Russell Westbrook is Overrated

Russell Westbrook is an amazing basketball player.  He’s a once in a generation type talent and arguably the most athletic and explosive player that I’ve seen not only in the NBA, but in professional sports.  He’s a perennial all star, I think deservedly so, and really really fun to watch. All of this being said, he is vastly overhyped and overrated. Ever since his 2016-17 campaign in which he averaged a triple double for the season, then doing so again in 2017-18, he has been viewed as this otherworldly talent, a unicorn of sorts, doing what hasn’t been done for decades.  Yes, it’s true, nobody has averaged a triple double for a whole season since Oscar Robertson. That being said, I would argue Westbrook’s triple doubles are irrelevant, artificial, and overall detrimental to his team. Furthermore, while Westbrook’s stats are impressive on the surface, if we dig a little deeper, dive into some of the more advanced and complex metrics that wouldn’t necessarily show up on the back of his player card, we begin to see just how inefficient he actually is.  Building off of this point, his inefficient play style paired with the fact that he essentially always needs to have the ball in his hands creates a formula and system in which it is very difficult for his teams to actually make any noise and win many games. Westbrook is a great player, but not as great as we all give him credit for. Let’s dive into some specifics so you can see what I mean.

For starters, I understand that averaging a triple double for the entirety of an 82 game NBA season is an incredibly impressive feat, one that almost nobody on the face of planet earth can even come close to accomplishing.  Credit to Russell Westbrook for pulling it off. That being said, there should be a figurative asterisk next to his name in the figurative history books. I would argue, the fact that he had a triple double had literally zero impact on any of the games he played in.  Lofty claim, I know, but my reasoning is really simple. Point guards getting rebounds just doesn’t matter. The points and assists aspect of the triple double are crucial to the success of an elite point guard, but averaging double digit points and assists don’t set Russ apart from the pack.  John Wall and James Harden both averaged double digit assists per game in his MVP season, each of them averaging more than Westbrook, and active players such as Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, along with the aforementioned Harden and Wall all average more career assists per game than Westbrook. Plus, 13 players averaged at least 25 ppg in his MVP season, so it wasn’t the scoring that set him apart either.  What he did paired with the scoring and passing that most others don’t is the rebounding. And, I reiterate, for a point guard, while it may look pretty in the box score, it just doesn’t matter. In both his MVP season as well as his most recent campaign, Westbrook has been ranked 10th in the league in RPG, averaging 10.7 and then 10.1 respectively. In both cases, there was not a single other guard in the top 50.  Top 50. Not one. I’m not even talking point guard, I’m talking any guard. Two seasons, and not one other guard was even in the same ballpark as Westbrook. This isn’t because Russ is just THAT MUCH BETTER than every other guard in the league. Rather, it’s because Westbrook is playing a modified version of the guard position, one that I’d argue is harming his team. Russell Westbrook is considered by most to be the fastest player in the NBA.  There are some players one could argue are faster, John Wall or De’Aaron Fox to name a few, but Russ is always at least in the conversation. Because of this, he is an absolute nightmare to stop on fast breaks. But, because he feels the need to drop into the paint to crash the glass, it gives the defense time to get back and put up a front against his transition drive to the rack. The Thunder have Steven Adams, a player who is close to being an all star on a game based solely around defense and rebounding.  So, imagine this. When the shot goes up, the fastest player in the NBA begins to leak out towards half court, leaving maybe only one or two defenders ahead of him, if any, instead of the whole starting five. Steven Adams crashes the glass as he does so well, and then uses his Hulk-like strength to rifle an outlet to Westbrook. Using his incredible speed, Westbrook blows by the transition defender and rocks the rim with a powerful dunk, his trademark of sorts. That’s a recipe for success every time down the court.  But, due to the fact that Westbrook inexplicably feels the need to get rebounds even though literally nobody else who plays his position does, their fast break attack is significantly weaker than it has to be. Point guards just don’t need to get rebounds. It’s not their job, it’s not where they should be positioned on the court. Whether it is Steven Adams, the Australian giant, or Paul George, the seven foot tall small forward, or even Jerami Grant, the power forward with a 7’3” wingspan who can also jump out the gym, it’s still a Thunder rebound.  The Thunder have the whole rebounding thing under control, and they don’t really need their point guard to join in on the action.

When he goes out of his way to crash the glass, it takes away from all other aspects of the team’s game plan.  That’s an important aspect of my argument, the fact that he is “going out of his way” to do this. The numbers back that up, and that’s the other reason why I’d argue his rebounds don’t matter.  They aren’t real. They’re artificial. They hurt other aspects of his team’s overall performance. First, touching on my claim that they are “artificial,” is based off of one very important stat.  In his MVP season, Russ averaged 10.7 rebounds per game, but that’s an inflated number. According to an article in the Washington Post, 7.9 out of those 10.7 were considered uncontested. This is the highest percentage in the league.  The very most. Furthermore, Westbrook had the absolute lowest percentage of contested rebounds per game amongst those players averaging at least five boards per contest. The very least. So yes, Westbrook is crashing the glass at a historic rate, but the Thunder are manipulating the gameplay in his favor.  It is very rare that we will see Russ go up and get a board over someone else. Most of the time he brings down a rebound, he is all by himself.

