Why Russell Westbrook Is Not Clutch for the Oklahoma City Thunder
The overuse of Russell Westbrook in the clutch is taking its toll on his efficiency and costing the Thunder games during a tight playoff race. Over the past couple week, Oklahoma City has fallen in multiple close games that may cost them home court in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. They lost to the Trail Blazers by three, the Spurs by four, and the Nuggets by one in overtime.
From the perspective of a Spurs fan, I had this Thunder game marked on my calendar for weeks. During every possession down the stretch when Russell Westbrook was dribbling in place outside the three-point line, I was like Professor Quirrell in Gryffindor's Quidditch match hexing Harry’s broom with unwavering eye contact. Only I was staring down Russell Westbrook from my living room magically compelling him to take ill-advised pull up threes, and unfortunately for Thunder fans there was no muttering Snape to stop me.
Maybe I won the game for the Spurs or maybe Russ was just being Russ, who’s to say? Either way he got 100% air on two clutch-time threes that heavily contributed to the Thunder losing the game. This will likely cost OKC the tie-breaker with San Antonio, depending on how the Spurs close out the season.
This season in the clutch, which is defined as five minutes or less remaining in a game when the score is within five points, Westbrook is shooting 20.8% on threes, 40.8% from the floor and 65.2% from the free-throw line. This is down from his regular season numbers of 29.4% from three, 45% from the field, and 73.3% from the line.
His field-goal percentages are nothing to write home about because they are fairly average for a guy at his position, since point guards tend to play further away from the hoop.
The problem here is that he leads the league in clutch field-goal attempts at 3.6, the next closest being Donovan Mitchell at 3.1. That is too much for one player, especially if he is shooting a meager 40%. It also makes their offense predictable and easier for defenses to read.
The three-point numbers are where things take a bigger dive. Russ is 227th out of 248 eligible players in three-point percentages for players who have played 40 games or more and attempted at least one triple a game. He is 164th out of 184 players who have played in at least 20 games in clutch situations in three-point percentage during clutch time. Despite his lowly clutch three-point percentage he is tied for second in the league in clutch attempts at 1.2 for qualifying players.
There was a storyline circulating a few years ago, notedly before the more mainstream NBA community engaged in an all-out stats makeover, that Russell Westbrook had the same amount of flaws as other NBA superstars, his were just louder, and more flamboyant. His flaws were as innocent as anyone else's and one should not worry about Russ — he can get you a championship.
Now however, those flaws are becoming less and less abstract. His shooting numbers speak for themselves and the eye test says the same thing. His problem stems from shot selection more than anything else; it is not that he is not clutch or has a broken stroke.
Some solutions could be to involve Paul George, Steven Adams or, dare I say it, Carmelo Anthony more in the offense. Russ’s clutch usage rate is 44.4%. Second for OKC is Alex Abrines at 23.8% and then Paul George and Melo follow with 19.8% a piece. During regular game time this is not as big of a gap with Westbrook at 33.4% and Paul George behind him at 25.3%.
To be fair, it does make sense to give your best player the ball when you need a basket most late in a game, but Westbrook’s jump in late game usage is leading to low percentage shots.
As a collective, the media gives so much credit to guys who change their game for the sake of winning. This year it was Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, by either sacrificing some of their shot attempts or having the willingness to alter their game in some way. People would be losing their minds and getting down on their knees if Westbrook took fewer contested shots, his shooting numbers jumped, and OKC ran a more cohesive offense.
Russ does not even have to sacrifice that much. He is one of the few players where you can know what he’s going to do and he can still go after it and get a bucket. The “it” in this scenario is dunking and dishing. So even if he just dialed back the threes and drove every time, it would be more effective than what he does now. And if the defense starts to sag off of him enough, that is when he should shoot.
The dirty truth of this whole thing is that if nothing changes the Thunder will be fine. They’ll be ok. Their clutch winning percentage is .523 which is seventeenth in the league, so just about average. Their normal record is .577, tenth in league. They stay alive because they are the best offensive rebounding team in the league, clutch or otherwise, and they get a lot of shot attempts.
But they should be better. They have one of the most talented rosters in the league this year, and if George re-ups this summer, which is still TBD (although whispers leaking out of the Thunder locker room sound more optimistic than when the season started), they will be set for the near future. If something does not change in their style of play, especially at the end of close games, they will be lucky to make it to the second round of the playoffs every year.
All stats accurate as of 4/2/18
All stats from nba.com