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50 Shades of Westbrook

The most amazing athlete in the NBA? The biggest ball hog in history? Oklahoma City’s triple-double machine could be both.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The most exciting play in basketball somehow happens five times a game. It’s always Russell Westbrook grabbing a rebound or an outlet pass, then deciding to dribble 70–80 feet for another defiant layup. Does he care how many opponents might be in his way? Not really. Westbrook pushes the ball quickly, skipping along the court like a gymnast building momentum for a double salto with a twist. Right around midcourt, he throws on Terminator sunglasses and calculates the remaining dangers.

Three guys left, the one nearest to the rim is tallest … hmmmm … activate warp-speed mode … split the first two … go hard at the third … veer right at the last second, avoiding the rim protector who’s a split-second late … finish hard at the backboard … don’t careen into the camera guys.

Russ solves everything in 0.034 seconds, only as he does it, he transforms from the Terminator into a Tesla. Whooooooooosh. He always beats the first two guys because they’re backpedaling, and unlike Russ, they’re actually human beings. They never had a chance. But the third guy — he’s always taller and he’s determined to avoid ending up on YouTube or Twitter. He either wants to block the shot or plow into Russ like a strong safety. Russ isn’t making him look bad.

One problem: Suddenly, Russ is coming right at him. At 75 miles per hour.

The third guy didn’t expect … this. Instinctively, he loses his balance because that’s what normal human beings do whenever a machine seems intent on pancaking them. When that happens, Russ makes one of two last-second audibles: Either he veers by the defender and finishes (lefty or righty, doesn’t matter), or he lurches into him, draws contact and tries to finish the “And-1!” layup. Every 10th time, Westbrook’s robot wiring gets double-crossed and he accidentally bowls the dude over. The other nine times lead to a layup, a foul, a three-point play, or Russ blowing the layup and scowling at an official for the next 30 seconds.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In my lifetime, I have seen only four other basketball players turn one-on-three fast breaks into layups whenever they wanted: young Barkley, young Derrick Rose, Jordan, and LeBron. Russ shares basketball DNA with all four guys. Barkley was the closest thing we’ve had to a runaway freight train. Jordan sported the best combination of footwork, body control, hang time, and zero-to-60 speed (and one of the best brains, too). Rose and Westbrook are the two fastest guards I’ve ever seen. And LeBron, for years and years, was basically a taller, stronger, just-as-relentless version of Russ. (These days, he keeps that gear in the garage and breaks it out only for special moments.)

Still, LeBron has never had Westbrook’s insatiable hunger to score and keep scoring. Young LeBron aspired to be the queen of the chessboard; he wanted to be Magic, not Jordan. LeBron’s dream game was always 27 points, 12 assists, nine rebounds … and six teammates scoring in double figures. If he wanted to score 35 a game or average a triple-double, he could have done it. LeBron cares less about numbers than any all-timer since Bird and Magic — only once, when he spent the first two months of the 2012–13 season making a genuine effort to shoot 60 percent (and taking only lower-risk shots), did LeBron allow numbers to frame the way he played. Eventually, he realized that wasn’t him.

The opposite happened with Westbrook: Freed of sharing the ball with Kevin Durant, he’s chasing numbers like nobody has since Wilt Chamberlain in 1962. In fact, even Wilt never hogged the ball like Westbrook does. Statistically, Russell Westbrook is the biggest ball hog of all time. He’s taken the delicate framework of a successful basketball team — five players working together, sharing the ball, making each other better — and thrown it out the window. He’s fueling a Thunder team that’s the complete opposite of the ’77 Blazers, ’86 Celtics, ’05 Suns and ’15 Warriors. He’s an indefatigable one-man show who treats his teammates like stage props.

And he’s incredible to watch. I just want to make that clear … in all caps … I AM ENJOYING THE LIVING HELL OUT OF THIS WESTBROOK SEASON. It’s a spectacular individual achievement that ranks right up there with everything Keanu pulled off in John Wick: Chapter 2. Russ is leaving a body count and doing everything himself. Repeat: everything.

But would you want to play on his team?

Any pickup basketball junkie has dealt with a more annoying, less redeeming version of Westbrook — the ball dominator who passes only when it’s impossible to shoot, but keeps winning because he’s just better than everyone else. You might arrive at the same time as this guy, and he might ask if you want to run with him. Your ensuing split-second decision: “If I say yes, I might get to stay on the court for three hours … but it’s NOT going to be that fun.”

