A Close Look at Russell Westbrook’s Shooting Woes
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After playing mostly excellent basketball for the first two to three months of the season, the Oklahoma City Thunder has unexpectedly fallen off. Losing 11 of their last 16 games, OKC finds itself 7th in the ever-changing Western Conference standings at the time of this publication. They’re just 3.5 games behind the third seed, but only half a game ahead of the eight seed. Considering the Thunder were tied for the best record in the West at one point in late December and early January, them playing this inconsistently late in the year is very surprising.
Uncountable losses to less talented rivals like the Grizzlies, Heat, Pacers, Wolves, Kings, and Pelicans are the main source of the Thunder’s misery over the past month-and-a-half. Admittedly, it was recently revealed that Paul George has been dealing with a shoulder injury that has affected his shooting in one way or another. There was also a Russell Westbrook suspension automatically triggered after earning his league-leading 16th technical foul of the season; the poor execution in some games is also worth mentioning, which included getting into early foul trouble and allowing teams to come back late in games.
But something that stands out from this stretch is Russell Westbrook’s much improved shooting, especially his long-range bombing and close attacks. One of the triple-double machine’s bad habits is jacking up way too many threes even when he’s just an average shooter – maybe even below average due to his poor shot selection. And if you’ve watched him enough, you know it’s not only wide-open looks he enjoys taking, but also the pull-up, off-balance, limitless range heroic threes that often end up being celebrated all around the internet.
But if Westbrook’s (very) ugly shooting was one of the reasons the Thunder didn’t fulfill their potential earlier this season, why is OKC struggling this much in the middle of the 2017 MVP’s best shooting stretch? There doesn’t seem to be any immediate correlation, but let’s take a look at the Brodie’s three-point shooting woes throughout the season.
Here are Westbrook’s monthly field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage shooting splits. These only account for months were he has played double-digit games, i.e. from December to March:
As you can notice, Westbrook has improved both his overall shooting and his long-range shooting. It’s also interesting to see his confidence in shooting threes has increased proportional to his accuracy, launching as many as eight per game in March.
His positive spike on accuracy and the subsequent spike on attempts looks like a huge positive. For Westbrook’s standards, it is. At the end of the day, that’s what most every player would do. But to provide some context, only five players in the entire NBA are shooting eight or more threes per game this season: James Harden, Stephen Curry, teammate Paul George, Kemba Walker, and Eric Gordon, in descending order. All of these are high-volume long-range scorers that have been a threat from beyond the arc for years now. Westbrook’s 35.2% three-point shooting on eight attempts during March would rank 5th on that list, with only Eric Gordon shooting at a slightly worse clip.
As I said, it makes sense that Westbrook keeps jacking those bad boys up if he’s finding early success with the long-range bombs. And the main reason he’s increased his percentages is some slightly better shot selection. For instance only 23.1% of Westbrooks shots in December, his worst shooting month, were open or wide open threes. That number has jumped all the way to 31.7% during March.
It’s also worth noting that, for whatever reason, even Westbrook’s good shots weren’t dropping early. In December, he made only 24.5% of his open or wide open shots, compared to 35.6% in March. The Thunder can be – and will be – real scary if Paul George can continue his MVP level play, the team defense remains pestilent, and Westbrook can keep making his threes at a high rate.
But is there anything Westbrook can do improve his efficiency even more? As with every average to below-average shooter, Russ needs to be more careful with the types of shots he takes. I’m especially referring to his pull-up jumpers.
One of Westbrook’s favorite moves is his patented mid-range pull-up jumper. In recent seasons, the Brodie has attempted to replicate those 14 to 20 feet pull-ups beyond the three-point arc. And even when the results are not optimal, he is still putting up an unhealthy dose of pull-up threes.
15% of Westbrook’s total field goal attempts have been pull-up threes this season which, again, is an alarming number for a player as unreliable from deep as Westbrook is. He only makes 25.5% of the three-point pull-up shots he launches each game. I wouldn’t mind Westbrook splitting those shots with Paul George who, on the flip side, makes 38% of his 4.2 pull-up threes per game.
Unlike his open shooting or rim attacking, Westbrook’s mid-range pull-up jumper has been awful all season long. Formerly one of his most dangerous ways to score in isolation situations, he is shooting 31.4% on pull-up twos. That’s not really related to Westbrook’s three-point shot but just goes on to show how reliant he is on jump shooting when his calling card is clearly attacking the rim. How many players wish they were as unstoppable as Westbrook is when driving towards the rim?
An answer to the former question is hard to come up with, but an interesting hypothesis arises when you look closer at the numbers. Westbrook is shooting only 65.1% from the free throw line, by far the worst mark in his career. Is the mental toll of performing poorly at the charity stripe forcing Westbrook away from the paint out of fear from being fouled and missing freebies?
It makes sense, as with him shooting at a 65.1% rate on each free throw attempt, Westbrook has only a 42.4% chance of making both free throws on an average trip to the foul line. But neither the free throws, nor the mid-range shots, nor the pull-up threes have worked this year. Only his standstill long-range accuracy and shooting at the basket have improved. In fact, Westbrook is shooting a career-high 63.1% at the rim this season, per Cleaning The Glass. If his only “strong” offensive weapons are the catch-and-shoot deep looks and agressively driving to the basket, why would he continue attempting so many inconsistent types of shots? That shouldn’t be the case when he often shares the court with a top 3 MVP candidate!
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via GettyImages
The Thunder needs to make the proper adjustments come playoff time. Yes, Westbrook has always led the team on the offensive end, but playing alongside a talent like George and on a team as good defensively as the Thunder is, it’s time for him to recognize his share of shots – or his share of difficult shots, that is – needs to be drastically cut down for them to reach new heights. As long as Westbrook is unwilling to play more efficient ball, the Thunder will have a very hard time in the postseason, let alone in a meeting against the super-efficient Golden State Warriors.
Westbrook deserves a ton of credit for adjusting his game to play with another All-Star player (who, may I repeat, is now an MVP candidate) and the partnership has benefitted both in previously unimaginable ways. The Brodie is having the best defensive season of his career, and that’s in big part thanks to the defensive identity George has helped cement with Steven Adams also taking care of the paint. But if OKC wants to reach its maximum potential, they need their superstar point guard to play more modern and efficient basketball.
All statistics courtesy of NBA Stats, unless otherwise noted.
You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA