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Four Thoughts on Russell Westbrook and the Washington Wizards

Houston Rockets v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Five
New Wizards guard Russell Westbrook.
Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

I wrote a few days ago that the Wizards have acquired the expensive decline portion of Russell Westbrook’s stellar career. That’s okay, in part because they traded away the expensive decline portion of John Wall’s career.

Today, I’m taking another look at Westbrook last season and how things might play out in Washington. In honor of Westbrook’s new number, here are four thoughts on Westbrook with the Wizards:

  1. He can’t shoot. No really. Westbrook shot 25.8% from three-point range with the Houston Rockets — the third straight season he’s shot worse than 30% from three, and the seventh time in 12 seasons. This could be a big issue because his man can sink into the lane to help on drives and cuts and not worry about Westbrook at the three-point line. The remedy: Westbrook, already renowned for effort, has to become even more active. When the ball finds him on the perimeter, he needs to decide quick whether to drive or get the ball to a teammate. Or drive and get the ball to a teammate. He’s a good passer, and for the first time in his career, he’ll be surrounded by quality shooters. He also needs to become an aggressive off-ball cutter.
  2. One of the problems in Houston was that, like Westbrook, center Clint Capela couldn’t shoot with range. That meant he was in the spaces on the floor Westbrook needed to be effective. That issue disappears with Thomas Bryant — an elite finisher around the basket (career 81% on at-rim attempts) and a legitimate threat from the three-point line. Expect to see a lot of high pick-and-roll sets with Bryant and Beal or Westbrook, as well as dribble handoffs. Defenses won’t know whether Bryant will roll to the basket or pop to the three-point line, or get free throw line jumpers or quick passes to open teammates on the short roll. And anticipate seeing sets that look like they’re designed to get shots for Westbrook or Beal, but are actually built to spring Bertans for bombs.
  3. Westbrook’s rebounding and toughness could create some interesting lineup options for the Wizards this season. Last year, Westbrook averaged 10.2 rebounds per 100 team possessions, the sixth consecutive season the 6-3 guard has been in double digits in this category. He catches flack for “stealing” rebounds from teammates, but his team’s defensive rebounding percentage is better when he’s on the floor. I expect to see head coach Scott Brooks experiment with some smaller lineup combinations that could have Westbrook matching up with opposition PFs. And, expect to see Westbrook have a bigger impact on team rebounding than free agent center Robin Lopez.
  4. As shown in the performance ekg (below), Westbrook’s performance was highly volatile. After Houston’s 10-point win at Toronto December 5, Westbrook’s PPA was at a season low 66. (PPA is my overall rating metric. In PPA, 100 is average, higher is better, and 45 is replacement level.) He shot 7-27 against the Raptors that night, which was actually an improvement — he was 7-30 the previous game, a loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
Russell Westbrook, 2019-20 performance ekg.
Kevin Broom

In the ekg above, the orange line is Westbrook’s season average PPA after each game. The blue line is his rolling 10-game average. He had a stretch early in the season where his 10-game average fell below 25, as well as two brief stints where his 10-game average soared to 225 or higher. That’s an extreme range — below replacement level at the low end to MVP candidate at the high.

Westbrook bounced back from the low, but didn’t get his PPA above average until January 18. From that low point on December 5 to the end of the season, including a subpar bubble performance, Westbrook had a 154 PPA, which by some interesting coincidence was his exact PPA in 2018-19.

Lopping off the bubble doesn’t tell a significantly different story — his PPA from that low of 66 to the COVID-19 shutdown was 163.

The “calendar year” binge really didn’t start until January 11. From that point to the league’s shutdown — a span of 21 games — Westbrook’s PPA was 185.

Of course, while chopping the season into different subsections is a useful exercise, it’s important to keep in mind that what matters is the whole. The gaudy numbers when Westbrook was playing well may give hope, but the fit issues that diminished his production through the first quarter of the season, and the injury issues that hampered him in the bubble and the playoffs are the realities of having such a unique player who’s 32 years old.

Athletes in their 30s can be relied upon to get injured and get worse. If the Wizards are fortunate, they’ll get a year or two of relative health and very good production from Westbrook. If not, they’re likely to be no worse off than they would have been with a guy returning from a torn Achilles and three consecutive seasons missing at least half the team’s games due to injury.