You’re competitive. You say yes. You spend the next two games setting picks, grabbing rebounds and playing defense. (You’re Steven Adams.) You’re definitely getting good exercise. (You’re Andre Roberson.) Every so often, he throws you a pass because he’s triple-teamed; you’re expected to make a wide-open shot even though you’re ice-cold and barely remember what a basketball feels like. (You’re Alex Abrines.) Once in a while, he feels bad and passes you the ball, so you immediately try to create a shot because you never know when you’re getting the ball back again. (You’re Victor Oladipo.) And that’s just how it goes. At some point, you start checking out everyone on the sideline waiting for the next game.

Do they need a fifth? Wait, I know that guy! Should I hand-signal him that I want in?

Do Westbrook’s teammates feel that way? They seem to enjoy him, although we’ve seen force-of-nature superstars create NBA Stockholm syndrome before. (See: Bryant, Kobe.) When Durant fled for Golden State, Oklahoma City’s Billy Donovan realized two things: first, that Westbrook could carry an offense in an MJ-in-1988 kind of way, and second, that OKC’s best night-to-night chance meant serving the NBA’s version of In-N-Out’s menu. You can order only Russell Westbrook. That’s it. They serve Westbrook burgers with fries, sodas, and milkshakes. You can get the Westbrook burger lettuce-wrapped, animal style, double-double, whatever. Just know you’re getting Westbrook. Don’t ask for anything else.

When Jordan hogged the ball in 1987 (37.1 points a game), that was pickup basketball personified. When Kobe hogged the ball in 2006 (35.4 points per game, including the 81-pointer), the triangle provided some movement and spacing. Meanwhile, Donovan always wants Westbrook going downhill like he’s Ezekiel Elliott. So OKC spaces the floor in a decidedly more modern way, cramming one or two shooters in the corner and using one or two of Westbrook’s trickier teammates to set a maze of picks and moving screens. Many defenders go under those screens, hoping Westbrook’s erratic outside shot betrays him. If defenders go over, they risk Westbrook exploding into the paint. That’s where he can draw defenders and (sometimes) kick it back out to a shooter. It’s like In-N-Out — it’s simple, but it works.

The smartest teams pack the paint or rush second defenders at him; they want Westbrook’s competitiveness to overpower common sense. If he goes one-on-three, great. If he passes to a rusty shooter like Roberson (always a threat to take out the shot clock), even better. Occasionally, Donovan audibles by posting Westbrook up, just so he can unleash a step-back jumper or barge into the paint and flail his arms for a call. It’s the savviest ball hog offense ever created, and when you throw in Westbrook’s superhuman ability to produce layups and 3s in transition, it’s practically impossible for him NOT to score 30–35 points a night.

Now here’s where you say, “Wait, Westbrook is averaging 10 assists a game! How can Russ be a ball hog?” Assists tend to mean someone is unselfish, right? My counter: Hogging the ball only means you always have the ball … right? In only 35 minutes per game, Westbrook doesn’t just dominate the basketball; it’s more like 50 Shades of Westbrook.

Take Tuesday night, for example. Portland 126, Oklahoma City 121. Westbrook played 36 of 48 minutes, jacked 39 shots, took 16 free throws, scored 58 points and assisted on another 24. This ESPN piece mentions that “the Thunder were outscored by 12 points with Westbrook off the court,” and that, “it’s clear he had little help from teammates, who struggled to make shots when Westbrook was not involved.” Along with his impossible triple-double quest, that’s been the MVP narrative for Westbrook: He does everything! He’s carrying a subpar team every night! It’s a chicken vs. egg thing. Maybe Westbrook’s teammates struggle because he insists on doing everything.

I watched Tuesday night’s game and charted the second half. Westbrook played 18 of 24 minutes, took 24 shots and 13 free throws, committed two turnovers, assisted on four baskets (all open looks) and made three more passes that directly led to misses. Twice, the Thunder veered away from him and ran I-feel-bad-you-take-it plays for Oladipo, who shot the ball within three seconds, like always, because he never knew if he’d see it again. Once, Semaj Christon got blocked on a non-Westbrook fast-break layup. Once, Enes Kanter turned it over on a post-up. And once, Adams rebounded a missed Westbrook free throw and drew a foul. (Does that even count as a possession?) That’s it for the non-Russ plays. When Westbrook was in the game, he single-handedly decided 39 of OKC’s 44 second-half possessions.

