his time. He has averaged a triple-double over the past five seasons and is on the verge of breaking Oscar Robertson’s all-time record for most career triple-doubles. But while other playmaking superstars with limited range, such as Ben Simmons or Giannis Antetokounmpo, have managed to thrive without taking many jumpers, Westbrook has carved his own defiant approach, still shooting after all these years.

Anybody who has ever had the good fortune of watching Westbrook play in person knows he can be the most dazzling force in any gym on the planet. Everything about him seems larger than life, from his fashion choices to his passion on the court. Still, anyone who has ever found themselves rooting for him knows he can be maddening too.

Westbrook’s prime in the NBA has coincided with a leaguewide analytical awakening that has placed a huge new emphasis on jump-shooting efficiency. Every year, NBA teams lean more and more into smarter shot selection strategies aimed at optimizing efficiency.

The changes are well-documented at this point. Midrange is fading, 3-pointers are still exploding, and teams are giving more playing time and more contract money to elite jump-shooters.

Westbrook isn’t the only star whose prime has been disrupted by the analytics revolution, but while some other superstars, including LeBron James and Paul George, have morphed their games and their shot selections to adhere to the new dogma, Westbrook has not. His approach to scoring remains defiant in the face of spreadsheets. Not even a year in Daryl Morey’s analytical monastery in Houston could change his shooting habits.

At 32, Westbrook is on pace to set career highs in both rebounds and assists per game, and his new team is suddenly one of the hottest teams in the league, but he has also missed more midrange shots than anyone in the league this season.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that Westbrook’s legacy will always be complicated.

Aesthetically, he will go down as one of the most breathtaking and one of the most complete guards of his era, the type of player who captivates and dazzles fans of the game with unprecedented speed, athleticism and tenacity.

Analytically, he will go down as the triple-double machine who kept shooting jumpers at below-average rates despite nerds begging him to change his ways.

Maybe Westbrook’s “analytical incorrectness” provides us an important opportunity to reexamine just what the modern era has wrought. No, stats aren’t ruining the game, but they are reshaping how the games look and feel. They are rearranging both the things that front offices value and the things we see in the arena.

If it’s true that Westbrook is both one of the most magnificent players to watch play the sport and one of the most analytically problematic superstars of the era, then maybe the problems aren’t with Westbrook.

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