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Russell Westbrook’s Liberation Tour Is Everything We’d Hoped It’d Be

But we’re no closer to understanding how good the Thunder are as a whole. Their upcoming slate of games should help.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Your Russell Westbrook fantasy is coming true. Westbrook is channeling Oscar Robertson, averaging 38.7 points, 12.3 rebounds, and 11.7 assists; on Friday he became the first player since 1975 to record a 50-point triple-double; and he’s the first player with 100 points, 30 rebounds, and 30 assists in the first three games of a season. “It’s very simple,” Westbrook claims. “When you wanna win, you don’t think about being tired. To me, being tired is a mind thing.”

Being a digital witness to his solo act is a delight, but is it a trick or a treat?

Here are four consecutive possessions from Westbrook’s 51-point bonanza. Billy Donovan likes running a modern offense featuring player and ball movement, but with Westbrook pounding the ball in isolation, this looks more like a blast from the past. If Westbrook were to maintain his 40.2 usage percentage, he would break the record.

On Sunday, the Thunder defeated the Lakers, 113–96, in a game that was much closer than the score indicated. Now, after three games, OKC has eked out victories against the Sixers, Suns, and Lakers, who combined for fewer wins last season (50) than the Thunder had (55). Next is a road back-to-back against the Clippers and Warriors, followed by a five-game homestand against the Wolves, Heat, Raptors, Clippers, and Magic.

Westbrook will be a joy to watch, but a high-usage, iso-heavy playing style isn’t conducive to making the postseason, let alone making noise in it. Only 18 times in NBA history has a qualifying player finished a season with a usage percentage of 35 or greater. Only a few of those players led their teams deep into the playoffs: Seven teams missed the cut, five lost in the opening round, and only one went to the Finals. “[Westbrook] knows what happened last night is not sustainable,” Donovan said after Friday’s triple-double.

The cruel reality is Donovan doesn’t have another choice right now. It’s early in the season and his team is experimenting with new players who are still learning the system. Victor Oladipo is off to an up-and-down start (which has been typical for him over the past two years). The Thunder lack two-way wings. Outside of Steven Adams they have no two-way big men. If assembling an NBA roster is a game of Jenga, the jumbo-size Westbrook block is all that’s preventing the Thunder tower from collapsing.

The Thunder have a spacing shortage: Only 18.2 percent of the Thunder’s total points have come from 3-pointers, a rate that puts them in the bottom seven of the league. That’s why the Suns defense has four players collapsed in the paint with all eyes on Oladipo on this play:

Oklahoma City’s clunky roster construction is perfectly captured in Oladipo’s conceded midrange jumper. He has made strides as a playmaker, but he still often looks for his own opportunities even when the pass is the better play. He should’ve kicked it out to an open Westbrook on the right wing after snaking to the middle. But the correct play in that situation might not have yielded any better of an outcome. Russ hit just 33 percent of his spot-up 3s last year, per SportVU, so if you’re the defense you can live with that shot. Westbrook could’ve then swung the ball to the corner, but it’d land in the hands of Andre Roberson, who shot just 30.9 percent on spot-up 3s, per SportVU. The Thunder’s spacing issues are even more apparent when Westbrook is overloaded by the defense when he has the ball.

The Thunder have shooters, but they’re limited. Alex Abrines made 40.4 percent of his 3s the last three years playing for Barcelona, Kyle Singler is a career 36.7 percent from 3, and Anthony Morrow is a career 42.5 percent marksman, but none of the three have shown the ability to play heavy minutes because of their deficiencies on the defensive end.

Donovan can take Roberson off the floor to boost the team’s outside attack, but the Thunder would lose their best perimeter defender. They can sit Oladipo, but they lose their second-best offensive spark behind Westbrook. They can play small, but their backup bigs make more of an impact than their backup wings. Role-playing 3-and-D wings fetch a pretty penny on the open market, and Oklahoma City doesn’t have a single one on the roster. Donovan needs to tinker with lineup combinations to find an identity beyond Westbrook doing what he wants. Right now that seems impossible because of the roster.

The Thunder are bottom-five in passes per minute, per SportVU. That’s the number that needs to change for the team to have more success against stout opponents. “Throughout the game, I gotta find ways to be able to not just trust them but get them the ball in a position to score the basketball,” Westbrook said after Friday’s game. “We missed some easy shots as well. But at the same time, I still gotta do a better job of finding open guys, getting them more shots.”

Donovan called Westbrook’s triple-double against the Lakers “more sustainable,” probably because OKC had a more balanced attack featuring more on- and off-ball movement, like the play below.

