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These Playoffs Could Be the Twilight of the Maximalist Point Guard

Russell Westbrook and John Wall have dominated the league by the sheer force of their physical superiority. Both players are in the prime of their careers—and that might be the problem. With both teams on the brink of elimination, it’s fair to wonder if this is as good as it gets.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The window is closing for Russell Westbrook and John Wall. No players have more on the line in the first round of the playoffs than the two hyperathletic point guards. A loss to Utah could push Paul George out the door in Oklahoma City, a crippling blow for a franchise with no way to replace him. Wall has been under fire all season in Washington, which has never lived up to expectations and may look to make changes if it loses to Toronto. Wall and Westbrook are fighting for their futures in Game 6 of their respective first-round series on Friday. They have the talent to put their teams on their backs and stave off elimination. That may be their biggest problem.

Everything that people love and hate about Westbrook was on display in the Thunder’s incredible Game 5 comeback on Wednesday. Their season seemed over when they were down 25 in the third quarter, but Westbrook never stopped grinding, attacking the rim, and pulling up for 3s with more confidence than any player with his wonky jumper should have. He finished with mind-bending numbers: 45 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists on 17-for-39 shooting (5-for-9 from 3). It’s exhausting just watching a player shoot that much. It’s the most shots taken in a playoff game since Westbrook’s 43 in Game 2 of the Thunder’s first-round series with the Rockets last season. You have to go back to Allen Iverson in 2001 to find a player with a similar postseason workload.

Wall is putting up similarly Herculean numbers against the Raptors: 26.6 points, 12.2 assists, and 5.8 rebounds a game on 44.8 percent shooting. No one on the Toronto roster can guard him, particularly when he’s picked up a head of steam coming off a screen. The Raptors’ strategy has been to play off him and let him take open pull-up jumpers. The difference between Wall and Westbrook is that the former doesn’t look for his own shot quite as often. He has the ball in his hands for most of the game, but he consistently waits an extra half-second for a teammate to cut into an open spot before shooting.

The two are on opposite ends of the point guard spectrum. Wall is a classic playmaker who came into the league as a pass-first player, while Westbrook is a converted combo guard who has developed into a playmaker. The common thread in their games is their need for the ball. Neither threatens the defense without it. Wall is shooting 3-for-16 from 3 (18.8 percent) in the playoffs. Westbrook is 8-for-23 (34.8 percent), and that’s after his 5-for-9 performance behind the arc on Wednesday. They are streaky shooters who can get hot from deep, but defenses are perfectly willing to leave them open.

The result is that the ball naturally winds up in their hands, even when the play isn’t run for them. They are two of the most ball-dominant players in this year’s playoffs, according to the numbers at NBA.com/Stats:

Comparing Wall’s and Westbrook’s Touches

Player Average Time of Possession Touches Points Per Touch
Player Average Time of Possession Touches Points Per Touch
John Wall 10.5 94.6 0.281
LeBron James 9.8 100.2 0.347
Russell Westbrook 9.2 92.2 0.282
James Harden 9 81 0.358
Ben Simmons 8.9 112.6 0.162

Harden and Westbrook have been placed in opposition to each other ever since their days playing together in Oklahoma City, but Harden is just as much of a ball-stopper as Westbrook. The difference is that he shot 36.7 percent from 3 on 10 attempts per game this season, many of them coming on stepbacks, a shot that has become his trademark. Harden has an overwhelming edge in math. Because he’s taking 3s instead of 2s, he can score like Westbrook and Wall while touching the ball more than 10 fewer times per game, which creates more opportunities for his teammates. His shooting ability also means his mere presence on the floor makes them better. Harden is a threat on or off the ball. Wall and Westbrook are dangerous only when they’re in motion.

The two point guards can’t live at the 3-point line like Harden, and they can’t get to the rim as easily as Ben Simmons and LeBron James. Simmons (6-foot-10 and 230 pounds) and LeBron (6-foot-8 and 250 pounds) play like guards, but have the size of centers: smaller defenders just bounce off them. Simmons doesn’t shoot 3s at all, but he’s so big that he can dictate the types of shots he takes, even when defenses play off of him. He can drive right into the chest of even the biggest shot blockers and power through them. He probably wouldn’t dominate Rudy Gobert at the rim, but because Simmons is at least comparable in size to the Jazz center he wouldn’t be rendered as relatively punchless as Westbrook has been in the first round. It’s not a coincidence that Westbrook’s offensive explosion in Game 5 began when Gobert was sitting with foul trouble.

Their limitations in size and shooting ability mean that Westbrook and Wall have to settle for more long 2s, the most inefficient shots in the game, than their peers. Their style of play just takes a lot of energy. Harden doesn’t have to spend nearly as much effort when he’s dribbling for 10 seconds and then jumping backward to shoot as Westbrook and Wall do when they drive the ball into the teeth of the defense. Once they get to the rim, they have to finish over players who tower over them. It’s no wonder they are more likely to pull up for midrange jumpers than Simmons and LeBron. Even Westbrook, who plays with a tremendous intensity, has to pace himself occasionally.

