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The Thunder Have a Russell Westbrook Problem

A one-man show helped keep Oklahoma City in the playoff mix last season, but the same approach that earned Westbrook MVP honors may be holding back a new-and-improved roster from reaching its full potential

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After barreling down the lane and hammering in a dunk as defenders gazed up at him, Russell Westbrook delivered a superhero landing. He high-stepped and stomped. He jawed “Oh my God,” just like everyone else in the arena did. And when he was done, some eight seconds later, he even managed to get back on defense.

This was Russ at his peak Russiness—living up to (and going over the top of) the moment, playing his best game of the season against a teammate-turned-foe, powering the Thunder by filling up the stat sheet. Westbrook’s atomic dunk set the tone for Oklahoma City’s biggest win of the season, a 17-point beatdown of the defending champs in Kevin Durant’s second game back in Oklahoma since leaving two summers ago. The victory felt like it could be a breakthrough for a Thunder team struggling to put its new, talented pieces together.

Unfortunately, it’s proved to be more of an outlier. On Friday, two days after its win over Golden State, Oklahoma City blew a 15-point lead to the Pistons while Paul George failed to attempt a shot over the last 4:40 and Westbrook chucked contested jumpers. On Saturday, Carmelo Anthony played just 27 minutes and George went 1-for-12 as the Thunder scored 81 points and lost by 16 to the five-win Mavericks. OKC, a team some picked to contend in the West, is now 8-11, tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for ninth in the conference.

Oklahoma City has undergone a lot of change this decade—two head coaches, numerous supporting cast members, and a new set of star teammates to replace a former MVP. But there’s been one constant: Russell Westbrook. And that’s where the Thunder’s problems begin.

After Durant left, Oklahoma City needed to modernize its system with more ball movement. It didn’t happen. Instead, the season became a triple-double tour that predictably ended in a playoff disaster.

After Sam Presti’s blockbuster acquisitions of George and Anthony this past summer, the Thunder again needed to figure out how to move the ball and get everyone involved. It hasn’t happened. OKC ranks 27th in the NBA in ball reversals per 100 possessions, according to data a league source provided to The Ringer, and makes fewer passes per game than any other team, just like last season. Bodies don’t move, either. The Thunder finish possessions using an isolation more frequently than any other team, per Synergy. No one moves. It's ugly and no fun to watch.

Thunder head coach Billy Donovan might not be the right coach for the team when it comes to motivation or in-game adjustments, but he’s at least shown the ability to adapt to Russ, having ditched the fast-paced motion offense he ran for 19 years with the Florida Gators for an isolation-heavy system with OKC. We’ve seen what something similar to Donovan’s Gators teams could look like in small doses.

Nick Collison screens for Westbrook and George, while they run a two-man game around him. Meanwhile, Jerami Grant sets a back screen to spring Raymond Felton open on the weak side. There’s constant motion happening, and it leads to a ball reversal and an open 3. More of this would be nice. But usually what the Thunder, who rank 22nd in offensive rating, get are looks like this:

Donovan draws up a fairly creative play here. The handoff to Westbrook leads to multiple switches, as Melo pops and Steven Adams rolls. Carmelo has a mismatch on tiny Yogi Ferrell that he can exploit, or they can swing the ball to the corner to an open Felton. Instead, Westbrook pulls up for a contested midrange jumper. Yuck.

Westbrook is in control of everything the Thunder do. He brings the ball up the court 63 percent of the time when he’s in the game (compared to 67 percent last season), according to data provided to The Ringer by a league source. And despite the additions of Melo and George, he accounts for 46 percent of Oklahoma City’s potential assists (same as last season). By comparison, James Harden accounts for 41 percent of the Rockets’ potential assists, John Wall for 38 percent of the Wizards’, and Stephen Curry for 20 percent of the Warriors’.

But Russ hasn’t been particularly great when at the controls. He’s averaging 21.6 points, 9.7 assists, and 9.1 rebounds, but his effective field goal percentage is down to 44.6. Since 2000-01, only seven players finished with a lower scoring efficiency at such a high shooting volume: Allen Iverson (three times), a 38-year-old Michael Jordan, Ricky Davis, a 19-year-old LeBron James, Paul Pierce, Jerry Stackhouse, and a late-career Chris Webber (twice), per Basketball-Reference.

Westbrook takes too many midrange jumpers (though, per Cleaning the Glass, 34 percent of Westbrook's shot attempts come from midrange, compared to over 44 percent in the first five seasons of his career). And he doesn’t attempt enough 3s off the catch. Per CTG, only 33 percent of Westbrook's 3-pointers come off assists, which means the vast majority come off the dribble. Russ shoots 4.1 percentage points higher on catch-and-shoot 3s the past four seasons (35 percent to 30.8 percent). More open 3s leads to greater efficiency, fewer forced shots, and better offensive distribution. But Westbrook isn’t the only player forcing shots.

