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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Thunder Surging as Westbrook Regains MVP Form

"What is wrong with the Thunder?" is a question being posed by many NBA commentators but the answer to that question may actually be "Nothing." Three weeks ago, I answered that question by suggesting that the Thunder need for Russell Westbrook to play his normal game as opposed to sublimating his game in deference to Paul George and Carmelo Anthony; the team's best player should not be the one who is sacrificing the most.

Last season, Westbrook won the regular season MVP award after averaging 31.6 ppg (capturing his second scoring title along the way), 10.7 rpg (10th in the league) and 10.4 apg (3rd in the league). Westbrook became the only ABA-NBA player other than Oscar Robertson to average a triple double for an entire season.

Despite a subdued--by his high standards--start to the 2017-18 campaign, Westbrook is averaging 23.3 ppg, 9.8 apg and 9.6 rpg through 30 games, numbers which would put him closer to averaging a triple double for a season than anyone other than Robertson. During the Thunder's first 10 games in December he elevated his production to 25.2 ppg, 10.5 apg and 10.4 rpg as the Thunder went 7-3. Westbrook notched four triple doubles during those 10 games and the Thunder won each of those four contests.

Westbrook's shooting percentages during this 10 game run are not good but in his most recent game--Oklahoma City's 95-94 win over Denver on Monday night--he scored a season-high 38 points on 16-28 field goal shooting, including 16 points in the fourth quarter, as the Thunder outscored the Nuggets by seven in the final stanza. The Thunder won despite George scoring just eight points on 3-13 field goal shooting and despite Anthony scoring just four points on 2-6 field goal shooting.

No one would suggest that the Thunder's formula for long-term success involves George and Anthony shooting so horribly but the larger point--from that one game in particular and the most recent 10 game stretch in general--is that this team is at its best when Westbrook is dominant, as opposed to Westbrook deferring to lesser talents. When Westbrook pushes the ball and looks for his shot, the opposing defense is compromised in a way that opens up opportunities for his teammates, either off of a direct pass (Westbrook had a team-high six assists versus Denver despite the bricklaying by George and Anthony) or off of ball movement initiated by Westbrook's first pass.

If Westbrook continues to play this way, two things will likely happen: (1) Westbrook will regain his shooting rhythm and his shooting percentages will bounce back to his career norms and (2) the Thunder will reel off an 8-10 game winning streak at some point to catapult them into the top four in the Western Conference.

Westbrook is a polarizing figure--much like Kobe Bryant was in the previous era--so no matter what he does he will either be blamed for his team's failures (real or imagined) or else he will not be given the full credit he deserves for his team's success but the suggestion that the reigning MVP needs to change his game to accommodate George and Anthony is just bizarre. Westbrook has already proven that he can be an All-NBA performer for a championship level team while playing alongside Kevin Durant and Westbrook has proven that he can carry a weak supporting cast to a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference, which is more than George or Anthony have accomplished in their careers.

George's job on this team is to be a lockdown defender, a secondary playmaker and a weakside cutter who feasts off of the defensive attention Westbrook draws. In other words, he should be Dwyane Wade to Westbrook's LeBron James, if one wants to compare the Thunder to the Miami Heat team from several years ago. Anthony's job on this team is to post up smaller defenders, drive by bigger defenders and knock down open shots in transition; he will never be a lockdown defender but he must at least give effort at that end of the court. In other words, Anthony should play like he did for Team USA (which is much easier to do against inferior competition while surrounded by the likes of Bryant, James and Durant than it is on a nightly basis in the NBA).

This recent 10 game stretch does not prove that the Thunder have turned the corner. They may very well regress back to being a sub-.500 team and they may never reach their potential. However, this 10 game stretch has provided a glimpse of the way that the Thunder should play and a hint of what they are capable of accomplishing if they build upon this small sample size of relative success.

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posted by David Friedman @ 12:38 AM



At Wednesday, December 20, 2017 9:37:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...

I'm not convinced their recent success has much to do with a deliberate philosophy change so much as just a softer schedule. Here are their wins in the last ten games:

Minny: Best win in the stretch. They beat a healthy, quality team. Not great for this narrative, as Russ and Paul George had the same number of shots but George had 36 points and a +9 while Russ had 15 and a -3.

San Antonio: Schedule win. No Leonard, Aldridge, Parker, or Ginobili.

Utah: Decent win. The Jazz are a .500 team that can't score, but they were healthy and OKC won out (and Russ went off).

Memphis- Schedule win. No Conley, team completely falling apart. Everybody beats Memphis.

Indy- Good win, but doesn't fit your narrative. Russ shot only 17 times (and made just 3), but three other players shot at least 14 times and all four other starters outscored Russ.

Philly- Good win. Triple OT win by 2 points over a good team.

Denver- Schedule win. Jokic's first game back, he played only 25 minutes off the bench. Millsap out. Great Russ game. One point OKC win.

Also, their three losses in that stretch came against New York, Charlotte, and Brooklyn, none of whom are, you know, good.

So, the two best wins in that stretch (Minny and Indy) had relatively little to do with Russ "not deferring" and in fact relied on him deferring. The other good win in the stretch (Phily) saw Russ nearly cost his team the game with bad shooting (10-for-33) but save it with stellar rebounding and assist numbers.

I need to see OKC beat some real teams before I read much into their recent record, and I need to see more evidence than currently exists that a more Russ-centric offense is the reason why. For now, they look pretty much the same to me, they just hit a nice month in their schedule; I think more teams than not could go 7-3 (or better) against those teams with those injuries.

At Wednesday, December 20, 2017 11:09:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree that 10 games is a small sample size but it is one third of the season to date.

Regarding Westbrook playing his game, I am not necessarily focusing on FGAs as much as a general attitude of aggressiveness, which can lead to shots for other players (Westbrook is currently leading the league in assists and playmaking is an important part of his game).

At Wednesday, December 20, 2017 11:19:00 AM, Blogger Nick said...


Sure, but RWB's assists numbers have been consistently high all season. I watched a few of those OKC games and they did not seem materially different to me than previous OKC games, in terms of RWB's number of touches or aggressiveness with the ball. It seems like the main difference is level of competition.

At Wednesday, December 20, 2017 11:28:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Perhaps you are right but I believe that there has been an uptick in Westbrook’s overall aggressiveness recently. His assists were high before but they have been higher recently.

As I concluded in the article, time will tell if this is just a blip or a real turnaround.


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