Oh … and they lost.

Asking your best guard to do everything has never really worked. When I was growing up, Oscar Robertson’s triple-double and Tiny Archibald’s points/assists title were two of the league’s “Wow!” records. In those seasons, their teams finished a combined 79–83. Isiah Thomas was the best pure point guard of my childhood, but his Pistons never competed for titles until Thomas scaled back his offense and involved everyone else. Thomas, Magic and Steph Curry are the only three point guards who won NBA titles when they were their team’s best player.

Playoff teams can succeed with a guard doing almost everything (like James Harden), or if he’s always deciding who gets the ball, and how, and where (like the best John Stockton/CP3 seasons). Once you activate full ball hog mode, without exception, your NBA ceiling lowers. Consider …

  • Basketball-Reference tracks usage rate back to 1978, with Jordan posting the highest career rate (33.3 percent); only nine other players topped 30 percent. (Bird and Magic, the two post-Russell teammates you’d have wanted over everyone else in basketball history, rank 48th and 202nd, respectively.) Only six guys logged more than 2,200 minutes in one season with a usage rate over 36 percent: Jordan in 1987 (38.3 percent), Iverson in 2002 (37.8 percent), Kobe in 2006 (38.7 percent), Wade in 2009 (36.2 percent), Westbrook in 2015 (38.4 percent) and Westbrook this season (42.3 percent — easily the record). None of them won more than 45 games or made it out of Round 1.
  • In the past 50 seasons, only four players averaged at least 24.5 field goal attempts and 10 free throw attempts: MJ in 1987 (27.8/11.9); Iverson in 2001 (25.5/10.1) and 2006 (25.3/11.5); Kobe in 2006 (27.2/10.2); and Westbrook (24.5/10.9). Only Iverson’s 56-win 2000–01 Sixers team did any damage — they snuck into the 2001 Finals after the league rigged it so a better Bucks team wouldn’t make it. (I’m kidding. Kind of.) The league wasn’t nearly as deep in 2001, especially in the East. And Iverson averaged a bewildering 42.0 minutes per game, so his usage rate (35.9 percent) pales in comparison with Westbrook’s record rate (42.3 percent). But that’s the only “success” story.
  • Only four players had per-36 minute averages of 30-plus points, 25-plus field goal attempts and 10.5-plus free throw attempts: Wilt Chamberlain in 1962 (37.4/29.3/12.6) and 1963 (33.9/26.2/10.5); Elgin Baylor in 1962 (31.0/26.9/10.7); Michael Jordan in 1987 (33.4/25.0/10.7); and Westbrook in 2017 (33.1/25.3/11.2). Not even 2006 Kobe (23.9/9.0) made the cut. (And you thought 2006 Kobe would be the signature ball hog of the 21st century! By the way, I voted for him for MVP that year. Kobe gave great ball hog.)
  • Assist percentage estimates one player’s percentage of his team’s assists (excluding his own points, of course). Most quality playmakers hover in the 35 percent to 45 percent range. Only six players averaged 10 points per game with an assist percentage of 50 percent or higher: John Stockton (seven times), Steve Nash (four times), Chris Paul (three times), Rajon Rondo, Harden and Westbrook. Only three topped 54 percent: CP3 in 2009 (54.5 percent); Stockton four different times (peaking at 57.5 percent in 1991); and Westbrook in 2017 (56.0 percent). I know, it’s insane. Hold this thought.
  • If we created a stat called “The Westbrook” and just added usage rate and assist percentage together, Westbrook’s 98.3 crushes everybody — other than Westbrook’s 2015 season (85.4), only 2017 Harden (84.7), 2009 Chris Paul (82), 2016 Westbrook (81.2), 2016 Paul (79.8), 2008 Paul (77.9), 2017 John Wall (77.7), 2009 Wade (76.5) and 2010 LeBron (75.3) come remotely close.

