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How Russell Westbrook Can Turn His Season Around

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After a slow start to the season, Washington Wizards point guard Russell Westbrook exploded against the Brooklyn Nets with 41 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. He capped off the herculean effort with a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final minute to give the Wizards a lead they would not relinquish.

Before his big game against the Nets, Westbrook was averaging just 18.1 points per game. He has not averaged under 20 points per game since his sophomore NBA season in 2010. The issue was not volume, as he was averaging the 12th most field goal attempts per game in the NBA going into the game. However, he was shooting a paltry 38.1 percent from the field. Westbrook has always been criticized for inefficient scoring, but he has not shot below 42% from the field since 2010, and shot 44.2 percent from the field from 2011-2020. He had reached a new low of inefficiency.

Westbrook has always struggled as a jump shooter, but this season has been worse than usual, as he has shot just 17.2 percent on shots from 10-16 feet. He has been around a 40 percent shooter from this area of the floor for most of his career, which is also not very good, but is markedly better than his numbers so far this season.

The root of his inefficiency woes has been the distribution of his shooting palette combined with his heightened inaccuracy as a jump shooter. Since being drafted in 2008, Westbrook has taken 35.6 percent of his shots between 0-3 feet of the rim. He has shot 59.3 percent on these shots, far better than his percentages on all other 2-point attempts. Last season in Houston, he set a career-high in percentage of shots taken within three feet of the rim at 41.4 percent, and shot the second highest percentage of his career in this area at 64 percent. This season however, he has taken a career-low 15.2 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim despite shooting a career-high 76.5 percent on these shots so far this season.

The reason this is important, is because of how it contributes to both his own and the Wizards success. Westbrook is a fantastic player who is a former MVP and perennial member of the All-NBA team. What he is not is a good jump shooter, and he shouldn’t be tasked with playing like he is. Head coach Scott Brooks has reason to be worried about Westbrook’s age and declining athleticism, especially considering his dependence on his athletic ability to be effective. To this end, Brooks instituted a “no-dunk” order for Westbrook in practice early in the season.

The sentiment is understandable, but the Wizards are 4-13 and sit in last place in the Eastern Conference. They need to start maximizing the production of every player on roster, and most certainly that of their second best player. Taking a look at Westbrook’s shot chart this season, can illustrate how to do this. The following is his shot chart for the 2021 season overall thus far:

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook’s 2020-2021 season shot chart, courtesy Cleaning the Glass

The next image is his shot chart against the Nets, notice the comparative lack of shots from the mid-range area:

Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook’s shot chart from Sunday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, courtesy Cleaning the Glass

The proof is in the pudding: Westbrook is not a good shooter and he never will be. However, when he sticks to his strengths (driving and finishing at the rim), he plays well and so does the team. Case and point, the Wizards were able to beat a team much more talented than them in the Nets because Westbrook effectively got to the rim all night. Consequently, it opened up the offense, and allowed them to score 149 points.

Part of the downtick in attempts at the rim this season could be a function of Westbrook’s health (or lack of it). He has been nursing a quad injury since the bubble, the same injury that kept Kawhi Leonard out for his last season with the San Antonio Spurs and still bothers him today. It also ended DeMarcus Cousins’ time with the Golden State Warriors. Perhaps his game against the Nets was a product of finally having gotten back to 100%.

The other factor worth noting could be Coach Brooks. Perhaps he has told Westbrook to take less shots at the rim in an attempt to preserve his health, using a thought process similar to the no-dunk rule, but it is clear that this strategy is benefiting no one. If Brooks truly cares about turning the Wizards season around, he needs to start optimizing the offense to create the best looks he can for his individual players. That starts with getting Westbrook a healthy diet of shots at the rim. It has been seen in action, when he attacks the rim, the Wizards are a different team.

Despite their subsequent double-digit loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Wizards win against the Nets still serves as a beacon of hope and evidence of the team’s potential. They have the offensive firepower to beat any team in the league, it is just about making sure guys are getting the right opportunities to be successful. Here’s to hoping Westbrook, Brooks and company have the wherewithal to see this evident recipe for success.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, ESPN and Cleaning the Glass

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