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The pairing of Scott Brooks and Russell Westbrook disappoints

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The Washington Wizards guard and head coach haven’t hit the ground running like they did in their Oklahoma City Thunder days.

Detroit Pistons v Washington Wizards Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

As I previously wrote, Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard accomplished the near-impossible by trading John Wall without giving up a trove of draft picks. This gave the Wizards locker room a fresh start and gave Beal the keys to the franchise. At the same time, I also believed that from a basketball point of view this was not an upgrade, since I believed Wall would come back at a high level.

On the bright side, I was optimistic that if any team could maximize the output from Westbrook, it would be the Wizards, since head coach Scott Brooks has several years of experience coaching a younger Westbrook.

Well, so much for optimism.

About an eighth of the season in, Brooks seems to be using Westbrook much worse than Mike D’Antoni and Billy Donovan did the past two seasons.

Kevin Broom has been dishing out great stats on Westbrook’s dysfunction on an almost daily basis. Let me add to that, by honing in on a few puzzling things.

  • The back-to-back issue. Brooks announced Westbrook won’t be playing back-to-backs. Yet, at the same time he leads the Wizards with 37 minutes per game. That’s Westbrook’s career high in minutes. At age 32. For comparison, Bradley Beal is at 36, Thomas Bryant at 30, and everyone else even less. If the Wizards are concerned with Westbrook’s health, they should probably limit his minutes. In a related vein, his performance in some of the fourth quarters has been abysmal (more on that below).
  • The no-dunk order and the disappearance of layups and free throw attempts. Just last year, Westbrook scored 16% of his points in the midrange. This year: 34%. More astonishingly, in 2019-20, Westbrook scored 55% of his points in the paint (PITP). This season, it’s dropped by more than half to 27%. This is the lowest in Westbrook’s career. Wait, there’s even a stat that makes it sound worse: Westbrook is scoring 5 PITP this year compared to 15 last year. Finally, Westbrook is scoring a career-worst 2.7 points off fast-breaks (compared to 4.8 last year).
  • The loss to the Celtics. A couple nights ago in TD Garden in Boston, Ish Smith subbed in for Thomas Bryant at the 4:41 mark of the third quarter. Brooks decided to experiment with a small lineup of Smith-Mathews-Beal-Wagner-Hachimura and two minutes later Hachimura was swapped for Bertans. Finally some creativity coming from Brooks. This lineup torched the Celtics and cut the Celtics lead from 20 to 10 in about four minutes of play.

At that point Brooks made his most costly error of the night by subbing Westbrook for Mathews at the 9:57 mark of the fourth. There was instantly confusion with pickup-like turnovers on both sides. Smith managed to score of one of these possessions, while Westbrook found Hachimura for an open three and the Wizards were as close as four with 7:36 to go.

At that point, Westbrook’s lack of explosiveness and frankly, oxygen, was on full display. But even more so his selfishness was just astonishing. He dribbled and dribbled and then attempted a three instead of trying to drive-and-dish or pass the ball to his teammates. Of course, the blame here is also on Brooks, who took out Beal but did not put enough creators on the floor at this crucial point in the game (how about Deni Avdija, coach?). In the next possession, Westbrook, amazingly, did more of the same, he bricking a 17-footer.

The game was still close at 102-95 but then Brooks subbed Beal in instead of Smith. Why? The Beal-Smith pairing has worked well. It would have made sense, after Westbrook displayed such poor judgement and lack of energy to sub him out for Beal, and not Smith, who had been making key plays on defense all along.

In the remaining couple minutes we saw more Brooks-type hero ball, mainly from Beal. Westbrook essentially did not impact the game in the final four minutes. I can only assume it had to do with him being gassed.

  • The three-guard lineups. Interestingly, this year Westbrook is assisted on 37% of his field goals. This is a career-high. It could be related to two things. First, his lack of explosiveness and layup attempts. Second, Brooks infamous three-guard lineups. These lineups, as discussed by Kevin Broom, create a lack of spacing, so Westbrook is often left alone on the outskirts of the mid-range or downtown.
  • Turnovers. This year, opponents are scoring 14 points off Westbrook’s turnovers, which is a career-worse stat for the point guard.

It would be nice to ask Brooks about his point of view on these topics, and I did attend his media availability before the Miami Heat game with questions prepared. Unfortunately, only NBC Sports Washington, The Athletic, Washington Post, and HoopsHype were given an opportunity to ask questions and none put these issues to Brooks.