To recap: Westbrook plays 75 percent of every game, and when he plays, he shoots more than just about anyone ever, and assists on a higher percentage of his team’s baskets than just about anyone ever. Adding those two pieces of information together, then including usage rate, we can safely say that Westbrook dominates the basketball more than anyone else ever has.

Again … is that ultimately a good thing? Since 1977, I found seven stars on contending teams (including Harden this season) who had signature seasons that hit the following benchmarks: 30-plus usage rate, 25-plus assist percentage, 25-plus PPG and a 110-plus offensive rating. (Note: I cheated and allowed the best two LeBron seasons and the best two Jordan seasons because those dudes should count twice.) Only LeBron’s epic 2010 season veered anywhere close to Westbrook in 2017.

From there, I picked memorable seasons on non-contenders that hit the following benchmarks: 30-plus usage rate, 22-plus assist percentage, 28-plus PPG, 111-plus offensive rating. 2002 Iverson falls outside those criteria, but I included him anyway. Other than 1987 Jordan, everyone’s team finished .500 or better.

Pay close attention to the usage rate and assist percentage in those charts. Westbrook stands out like Steroid Era Barry Bonds does on any power/OBP leaderboard, only his head hasn’t swelled in size and he hasn’t changed his style or intensity. (He’s just DOING more, plus Durant isn’t around.) It all makes sense. And it’s not like we didn’t see this coming.

Here’s the problem: If you want to make the Finals, or come close, there’s little chance this level of ball hoggery can actually work. I love that Harden’s season is happening concurrently because that’s about as far as you want to take a one-man show. He’s a more efficient shooter than Westbrook (a .620 true shooting percentage, as opposed to Westbrook’s .548) and our only answer to the question, “What if we created Manu Ginobili 2.0 and gave him Chris Mullin’s vision and LeBron’s staggering durability?” And he’s a more creative passer than Westbrook; I would put Harden on LeBron’s level at this point. You’d never watch a clip of Westbrook assists, but you’d definitely watch this.

Harden brings out the best of everyone, much like Nash did in Phoenix with better teammates and the same coach. His supporting cast is better than Westbrook’s group, but not by much: Patrick Beverley (splendid role player, world-class agitator); Clint Capela (rim protection, screen-and-rolls); Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson (reborn as dead-eye shooters); Lou Williams (another elite 3s-and-free-throws guy); and so on. Even if Harden hogs the ball about 70–75 percent as much as Westbrook does, the calibration feels better. It looks like a basketball team.

Oklahoma City isn’t doomed because of Westbrook’s supporting cast; it’s doomed because of how it regards his supporting cast. Like his henchmen, basically. You don’t remember them any more than you’d remember, say, the names of the bad guys in three Taken movies. Few of them are getting better; if anything, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Andre Roberson are exactly the same or getting worse. I left last year’s playoffs expecting Adams to become basketball’s best young center. This season, he’s been a glorified sidekick.

The biggest problem with ball hog basketball: Eventually, everyone else atrophies. The supporting guys stop thinking independently; when they’re asked to step up, it’s difficult to flick on that “OK, I’m good!” switch. I’m fascinated by OKC’s offense when Westbrook rests — how Domantas Sabonis says to himself, “It’s my only chance to post up and try a jump hook!”, or Kanter gets to become an instant low-post beast, or Oladipo (who’s adjusted to Westbrook about as well as you can expect) creates a little slash-and-kick on his own. Of course they’re worse without Westbrook on the floor; playing with Westbrook is like being one of the kids in that SNL sketch where the parents chew the food for their kids. Hey Steven Adams — here comes some corn!

The second problem with ball hog basketball: The ball hog’s teammates know they aren’t as good as he is. Again, Westbrook is amazing. Twice this season, he demolished my beloved Celtics with some of the best I-have-giant-balls crunch-time offense I’ve ever seen. Even longtime Boston announcer Tommy Heinsohn, who abhors one-on-one basketball, left the second game gushing about Westbrook’s brilliance and never-ending gas tank (which ranks up there with LeBron, and that’s about it). How does Russ never get tired? Does he sweat? Does he even have sweat glands? Does he sleep? Does he bleed? Has anyone ever seen what happens to Westbrook during a power blackout?

