The OKC Thunder preseason roundtable continues turning attention to Russell Westbrook and if he can effectively play off ball this season.
Like the OKC Thunder franchise Russell Westbrook enters his 11th NBA season and will turn 30 this November. OKC put an emphasis on adding playmakers this offseason (particularly Dennis Schroder).
Everyone knows the Brodie will give 100 percent effort every second, but for Russ to sed the “He’s a bad teammate” or “He’ll never change” narrative and for OKC to take the next step he may need to play more off ball. The question is can Westbrook be an effective off ball scorer? And what does he need to improve upon for the OKC Thunder to make a deep playoff run?
Many may not know this but Russ was the Pac-10 Defensive Player of Year in College and entered the NBA as a defensive-minded guard at the two-spot. Due to his size he had to rework his game and learn the point guard position. At UCLA, the Brodie was a slasher off the ball and attacked the rim off superb passing from his guards. I have no doubt Westbrook can play off the ball but he has to make a conscious effort to always be on the move. Since he transitioned to point guard, Russ has forgotten how to move off the ball and needs to get back to the activity he showed in college.
In order for Oklahoma City to make a legitimate run, Russ needs to shoot well in catch and shoot three situations (35.2 percent last season) and slash more to the bucket especially if Schroder is in the game. Westbrook is a good defender when engaged so an increase in focus on that end of the floor will do wonder for OKC.
First of all, no previous teammate has anything but positive things to say about Westbrook – so that narrative is media driven. Rumor has it Westbrook worked this offseason specifically on his shot fundamentals and from distance. The obvious goal being to hit from the perimeter with a better efficiency. As far as playing off ball, reflecting back in time it wasn’t that long ago James Harden and Russ were playing a similar role that presumably Westbrook and Dennis Schroder could run in late game situations (or PG and Russ). Can Russ play effectively off ball? Um – let me answer this with the way the Brodie approaches everything in life – Why Not?
Let’s be clear – Russell Westbrook can be effective no matter what roles he takes on the court. Practically, if Westbrook can keep generating easy assists through the playoffs, that should be it.
I think Westbrook can do whatever he wants to do. That includes an off ball scorer. He is the most explosive player in the league. If he focused on being a slasher off ball, he would be the most dangerous slasher in the NBA. In the past Westbrook hasn’t trusted his team to “make plays” for him because, for lack of a better term, we haven’t had a playmaker. With Dennis, Paul, Ray, Steve and yes even Nerlens Noel’s underrated passing, we might just see Westbrook hand over the keys and open up not only his offense, but the Thunders.
I think the “bad teammate” narrative is a lazy attempt at writing off a ball dominant player, which is especially hip in the Moreyball era. Russ has his flaws, obviously, but no former teammate has anything but praise for him. Russ needs to improve his shooting ability, shot selection, and try jusssst a bit harder on defense to make the WCF. What I’d really love to see is PG running the pick and roll sometimes with Russ off-ball action for spot up looks. It probably won’t happen.
There seems to be a strange misconception about Russell Westbrook in the media. A lot of people seem to believe he’s selfish and pad stats, but I see his intensity as a sign of competitiveness. If there’s anything we know about Westbrook, it’s that he hates losing and will do whatever it takes to win. And since he’s been such an amazing player, winning typically means he has the ball in his hands more often than not.
Honestly, I don’t see Westbrook caring too much about the negative commentary, so I don’t see his game changing that much. He will continue to take ownership during high-stakes situations, and if that means looking like a ball hog, so be it. The big difference is that Dennis Schroder will take a lot of the pressure off him, so he doesn’t have to be Revenge Russ every time he gets put back into the game. To improve, he needs to continue being the leader and find ways to integrate all the younger guys. They will look to him to initiate the winning plays for everyone to be effective contributors and communicators.
I’ll believe it when I see that he can play off ball. That being said he certainly hasn’t had a point guard like Schroder before. If he can play more off ball and preserve his energy, I’d expect another stellar season from Russ, assuming his knee turns out to be alright. In terms of what he needs to do, it’s the same old-same old. Trusting your teammates for a majority of the game, not just the opening five minutes of the quarter. Closing out on defense and not rebound hunting. Not going completely into tunnel vision. But again, it’s year 11. I’ll believe the change when I see it.
The “playing off the ball” thing has to come in spurts to be effective with Westbrook. He’s at his most successful with the ball in his hands. But he has been successful in spurts off the ball. He played well with Kevin Durant being a de facto ball handler in late game situations during their time together. And he played well when meshed together with Reggie Jackson. He’ll be fine when he’s out there on the floor with Schroder.
As for improvements to make the team better: Becoming a consistent 35% 3-point shooter would be great and turning Steven Adams into an offensive threat night in and night out.
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Russ CAN be a great off-ball scorer. And that will be useful in secondary actions. Sure, if he runs a pick-and-roll and finds nothing, kick it to Schröder and become an off-ball weapon. But for the start of possessions, I see no reason to take the ball out of the hands of one of the elite creators in the world. As for the post-season, just shoot better. He shot so poorly last year.
Asad Ali Jamal – @SuperCyrax98
Russell Westbrook comes off as demanding for some people, but I firmly believe that he does whatever he believes will help the team win. I just think that sometimes he has the wrong idea of what is helping the team win. Yes, Russ needs to have the ball in his hands for the Thunder to win, but he doesn’t need the ball all the time. In fact, some of Westbrook’s best highlights in the past have come from off-ball cuts and I think that he can lead this team deep into the playoffs if he can accept playing off the ball much more as he has shown plenty of success doing so in the past.
Russell Westbrook can absolutely dominate off the ball. He really does not need to improve on the court to be able to do so. His explosiveness is enough. He needs to improve in the attitude department, becoming willing to play off ball. If he does that, the OKC offense will be tough to stop during those times. Bigger picture, at times Russell Westbrook needs to play under control. At times, in big moments, he is amazing. However, there are other times where he tries to do too much, and it leads to bad shots, or turnovers. Clean that up, and the Thunder will be drastically improved.
Foremost, Westbrook will never shed that narrative. He could win MVP, set assist and passing records, en route to bringing Oklahoma City a title and the narrative would somehow still remain.
With that said, Westbrook must set an example for the rest of the team and refrain from taking threes. Outside of Patrick Patterson and George, OKC does not have good shooters. If Westbrook shoots three or less 3-point shots per game it will make him a better player and the Thunder a much better team.
This wraps up question four from the roundtable. Question five with six full days left in the countdown addresses the OKC Thunder issues from last season.