Over the last couple of seasons Thunder fans everywhere have found themselves facing a growing moral dilemma…How should they feel about Russell Westbrook? Me being one of these fans, I’ve watched as Westbrook takes the game into his own hands, for better or worse, and ultimately decides the team’s fate. I don’t want to take anything away from the guy. He’s a three-time All-Star and who has been named to three 2nd team All-NBA teams. He is clearly a superstar in the league who has yet to reach his ceiling. That’s exciting for Thunder fans, because Westbrook is a constant enigma when he’s leading the team. There’s no telling exactly which Westbrook will show up for any given game. His stats appear to rank him as one of the elite point guards in the game today, but stats can be deceiving. That being said, let’s take a closer look at just how important he really is.
We all remember when Westbrook went down midseason last year with yet another knee injury. I think it’s safe to say that after how the team struggled against the Rockets in the playoffs after his first injury the year before, fans were all a bit nervous. The team was off to a 23-5 start to begin the season before Westbrook went down again, which is a very impressive record by any standard. When I first heard the news of his injury I wondered exactly how Thunder fans were reacting. How are we going to replace him? It turned out that replacing him was going to be much easier than we thought, as backup point guard Reggie Jackson took over the starting role in his absence. With Jackson leading the team, the Thunder rolled to a 20-7 record. That wasn’t much worse than the team’s record with Westbrook running the show. Of course everyone gives much of the credit to Kevin Durant’s incredible stats with Westbrook out. However, we can’t discount just how big of a deal Reggie Jackson was during his time running the offense. As a starter, Jackson averaged 14.8 points, 6.9 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 3.9 turnovers. Compare these numbers to Westbrook’s 21.8 points, 6.9 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 3.8 turnovers as a starter last season and you could say that Westbrook only had a distinct advantage in scoring and rebounding. The reason Westbrook may have averaged so many more points than Jackson is because Westbrook took almost four more shots per game than Jackson did. This could help explain the teams sustained success without Westbrook on the floor. Jackson spent more time creating shots for his teammates.
Ever since fans saw how well the team fared without him, Westbrook has been the source of trade rumors league wide. I, for one, think that is a little extreme. Yes, Westbrook can sometimes be a little careless while running the show. This can be proven with a couple of simple stats. Since he was drafted in 2008 Westbrook has been among the Top 5 in turnovers in every season he has played, yet has only finished Top 5 in assists three times. That’s something he must improve on. Another thing that needs to improve is his amount of shots per game. Last season Westbrook put up 17.2 shots per game. As someone with a world of talent around him, he needs to spend a little more time distributing the ball. I’m not saying that he’s all bad though. He has proven countless times that he is one of the most explosive and athletic players in the league. His quickness and strength make him a dangerous defender, while his speed and leaping ability make him unstoppable in transition. These are things that can’t be taught.
While we Thunder fans love to point the blame at Westbrook, we all know that we have one of the few elite players at point guard. Sure there are things we would like to see him do differently, but that’s no reason to make him the scapegoat for the teams lack of playoff success. However, until we get a legitimate offensive low-post threat, Westbrook will continue to receive the bulk of the blame. One thing is for sure though. Love him or hate him, he’s still one of the best players on the planet.