Russell Westbrook has made headlines so far this season by making triple doubles in four out of the five games he has played this season for the Washington Wizards. His stats line certainly grab the attention of many, but his typical highlight reel plays have seemed to be less frequent.
If someone asked me what makes Westbrook such a unique talent, I would probably mention his energetic play, his ability to fill stat lines across the board and his raw athleticism. Unfortunately the latter point seems to be mostly absent during this early season. Westbrook is often known for his relentless, and at times almost reckless drives to the hoop that end with explosive finishes, but those finishes so far this year have been almost nonexistent. Let’s break this down a little further.
When observing Westbrook’s play this season, I have found myself to be underwhelmed with what he has done at the rim. My eyes tell me that he is around the basket a lot less than he has been in the past. This observation seems to be acknowledged by several who have covered the team:
I know the Wizards offense is not the problem tonight, but I can’t get over that Russell Westbrook hasn’t attempted a layup/dunk off a drive in six quarters (excluding garbage time), and he hasn’t made one in 10 quarters. Last one he made was on opening night.— Fred Katz (@FredKatz) December 31, 2020
Did Scott Brooks put Russell Westbrook on a “No Dunk” rule for practice AND games??— Troy Haliburton (+/-) (@TroyHalibur) December 30, 2020
The stats seems to bear out a dramatically difference in his activity at the rim in 5 games this season, compared to last season.
Stats Through First 5 Games
In addition to the change in the frequency of lay up and dunk attempts, his shooting percentage has plummeted for those lay up and dunks attempts, dropping from 73 percent last season to 48 percent.
It’s early but the reality is there is a major difference in his play that seems to play out statistically. With that said there are two possible reasons behind this sudden change, health and scheme.
So far the team has not given any indication that he is nursing some type of injury. What we do know is Scott Brooks put Westbrook on a no-dunk restriction for practices, as referenced in Troy Haliburton’s tweet above. But here’s a rationale that Brooks had for the restriction.
He’s got about 5-7 years left. 2349 dunks left. He won’t admit it but it take a lot to get up there...protect him from his own wiring, he’s own mindset. I know how he practices, just trying to save him from himself.— Quinton Mayo (@RealQuintonMayo) December 15, 2020
Scott Brooks on Russell Westbrook’s “no dunk” order
So is this a matter of saving his body? There’s just no clear indication, if there is truly any reasoning for this type of order that Brooks has given Westbrook, but it has lead to a far less aggressive style for Westbrook, even during games.
Another item we do know also is that Westbrook is being held back from playing in back to back games. Again, something to wonder about, but we have not been given a clear indication for the reasoning behind this mandate either.
Do these items point to a deeper issue or are they simply an attempt to scale back Westbrook’s frantic pace? Either way, limiting what he is perhaps most effective at, changes the type of player he is.
One of the end results of Westbrook’s scaled aggressive downhill play, has been his lack of free throw attempts. Prior to Sunday’s game against Brooklyn, Westbrook had only attempted 17 free throws in 4 games played. For his career Westbrook averages 7.1 per game. To address that, the Wizards appeared to make the adjustment to post him up more against the Nets, as was mentioned in Kevin Broom’s latest breakdown. That certainly put him closer to the basket, along with more aggressive down hill drives to the basket that lead to more fouls and free throw opportunities. He ended up with 12 free throw attempts, which was a season-high.
Before Sunday’s game, in addition to just a lack of aggressive movement towards the basket, Westbrook has been hampered by dubious lineups that lacked the spacing.
Of the Wizards’ lineups the Wizards have used this season that have shared at least 5 minutes on the court together, three out of the four lineups with the worst effective field goal percentage feature Westbrook. The worst lineup of course is the infamous “Three Point Guard” lineup that had a whooping 37.5 percent effective field goal percentage.
Without effective spacing and at least the threat of shooting around Westbrook, there is less room for him to operate and limits his ability to attack. The Wizards found some effective ways to get Westbrook more space to operate against the Nets. Perhaps this can be the blueprint to unlocking his game more. But Westbrook will need to also be more aggressive, looking for more opportunities to attack in the open court in transition. Without a combination of these things, we may be in for Westbrook taking more jump shots and that’s not the version the Wizards need if they expect to see a player that was anywhere near effective as Westbrook has been in his previous years in his career.