Oklahoma City runs a cross-screen into a Carmelo post-up, then Dallas makes a mistake by overhelping. George, Westbrook, and rookie Terrance Ferguson are all fairly open beyond the 3-point line. Melo instead tries to bulldoze two defenders and loses the ball. There’s not enough off-ball activity; it’s as if everyone realizes the play is over when Melo gets it. By comparison, here’s how a San Antonio post-up looks:

Players are moving, cutting, and shuffling their position, which causes defensive confusion and results in an open 3. The Thunder are in the early stages of their development, but if they’re going to keep isolating and posting up, they need everyone else on the floor to stay engaged. That can happen through cutting, which the Thunder currently utilize at the 23rd-highest frequency in the league.

A longtime front-office executive told me before the season that he thought Oklahoma City could be terrific in the playoffs, but his main caveat was how the team—and Westbrook specifically—would perform off the ball. It was vital that Westbrook’s screening, spacing, and cutting developed. Thus far, he’s largely been the same player meandering around the 3-point line any time he doesn’t have the ball. Westbrook doesn’t cut with purpose or make effective reads to get himself open. He often stands and watches from five feet behind the 3-point line, out of the frame of the broadcast.

Think about how Stephen Curry remains active off the ball by racing through screens or roaming into open space. He’s as much of a threat without the ball as he is with it. Westbrook is far from Curry’s level as a shooter, but at present, he offers virtually nothing when he doesn’t have the ball. It’s a shame. He has two dynamic teammates in George and Anthony who can, in turn, create easier opportunities for him.

Westbrook should be a tidal wave attacking closeouts against a rotating defense, yet those opportunities aren’t available. One play that’s been effective has featured George or Anthony slipping a screen for Westbrook and then popping for a 3.

The inverse of this, with Westbrook screening for George or Anthony, could be equally effective, or even more lethal. It wouldn’t be easy for a defense to switch, and if Westbrook pops, he’d have space to shoot or attack a rotating defense. But Westbrook is a reluctant screener. He logged only one screen assist all of last season and has had just four this season. Harden, Jrue Holiday, and Kyrie Irving all have over 10. Curry had over 100 last season. Westbrook should take note—the game would be easier for everyone if plays initiated by a teammate were as threatening as plays initiated by him.

Donovan could be at fault for not pushing the boundaries for his point guard. It could also be Donovan’s fault for not effectively integrating his two new All-Stars. But Westbrook hasn’t moved for any coach he’s ever had. It’s unfair to expect Westbrook, or any player, to undergo an extreme makeover, but is it too much to ask for a few tweaks from an already proven player? He often gets compared to the modern Allen Iverson, but unlike Iverson, Westbrook is a gym rat. It’s reasonable to expect even more from him by committing to playing off the ball and improving his passing.

For now, this Thunder team has the vibe of the Lakers team from 2012-13 that added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in the same offseason but never jelled. Nash told Bill Simmons in 2014 that Howard “didn’t hide the fact that he didn’t like it.” Howard was in the final year of his contract and ended up leaving for Houston the next summer. George can also be in the final year of his deal if he chooses to opt out next summer. With George’s sights reportedly set on Los Angeles, Thunder GM Sam Presti needs to gauge whether he wants to risk losing another All-Star wing in free agency instead of pulling the plug and seeing what assets he can finagle from the Lakers.

Anthony didn’t want to be in Oklahoma City, either; his top two choices for a new team, according to reports leading up to his eventual trade, were the Rockets and Cavaliers. And while he’ll be hard-pressed to make up the $28 million owed to him for next season if he opts out, it may be even harder for a 35-year-old Melo to find a long-term deal in the summer of 2019. He could be better off opting out and inking a longer-term deal for less money annually in a city of his choice, making more money over the long run.

If both George and Anthony end up leaving, the Thunder might be forced to cast Westbrook as the star of Mission: Triple-Double 2. He still plays the part well. With less than three minutes left and Oklahoma City up big on Golden State, Westbrook stayed in the game and clearly hunted for a triple-double.

What do you think the Golden State bench was laughing about?

Westbrook can be better than that. It reeks of selfishness to still be in the game at that point, never mind becoming visibly upset when Adams doesn’t shoot with a gigantic lead. Donovan had no business keeping his stars in the game, but the results won’t be better until Russ evolves to a point where the stats don’t matter.

Teams tend to follow the leader. It’s no coincidence that once LeBron James started playing defense this season, the rest of the Cavs followed suit. Westbrook is OKC’s LeBron. If he scales back on the midrange jumpers, maybe his teammates will, too. If he starts cutting with intent, Melo might learn to do the same.

Other All-NBA point guards in new places like Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul have already acclimated to new systems and new roles. Westbrook has stayed the same. And that’s the problem.