Getting the ball into Westbrook’s hands is imperative in the OKC offense, but just as important is how they do it. Here, the Thunder run a basic motion action that leads to a side pick-and-roll by Westbrook. They used Westbrook in more creative ways on Sunday, establishing what Donovan considered more sustainable looks. They’ll have to keep building over the course of the season though. Instead of isoing Westbrook at the top of the key like it’s the 1990s, the Thunder should consider running more actions that get him a dribble handoff at the elbow. With talented passing bigs like Adams and Domantas Sabonis, it might help to run more offense through the high post.

The Thunder are undefeated and Westbrook may never run out of energy this season, but an offense based on endless dribbling isn’t viable in the long term. We’ve witnessed the brilliance that a fully liberated Westbrook is capable of, but the Thunder’s next seven games will paint a clearer picture of how good this team actually is.

Seven Segments or Less

A quick survey of the trends, tricks, and trivialities that color the NBA.

Small-Sample-Size Alert: Is Dwyane Wade’s 3-Point Stroke for Real?

Dwyane Wade is in the midst of a Curryesque hot streak, hitting 23 of his past 45 attempts from downtown since last season’s playoffs (and including exhibition games earlier this month). It’s safe to say Wade won’t continue at this rate, and neither will the Bulls (they’re third in the NBA in 3-point percentage at 43.5), but Wade said he was going to make shooting 3s a focus. So far, the results show improvement. When asked about permanently adding a 3 to his game, Wade told The Palm Beach Post: “I will be, if I want to keep playing. Stick around. I work on it.”

The more repeatable a shooting motion is, the more consistent a jumper can be. Wade’s contested hero-ball 3-pointers over the years have naturally lowered his success rate, but his inconsistent shooting mechanics — like his dip going into his shooting motion, or his landing — have been the primary cause of his struggles. In his case, it really could simply be about getting more reps, and not making mechanical changes. Wade’s shot might’ve had minor quirks in the first place because he didn’t develop the muscle memory that’s normally gained through repetition. “I always work on [my 3] more in the playoffs because you’ve just got more time to focus,” Wade told the Post. “In the playoffs, I open it up more because if a team takes this away, I need to counter. And I have more time in the playoffs to work on certain things.”

Wade is a career 34.2 percent 3-point shooter in the playoffs, compared to 28.6 percent in the regular season. The playoffs are a significantly smaller sample size, but the data does support Wade’s claim that he’s simply getting more reps in the playoffs. Now that he has lost a step, and some explosiveness near the rim, the 3-pointer could be a focus for him all year, not just in the playoffs. We’ll see if it sustains, but early indications are positive.

Jokic and Nurkic: Two Great Tastes That Haven’t Tasted Great Together

The Nuggets have two talented international bigs in Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic, but the “Jurkic” starting combo just hasn’t worked. So far this season, the Nuggets have been outscored by 8.5 points per 100 possessions with Jurkic, per NBA Wowy. But they’re dominating with just one of their European giants on the floor, with a composite net rating of 13.1 points per 100 possessions.

Their numbers together could stabilize, but early on, the issues that have plagued Memphis’s Grit ’n’ Grind frontcourt could be cropping up in Denver. With both bigs on the court, the Nuggets usually play through Jurkic on the post, which harms their spacing and limits attacking lanes for Emmanuel Mudiay and Danilo Gallinari. With just Jokic or Nurkic on the floor, the Nuggets can go small with Wilson Chandler, which opens the floor for all attackers; or they can use Kenneth Faried, an explosive rim runner. Nuggets head coach Mike Malone has paired Gallinari at the 4 and Jokic at the 5 for only eight possessions so far. It might benefit the team to see the pairing used more frequently so the Nuggets’ attackers can take advantage of increased floor spacing.

Harrison Barnes Isn’t a Bust, but He Probably Isn’t a Star, Either

Congratulations to Harrison Barnes for shattering the low expectations of the Mavericks fan base after his recent struggles. Barnes leads the Mavericks in total points and scored a career-high 31 on Friday. This comes as a surprise because over his past 10 games before the start of the regular season (three in the Finals, seven in the preseason), he averaged just 9.9 points per 36 minutes on 22.8 percent from the field.

Barnes’s night of redemption didn’t suddenly blaze a new path toward stardom; he followed it up with a 10-point dud in Sunday’s 93–92 loss to the Rockets. Barnes is being paid like a star, but he went from a situation in Golden State that enhanced his strengths to one that can’t always highlight them in Dallas. He likely won’t get as many switches to exploit matchups as he did with the Warriors, because Seth Curry doesn’t have the same gravitational pull as his brother. And he won’t get as many open 3s, either (over the past three years, both in the regular season and playoffs, he’s shot 40 percent on wide-open 3s compared to just 31.5 percent on all other 3s).