Percentage of Shots by Location

Player 0-10 feet 3s Long 2s
Player 0-10 feet 3s Long 2s
Westbrook 39% 19.50% 41.50%
Wall 49.50% 15.20% 35.30%
LeBron 52.30% 23.00% 24.70%
Simmons 83.30% 0.02% 16.70%
Harden 42.90% 46.40% 10.70%

The toll those rim runs take can be seen on defense. Westbrook and Wall have the tools to be elite defenders, but that requires more energy and focus than they can give due to their offensive workloads. Jrue Holiday, who became one of the breakout stars of this year’s playoffs thanks to his lockdown defense on Damian Lillard, is an instructive comparison. Holiday touched the ball only 66.8 times per game in the Pelicans’ sweep of the Blazers (Wall and Westbrook both touch the ball at least 92 times per game). He still averaged 19 points on 49.4 percent shooting and six assists a game in the series, but it was part of a more collaborative effort with Anthony Davis and Rajon Rondo.

The Thunder and the Wizards might be better if their star guards could redistribute some energy. Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio have been slicing up Oklahoma City off the dribble, and it may not be strictly a matter of effort for Westbrook on the defensive end. He has long been a careless defender who swings between doing too little or too much, like when he picked up four fouls in the first half of Game 4 trying to disrupt Rubio full-court. Wall, on the other hand, has shown the ability to turn it up defensively against Toronto, most notably when he locked up DeMar DeRozan in the final minutes of Game 4. However, he might collapse on the court if he had to chase DeRozan around for 40 minutes and dominate the ball. As it is, there are far too many possessions on offense when he is resting with his hands on his knees.

It all comes back to the jumper. Holiday is a career 36 percent shooter from 3, compared to 32.7 percent for Wall and 31.1 percent for Westbrook. Holiday can spot up off of Davis and Rondo and let them create 3s for him, and he can be an effective decoy moving without the ball. It’s hard for other players to create shots for Westbrook and Wall, and they gum up the floor spacing because defenses sag off of them. Wall has actually turned himself into a decent 3-point shooter: he shot 37.1 percent from 3 on 4.1 attempts per game this season. The problem is that his reputation precedes him, so any shooting slump means defenses go right back to playing off of him. The threat of the 3-point shot is as important as the ability to make it.

Wall and Westbrook won’t suddenly become secondary options in the middle of a playoff series. All their teams can do is put them in the best position to succeed. The easiest way to maximize the impact of a guard who attacks the rim is to spread out the defense with 3-point shooting. Wall and Westbrook have great pick-and-roll chemistry with Marcin Gortat and Steven Adams, respectively, but the two traditional big men get in the way of the guards’ drives just as often as they catch lobs from them. Westbrook’s true shooting percentage was 5.3 points higher without Adams on the floor in the regular season, while Wall’s true shooting percentage (51.5 percent) without either Gortat or Ian Mahinmi on the floor was 7.1 points higher than his number over the whole season. There are certainly risks to taking the two centers off the floor, but it’s an option for their teams if they need a jolt of energy in Game 6.

Wall and Westbrook could still dominate even without any adjustments from their coaching staffs. They can create an open shot off the dribble at any point in the shot clock. They just have to make enough to force the defense to adjust. And with their backs against the wall, they might be able to dig deep enough to put their stamp on the game on defense. Even Westbrook, for all of his problems on that end of the floor, has shown the ability to flip the switch. He shut down Harden in the fourth quarter of a 108-102 win over Houston in the final week of the season, a game Oklahoma City needed to win to get into the playoffs. This entire season has been an audition for him to convince George to stay. It’s now or never.

Westbrook and Wall may never have a better chance to contend. Westbrook is a 29-year-old who has been in the league for 10 seasons. Wall is a 27-year-old with a history of knee issues who has been in the league for eight seasons. Their games are built around otherworldly athleticism, which will fade as they move into their 30s. This should be their peak, when they apply all they have learned in their pro careers before their bodies betray them. Their teams won’t have much flexibility to add more talent around them, either. They are both signed to gargantuan contracts which give them a player option of more than $46 million in 2022-23, when Wall will be 32 and Westbrook will be 34.

The two have earned their money. There are few players in the league more capable of taking over a game. The problem is they can’t play any other way, and they can’t take over games as consistently as a guy like LeBron. They just aren’t big enough. The Thunder might still beat the Jazz, and the Wizards might still beat the Raptors. However, they would be underdogs in the second round, and they would likely be even bigger ones in the conference finals. A team in 2018 built around a 6-foot-4 point guard who is not an elite shooter can be only so good. Oklahoma City is 3-7 in the playoffs since losing Kevin Durant. Washington has never won 50 games in the Wall era. The scary part for those teams is that this could be as good as it gets.