Russell Westbrook is a man without a plan
Snapshots and GIF and viral videos all captured several versions of the same joyful scene late Tuesday: Damian Lillard, the master time clutch, was connected from 37 feet when the last bell rang. Lillard, with a slow wave by the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lillard, surrounded by teammates and grinned.
Outside the happy chaos, in the distant background, other stars quietly stepped away, shoulders slumped, never looked up.
If Lillard is a portrait of dynamism, accuracy, and glory, Russell Westbrook is his opponent – a picture of despair.
Both got fate.
With a game of 50 points and a buzzer-beater for a long time, Lillard made the Portland Trail Blazers win a thrilling sale victory and travel to the Western Conference semifinals.
With his terrible shooting skills and an agitated end stretch, Westbrook dragged the Thunder into a terrible first-round collapse.
The shooting line in Game 5: 31 shots, 11 shots. The total for the series: 111 shots, 40 make.
It’s been three years since Kevin Durant broke off his partnership with Westbrook and fled to Oakland. At that time, Westbrook had burned notebooks, made a triple routine, claimed the Most Valuable Player award and had almost nothing to do with the franchise.
The Thunder hasn’t broken 50 wins in the Westbrook era – even this season, with Paul George making his own MVP. The Thunder has never won a playoff series in the Westbrook era. Their postseason notes: 4-12.
“He’s a transcendent player,” said a veteran Western Region executive, “but I’m not sure he’s a transcendent winner.”
Failure does not only belong to Westbrook, of course. Thunder needs more shots, deeper. But what they need most is a franchise star who is willing to face their shortcomings and adaptations, and Westbrook has long rejected such self-awareness.
“Now I’m doing what I want,” Westbrook sang after Durant left town, and so he was – shooting as much as he wanted, from wherever he wanted, the results were damned.
Westbrook shot 29 percent with a three-point shot this season – bad even by his standards – but he tried 411 of them, the 40th highest in the league. Westbrook is one of the most deadly rim attackers in the league, but he continues to launch two couples who are in transition and do a 26-footer in times of crisis.
“When I watched Russ play, I was amazed at the effort and energy he put into the game,” said the former NBA midfielder Brendan Haywood, now an analyst for NBA Radio and NBA TV. “But I think there is another step, there is another layer that he needs to achieve, and that’s what thinks of the game – understanding that it’s not just ‘Trying hard, playing aggressively, playing with chips on my shoulder.’ Sometimes you have to understand the defense and the game plan and attack the game a little differently. And I haven’t thought that he has succeeded in doing it. ”
Of the 30 players who averaged at least 20 points per match this season, Westbrook last ranked dead in an effective percentage-field goal, at 46.8. Extending the field to players with at least 15 points per game, and he is 69 of 70 players, flanked between Dennis Schroder and Andrew Wiggins, and behind assessment legends such as Jordan Clarkson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jeremy Lamb.
For all the ferocity and fireworks, Westbrook is an obstacle to the violation of his team. Thunder ranked 17th in offensive efficiency this season, despite having two of the 15 top league players.
And now they are out of the playoffs, losing to the Blazers with less star power and no starting center. Before the series, 19 of 20 ESPN analysts predicted the Thunder would win the series. Instead, they were sent in gentlemen’s sweep.
“Obviously underperforming,” said an Eastern Region official about Thunder, citing talent from Westbrook and George. “That alone is enough to get out of the first round, and that doesn’t happen.”
No, not all of them at Westbrook. But every mistake in the game was on display Tuesday night. After playing a measurable (and effective) game from the start, arranging his teammates and triggering an early Thunder advantage, Westbrook returned to bad old habits. OKC blew a 15-point lead in the last eight minutes, with Westbrook misfiring from 19 and 21 feet, forcing a hard shot in the paint and throwing the ball at the end of critical possession. Just as Lillard’s alluring buzzers symbolized the night, so too, Westbrook’s last game: a wild layup effort that hit the rim with 18 seconds left.
“There is a difference between playing hard and playing to win,” Haywood said. “I think that’s the difference now between Russ and Dame.”
Survey scouts and analysts and former players, and suggestions for Westbrook in general are the same: Fix your jumper, or stop firing so many shots inside. Shoot less, continue more. Westbrook can knock down the defense whenever he wants, which should provide a lot of open displays for team-mates.
Westbrook’s beliefs and passions were amazing, but those qualities quickly became too confident.
“I think Russell must step down,” Charles Barkley said on TNT broadcast on Tuesday night. “He always goes at 100 percent all the time.”
For his credit, Westbrook reduced the level of use this season (to 30.1 from 32.5 last season) and provided more floors for George. But he still shoots at a level that far exceeds his actual ability to convert. Defense Blazers repeatedly play Westbrook, challenging him to shoot, as if he is Tony Allen.
For a while, Westbrook’s ferocious charisma and desires captivated the world. But with every season gone and every playoff prematurely coming out, its weaknesses become clearer – and the list of detractors grows.
“I don’t want to train Russell Westbrook,” ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, a former college coach, said in the Tuesday edition, Get Up. “Just as exciting, as strong as physical, as competitive as he is, in the end, is he the player who wins? … Can you win with someone who dominates the ball like that all the time?”
Even satirical news sites destroy it now. “Dedicated Russell Westbrook Remains Late After Practicing for Losing 100 Extra Shots,” The Onion wrote this week.
Westbrook wove his fame from his athletic prize, and maybe the prize was eroded. The free throw ratio – the ratio of free throws per field trial – slipped to a career low of 30.6 percent this season. He attracts a little offense. He doesn’t attack enough. Percentage of field goals and free throws down.
Given his age (30), his punishing style of play and 11 heavy minutes of seasons, it is likely Westbrook has passed the peak.
“There is no debate,” said director of analysis for the Eastern Region team. “You only see the metrics this year versus the past, and where the age and number of minutes and style of play, and there is no debate.”
Players who rely solely on athleticism often age poorly, without broader skills – shooting, playing, surviving – to get back on their feet.
All left Westbrook with a clear and almost Darwinian choice: adapt or die (metaphorically).
Three years ago, Durant left the city and Westbrook got everything he wanted: complete control of the violation and the Thunder franchise. “Now I do what I want,” he sings. Maybe it’s time to do something different.
Howard Beck, a senior writer for the Bleacher Report, has covered the full-time NBA since 1997, including seven years in the Lakers defeating the Los Angeles Daily News and nine years as staff writer for the New York Times. Its coverage is respected by the APSE in 2016 and 2017.