His production doesn’t compare favorably to the types of players we typically identify as being worthy of a max contract (and maybe he wasn’t worth one to begin with), but the Mavericks are hoping that there is still a surplus of potential to mine in Barnes. In what appears to be his best-case scenario, he’d become a “third option” type of player on a contending team — a versatile defender who is complementary on offense. The Mavericks still need to find their cornerstone for the post–Dirk Nowitzki era. Barnes shouldn’t be counted on to fill that role at his current skill level, but his development as a featured player will still play a significant role in the Mavericks’ restructuring.

ATO of the Week: The Portland Loop

If you were out celebrating Halloween on Saturday night, you probably missed this brilliantly executed after-timeout (ATO) play call that Terry Stotts drew up for Damian Lillard to send the Blazers’ game against the Nuggets to overtime.

Allen Crabbe’s baseline cut opens up the paint like a wide receiver stretching the field, C.J. McCollum clears out, and Dame plants his feet and cuts hard to the rim. Mason Plumlee tosses a lob with surgeon’s accuracy, finding Lillard wide open for a touchdown. The end-of-game lob is a common strategy around the league, but it’s rare to see all five players on offense execute their roles so flawlessly.

Jarell Martin Is Back, and He Might Be Memphis’s Secret Weapon

Jarell Martin showcased his freight-train size and go-kart mobility while averaging 16.9 points and 9.2 rebounds as a sophomore at LSU in 2015. If it weren’t for a noncommittal approach to passing and defense, the 25th pick in 2015 could’ve gone in the lottery. Martin battled multiple left-foot injuries as a rookie for the Grizzlies, appearing in only 27 games. Now he’s back and has a clean bill of health, just in time for a teamwide rebranding that could fit Martin’s skill set.

Martin gliding by Kristaps Porzingis and finishing lefty at the rim is nothing new: He carved out a niche at LSU by making athletic plays for a player his size.

It’s Martin’s enhanced 3-point shot that could make him a more dynamic scorer. He made just 30.8 percent of his 3s in college, and tossed line drives at the rim like he was heaving a medicine ball, cocking the ball back to the left side of his head and hurling it at the rim. The rest of his shot looked smooth, though. It looks even better this season, with his revamped release, which aligns the ball with the right side of his body. There are no guarantees he’ll sustain his newfound fundamentals, but if he does, the Grizzlies might have their power forward of the future.

Buddy Hield Is Ice Cold

Buddy Hield has been a scorer trapped in a cryogenic chamber so far in New Orleans. The Oklahoma product was overly criticized as a prospect for his age and defensive effort, but one legitimate gripe was his athleticism. Hield can’t elevate over defenders, and he hasn’t developed much of a creative touch on layups, so he avoids contact from rim protectors as if they were land mines.

Hield has finished just 5-of-13 on shots in the paint early this season. The 22-year-old guard hasn’t been any better outside, either, missing 10 of his 11 perimeter jumpers. Hield is a flamethrower, and chances are good that his long-range game will heat up soon enough. It’s the rest of his game that needs to develop for him to be more than a shooting specialist.

It’s too early to panic. He took three years to develop into a college star, and he could require the same patience in the NBA. With the clock running out before Anthony Davis hits free agency in 2020, that might seem like too long of a wait. But Hield’s character, work ethic, and track record of making improvements should provide enough leeway as he works through growing pains early in his career.

Jaylen Brown Is the Rookie King of Midrange

I wrote in my draft guide that Jaylen Brown could someday be used on the low post like Joe Johnson or Evan Turner: oversized wings who take advantage of mismatches. But that wasn’t something I expected to be part of his game so early in his career. The Celtics are making full use of it, frequently playing Brown as a small-ball power forward and using the low block as his point of attack.

By my count, Brown has scored on six of eight of his post-ups in exhibition play and the regular season. He didn’t get chances this regularly as a Cal freshman, since the Bears’ traditional two-big offense fully occupied the paint. Brown’s game would’ve looked drastically different if he had played as a 4 like Justise Winslow did at Duke. Brown’s early usage in Boston compared to college speaks to the challenges of the scouting process. We often talk about how rookies need time to adjust to the speed and physicality of the pro game, but there are aspects of the league that can open up a rookie’s game immediately. “There was so much space on the floor, I didn’t know what to do,” Brown said of the NBA game during summer league. Part of talent evaluation is being able to see a player for who he is, beyond the system he plays within. Brown’s trajectory as a player will continue to change as he figures out what to do with all that space.