You need a mega-tank to pull off a truly stupefying feat: with a month to play, Westbrook has a strong chance to finish with a 32–10–10. (Put his insane rebounding number on the shelf — we’ll discuss it in four weeks when it’s MVP time.) I hate ball hog basketball, but I’ve also never seen a better version of it. Could OKC honestly contend for a title playing this way? They’d need Oladipo to blossom into a signature second star. They’d need two dead-eye shooters along the lines of Gordon and Anderson. And they’d need to dramatically improve the Roberson spot with an elite 3-and-D guy. (In crunch time, when he’s crammed in the corner, opponents leave him so wide open that it almost seems like he wandered off the bench.) That just-spread-the-floor-for-Russ offense COULD work. He’s that good. But he’d have to dial it back about 20 percent, if only for the sake of building teammates up.

And that’s where the dream falls apart. Night after night, Westbrook seems to be driven by points and rebounds and assists, as well as the thought of ramming every box score down Durant’s Bay Area–loving throat. His chase for numbers fully consumed him. Even in the All-Star Game, he couldn’t dial it back. It’s unclear if he can play any other way. Maybe this was Russell Westbrook all along.

In my opinion, these were the best eight postseasons of the past 40 years by someone who (a) won the title, (b) topped a 23 usage rate and a 25 assist percentage, (c) averaged more than 21 points, and (d) topped a 110 offensive rating. Anyway …

Except for MJ’s unforgettable 1993 run (including six games against Riley’s rough-and-tumble Knicks), the usage rates hover between 23 and 33. ’91 Jordan had the best and most efficient blend of everything. I can’t imagine anyone ever matching Magic’s ’87 postseason — it’s the best blend of unselfishness and scoring efficiency. Nobody approached Westbrook’s current workload or came close. Meanwhile, these are the best postseasons by non-champs who played at least 14 games, topped a 26.5 usage rate and a 29 assist percentage, averaged 23.5 points and topped a 110 offensive rating (along with LeBron’s wild 2015 postseason + Iverson’s semi-iconic, critically maligned 2001 run).

Hmmm. LeBron’s 2015 season (which happened partly because of Cleveland’s injuries), LeBron’s 2009 season (when Cleveland got derailed by a red-hot Orlando team) and Westbrook’s 2016 season come the closest. And actually, Westbrook came within a series-saving Klay Thompson mega-heat check of maybe winning the 2016 title. One problem: He had Durant. That’s not happening again.

So there’s no modern track record of a perimeter player carrying Westbrook’s offensive burden while contending for a title. OKC’s only silver lining: We’ve never seen an NBA season like this one, either. It’s the Moreyball generation of 3s and free throws, one that overvalues perimeter guys and severely undervalues centers and low-post players. Everyone wants slash-and-kick creators and shooters now, and if you glance around the league, the most important assets after our seven superstars (KD, Russ, LeBron, Harden, Curry, Anthony Davis and Kawhi) are point guards, shooters and fledgling unicorns. If you drafted rosters from scratch for a new 30-team league, the first center might not go until the 15–20 range… and it’s probably Nikola Jokic, who just became an impact guy five minutes ago.

Have we entered basketball’s version of baseball’s steroid boom? Will the new scoring/usage/shooting numbers have any correlation whatsoever to the old ones? Can we even compare eras anymore? Could a ball hog make history by ball hogging his way to an NBA title?

My gut says no. I believe Westbrook finishes with a 32–10–10, gets linked with Oscar forever … and gets bounced in Round 1. That will happen next season as well, and the season after that, and every other season until he slows down or his teammates improve. Russell Westbrook ain’t changing. And I swear, that isn’t a dig. You can’t put a price on those random League Pass nights when the Russ volcano starts bubbling over, like last week against Utah, when the Jazz were cruising to a victory before Westbrook decided, “Actually, NO” and scored every time until OKC prevailed. Unbelievable. Remarkable. Up there with Jordan, Kobe, you name it. And he’s doing it routinely.

For all the bad blood between Durant and Westbrook, and all the pain it caused Oklahoma City (and maybe each other, too), their divorce worked out beautifully if you love the NBA. Assuming Durant comes back healthy and happy for the playoffs, both guys ended up getting what they wanted — even if they never admitted as much. Kevin Durant believed there was another level of basketball out there, that he could evolve as a two-way superstar on a remarkably unselfish basketball team. And Russell Westbrook believed that he didn’t need Kevin Durant. They were both right.

Stats current through Wednesday morning.