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More than meets the eye? Measuring Russell Westbrook’s performance with the Wizards

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We take a deeper dive into what Russell Westbrook is contributing for the Wizards this season. Is he really a net asset for Washington?

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
Russell Westbrook has been putting up numbers this season for the Wizards. But the wins haven’t come en masse just yet.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

So misunderstood, but what’s a world without enigma…

Accurately describing Russell Westbrook’s motley array of skills is a challenge for anyone, including us here at Bullets Forever. He’s accomplished much in his storied career, which has sparked many a Twitter and message board wars. Here are some of the many things we’ve seen on him:

  • He’s a triple-double machine.
  • He’s inefficient.
  • Stat padder.
  • Warrior.
  • Selfish.

And so on.

He was great with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but his best years are behind him so we’re looking only at his time with the Wizards so far. Scoring, passing, defense, and intangibles — we’re going to answer: Do the numbers paint him fairly? To not keep you in suspense, I’m going with NO, while Kevin Broom thinks yes, but....

We had a conversation recently and it’s below.

Scoring

Kevin: Westbrook is averaging 21.7 points per game — second best on the team and 25th in the league. Stop there and he looks good. Yay points!

But we can’t stop there, because teams and players use possessions to score points, and there’s a limit to the number of possessions in a game. So what matters isn’t volume, but how many points a player score per possession. And once we factor that in, Westbrook doesn’t look so good.

When he’s on the floor, he’s used 31.8% of the team’s possessions and produced an average of 101 points per 100 individual possessions. That’s 11 points per 100 possessions below league average, and 9 points below the Wizards average.

His shooting has been poor across the board — he’s below average in two-point percentage, three-point percentage and the free throw line. Of course, offensive rating includes assists and turnovers, which we’ll get to...

He has been better recently. Over the past 10 games, his offensive rating is up to 109, and his shooting is improved. But the team’s gone 2-8. As I showed when we did our midterm grades, the Wizards winning binge came before Westbrook started playing better.

Ron: Having done the same the previous three seasons, Russ getting off to a slow start is now a custom. Admittedly, it looked BAD during the early portion of the season, as the dynamic tweener-guard could neither out-muscle nor out-angle his primary defender. As if that weren't enough, he missed so, so many shots. But that was before the NBA calendar inched toward the second half of the season.

Averaging 26.4 points per game during this month of madness, whispers of him being washed have been replaced with salvos of inefficiency. Except in March, he’s shooting 47.0% from the floor, and 37.7% from three. His free throw shooting still stinks for some reason, but the shooting is good enough for the rest of his game to bring value. That said, I want him taking even more shots, increasing his current 18.8 shots per game to, say, 22-23.

Passing and Turnovers

Ron: Russ is a gunslinger. During the loss against Brooklyn, I saw Fred Katz tweet that Russ had 6 first-half turnovers (he ended the game with 8), intimating that Russ's penchant to be sloppy with the ball doomed the Wizards. It was easy (and lazy) to blame the loss on his turnovers but look closely: The Wizards entered halftime trailing by 7 but managed to cut the lead to 3 points during what the NBA defines as clutch time. Did Russ have a turnover during that pivotal run that got the Wizards within 3? No. So how much weight can we attribute to those early turnovers...

Considering that he won an NBA MVP averaging 0.6 more turnovers per game then than he does now, way too much has been made of his turnovers this season. Would I like him to value the ball as tightly as he does his wardrobe selections? Yes. But a balanced look shows that his 10.3 assists per night don't do him justice. What I mean by that is the average should be way, way higher. If the shooters could hit the open looks that Russ’s chaotic game produces, then, Russ’s dimes would fill up a mint.

Kevin: Lazy? I literally wrote an article in which I blamed the loss on turnovers LOL. The reason I did is that the Wizards lost the game because of turnovers. It wasn’t all Westbrook’s fault — Beal had 6 — but while he played an otherwise excellent game, those 8 turnovers were costly.