But, not only are they artificial, but he’s hurting his team in the process.  According to an amazing reddit thread, Westbrook going out of his way to artificially pad his stats is significantly detracting from his ability to properly defend the opposition.  At the time the thread was posted, Westbrook was contesting 3.4 shots per game. Day in and day out, he is tasked with defending the top guards of the Western Conference, guards such as Steph Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, and more.  All of these guys take between 15-20 shots on an average night, depending on the game, and Russ would be there to defend three of them. That’s ridiculous and totally disruptive to the overall team defense. To put that into perspective, Deandre Jordan, now on the Mavericks but on the Clippers at the time, contested more jumpers per game than Westbrook.  Deandre Jordan, the seven foot center who makes his living almost solely in the paint, contested more shots on the perimeter than point guard Russell Westbrook. Let that sink in. He is essentially doing what I used to do with my NBA 2k MyPlayer that I made back in 2k11. I named him “King Awesome” and he had a huge blue mohawk, so I’m sure that’s not exactly what Russ wants to be likened to.  There was a challenge that said I needed to get a triple double in a game, but being a point guard, that was tough. So, I sagged off my defensive assignment, essentially leaving him wide open, let him miss, and grabbed the board. It worked, but that was a video game, and on “Rookie” difficulty. Russell Westbrook is playing in the NBA like 11 year olds do a video game. That’s a terrible standard to be held to.  Westbrook is severely hurting his team’s overall defense, simply so he can pad his stats.

Digging a little deeper, analyzing some of Westbrook’s seemingly impressive stats besides rebounding, we realize that those too can be misleading.  In Westbrook’s MVP season, he led the NBA in field goals, total points, and PPG, averaging 31.6 per contest. He was the only player to average 30+ PPG that year.  Not only did he lead in scoring, but he was third in APG, averaging 10.4. These are very impressive numbers, as you very rarely see an NBA player average either 30 points or 10 assists per game, let alone both at once.  All of this being said, there’s a clear reason as to why he is on top of all of these categories. While he led in total field goals, he also led in field goal attempts, and it wasn’t even close. The difference between Andrew Wiggins, who was number two in attempts, and Bradley Beal who was number 20 was 248 shots.  The difference between Wiggins and Steph, who was number 10, was 127 shots. The difference between Wiggins and Anthony Davis who checks in at number 5 was 44 attempts, and the difference between Wiggins and Demar Derozan just under him at three was 25 shots. But, the difference between Westbrook at number one and Wiggins at two was, are you ready, 371 shots.  Westbrook took almost 400 more shots than anyone else in the NBA. The difference in shots between Westbrook at one and Wiggins at two is almost twice as large as the difference between Wiggins at two and Beal at 20. So yes, Westbrook scored more than everyone else, but he better have considering he shot the ball at such a ridiculous rate. Following the trend, not only did Westbrook have the most shots and makes, he also had the most misses.  Again, it wasn’t even close. Along with having the second most shots, Wiggins had the second most misses clocking in at 861 missed shots. Booker was at five with 825, Melo at 10 with 787, and Harrison Barnes was at 20 with 681. Westbrook is again the outlier, missing a whopping 1117 shots, 256 more shots than Wiggins, and 436 more than 20th place Barnes. Westbrook shot the ball a lot, and it didn’t go in a lot of the time. To close this point, while Westbrook ran away with the total shots and total misses race, he finished neck and neck in actual made field goals.  He ended up in first, but it was a photo finish. While he took 371 more shots than Wiggins, and missed 256 more, he only finished 22 makes away from second place Karl-Anthony Towns. He took a lot of shots, missed a lot of shots, and while he did make a lot too, he didn’t make nearly as many as he should.

Fast forwarding to this past season, Westbrook averaged close to 30 points and double digit assists again.  People began to say, “Ok, this isn’t just a fluke anymore. He averaged 10 APG again this season, he can’t be a ball hog.”  Yes he can. And is. The answer to the assist numbers is simple. He gets the ball more than anyone else in the league, and even the biggest ball hogs don’t shoot the rock every time they touch it, so the sheer amount that Westbrook passes due to his immense amount of touches leads to elevated assist numbers.  In 2017, he led the NBA in touches per game at 95.7, and he led in average time of possession at 9.1 minutes per game. Essentially, he gets the ball more than anyone else and when he does so he holds on to it for longer than anyone else. I would classify that as being a ball hog. Also, what these extended increments of Westbrook holding on to the ball leads to is him giving it up with very few time left on the clock, almost forcing whoever he passes to to shoot out of necessity of avoiding a shot clock violation.  These are NBA players, so these tough shots go in at a decent clip, the end result being Russ’ assist.

To sum it all up, Westbrook is very talented, and I’d never question that.  He is incredibly gifted, both in terms of being a ridiculous physical specimen as well as having an unbelievable amount of god given talent.  He seems to put in work, and doesn’t come off as a bad guy. I just think that we need to calm down when talking about how good he is, because the numbers are misleading.  Not only are the numbers misleading, his teams aren’t winning, so does it really matter? In his MVP campaign, he led his team to the 6th seed and a first round exit. In 2018, after gaining perennial all star Paul George and Steven Adams’ emergence as an all star talent (he also got Melo but, nah…) the team did improve, but not much.  Their wins went up, increasing by two, and their seed went up by two as well, earning the fourth seed in the West. Admittedly so, the four seed in the West is nothing to be laughed at. But, when playoff time came around, they lost in 6 games to the allstar-less Jazz and had yet another first round exit. Westbrook may look like he’s really helping his teams with his great box scores, but the team success doesn’t seem to reflect that.  He’s an all time great, but not as great as everyone really thinks.

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