Also, his teammates aren’t really suppressing his assists by missing shots. According to the NBA’s tracking data, the top 50 in assists per game have a potential assist to assist conversion rate of 53.1%. For Westbrook, it’s 53.9%.

At 170, Westbrook has the league’s second most turnovers this season behind Trae Young...who’s played six more games and 193 more minutes. Westbrook has about the same number of minutes as Lonzo Ball and more than twice as many turnovers. He’s the league leader in any kind of reasonable measure. Tops in assist conversion rate: Ja Morant at 63.0%, and Nikola Jokic at 61.9%.

The guys who can legitimately claim their teammates are crushing their assist numbers: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Joe Ingles and John Wall.

Back to Westbrook, he’s among the league leaders in playmaking — fifth in total assists, third in assists per 100 team possessions, second in assists per game. In Ben Taylor’s box creation stat, he ranks 9th behind Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, James Harden, Lebron James, and Stephen Curry — and just ahead of Chris Paul.

He attacks relentlessly, draws defenders, and kicks to teammates for often easy looks. At times, he’s too creative or sloppy with the ball, which is a big driver of the turnovers.

While his individual turnovers are costly, it’s worth mention that like a lot of players who commit lots of turnovers, the team doesn’t commit more when he’s on the floor. The theory there is that the guy handling the ball all the time turns it over and his teammates benefit from safer and easier touches.

Defense

Kevin: Not exactly a strength. Westbrook wanders off his man too much when he’s off-ball and he gets caught ball watching with regularity. And he’ll leave his man early to chase rebounds.

He’s not as bad or damaging as the narrative portrays him. He contributes steals and defensive boards, and when he’s feeling frisky he can pressure the ball and make himself annoying. Don’t misconstrue: I’m not saying he’s a good defender. On balance, he doesn’t make much of an impact, good or bad. The Wizards this season are about the same overall defensively whether he’s in the game or not.

Ron: I agree that Russ gets caught ball-watching too often. Whether the former Pac-12 DPOY has turned a blind eye to that facet of the game is for the optometrist to decide. Does he lock players up, confining them in Alcatraz? Not quite. But since Hulu has live sports, I’ve been able to see him guard and get stops for us against the likes of Giannis, Julius Randle, James Harden, and Kevin Durant this season. Why? Because no one else on the team has the chops to offer any semblance of resistance. When your leading rebounder and playmaker has to tote the defensive stopper role, you can only tip your cap at that exercise of grit.

Intangibles

Ron: Leadership and guidance matter. Several times this season in the postgame interview with Drew Gooden and Justin Kutcher, Beal gave Drew a bouquet of OG flowers, grateful for the guidance that helped him become the player he is today. “I remember what you told me, OG,” Beal says.

In a few seasons, I’m sure Rui will credit Russ for helping him unlock his potential. Saying that Brodie believes in his ability to defend all five positions, Rui has been effusive in his praise of Russ. And rightfully so, Brodie even taught Rui how to protect the ball and draw fouls.

And what does Beal have to say about Brodie’s intangibles? He credits a lot of his individual success this season to Russ:

For me, it’s seeing how he brings it every single day. As a leader. As a player. As a father. As a man. Like, he’s the best teammate probably I’ve ever had, and just in terms of leadership, probably one of the best leaders I’ve been around. Because he holds himself accountable. He holds himself to a certain standard.”

Can’t measure that.

Kevin: Leadership, professionalism, intensity and effort — in games, practices, film sessions, workouts, ping pong (probably) — may be Westbrook’s greatest contribution to the franchise. His Wizards teammates love and respect him, and it seems to be reciprocated.

The challenge: those effects have to translate to games. That Hachimura or Mathews or Beal likes Westbrook is fine, but Westbrook’s intense approach has to infect his teammates, inspire them to put in the work on their bodies and games, and then apply those skills and attributes to winning games.

If Westbrook’s leadership and work ethic doesn’t inspire imitation and lead to wins, it ultimately doesn’t matter — even if it makes his teammates feel good now.