OKLAHOMA CITY -- Russell Westbrook doesn't like talking about himself.
Well, he doesn't really like talking about anything with the media (except clothes), but especially himself. Ask the Thunder point guard about how he's playing or ridiculous things he's doing and he'll likely start the answer with, "My job is to..." and then fill in the blank with some sort of thing that's a basic function in basketball. Ask him about something statistically impressive, and he'll redirect you immediately to the team.
Russ, you're leading the league in assists right now. Was that a focus or goal for you this season?
"No," he said, folding his bottom lip over his chin, shaking his head. "Personal goal is to win a championship."
With all the critiques, comments and criticisms that have followed Westbrook the past seven years -- that he's not actually a point guard, that he's selfish, that he doesn't pass -- you'd think there has to be some level of satisfaction in leading the league in that category. Russell Westbrook, the supposed ball hog, is out-assisting the entire NBA, and by a decent margin.
"Like I said before," he said, giving a world-class side-eye, "my job is to come in and win a championship."
He started to walk away.
"Good try, though."
Westbrook just celebrated his 27th birthday last week, entering the prime years of his career. Has he found the sweet spot between scoring and assisting, blending his offensive aggression and distribution perfectly to become truly the most dynamic player in the league?
The current raw numbers through 11 games this season back it up: 26.7 points per game, 10.6 assists per game, accounting for some 46 percent of the Oklahoma City Thunder's total offense. Westbrook already has eight 20-10 point-assist games; the next-closest player has two. He has 12 triple-doubles in his last 46 games dating back to last February; the next-closest player has three.
"He's a video game," Kevin Durant said. "He may surprise you guys, but I've been seeing it for eight years."
Westbrook entered the league as a completely wild-eyed guard, a square peg trying to play in a round positional hole. He had a position -- "point guard" -- but played outside of any nomenclature. He lacked general feel and vision, using brute force and sheer will to just overwhelm opponents. Gradually, though, like basically every other part of his game, Westbrook's playmaking has improved. He averaged 8.0 assists in his second season, 8.3 his third, dipped down to 5.5 in his fourth as he shared a lot of the backcourt playmaking duties with some guy named James Harden, but has steadily climbed, topping out at a present career-high double-digit figure this season.
"He's a smart player," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. "You can bring things to his attention and show him things and he's pretty good at absorbing them."
Westbrook has worked tirelessly to improve at playing slower -- while still going as fast as humanly possible. He's worked on his feel and vision, studying where defenders come from and drilling different ways to get the ball to a rolling big man. He's developed a unique one-handed half-look bullet, which is almost always fired with his left-hand, his off-hand, which is only an off-hand in name. (Westbrook writes and throws with his left hand.) That pass was kind of a developmental accident, a byproduct of when Westbrook broke his right hand in the second game of last season.
"I think it came better when I hurt my right hand," he said. "I was doing a lot of stuff left-handed, a lot of passing, lot of different drills to be able to help me out to make that a little better."
But even with leading the league in assists, the dirty little secret about Westbrook is he's still not really a point guard, at least in the traditional sense. He bristles at questions about him not becoming a point guard until he got to the NBA. He seems to like the label. But in terms of a runner of offense, a mover of the ball, Westbrook just isn't that. He's a point maker, not a point guard, the next evolution of the position, the perfect amalgamation of playmaker and scorer.
"I feel like my job as a coach is to enhance him and allow him to be who he is. In doing that, I don't want him to be a 'conventional point guard,' and I don't want him to be a 'scoring point guard.' I want him to be himself." Billy Donovan
Per the NBA's SportVU player tracking data, 18.7 percent of Westbrook's passes become an assist. That's easily tops in the league. Of players with 500 or more passes, the next-closest is Kings guard Rajon Rondo at 12.8. Adjust that to include secondary and free throw assists, and Westbrook jumps to 23.5 percent. Include potential assists -- passes that lead to a shot attempt -- and it goes to almost 57 percent (hat tip to Nylon Calculus on that number).
For reference, LeBron James isn't even at 30 percent. As my colleague, Tom Haberstroh, put it, Westbrook is the Dos Equis guy of passing. I don't always pass the ball, but when I do, I get an assist.
Viewing Westbrook's assists
There are two ways to look at his assists: (1) Westbrook is constantly hunting for an assist with every pass, ignoring simple ball movement principles that, in effect, make him a selfish passer or (2) Westbrook is a ridiculously efficient passer whose playmaking is more impactful than any other player in the league -- and by a wide margin. Your answer there probably depends on your predisposition of Russell Westbrook.
There is a third angle to it, though, and that's how it works within the dynamic of the Thunder. When Durant is out of the lineup, Westbrook escalates his usage -- and works to do more -- in basically every facet. More shooting, more scoring, more passing, more assisting, more rebounding. More of anything, more of everything.
But Durant will return soon, and so will the ongoing work to embrace Donovan's offensive refinements, which includes more side-to-side ball movement, using both sides of the floor with multiple actions in each set. The Thunder want to be a better passing team that pressures a defense with more players posing a threat all over the court. Does Westbrook's direct-assist mentality compute with those tweaks? Can you become a passing, moving, flowing offensive team with him as your point guard?
Watch any Thunder possession with Westbrook running the show, and you'll see him work relentlessly to set a teammate up for a shot. It's not selfishness in the direct sense of the word. He feels the responsibility to generate offense for his team, instead of completely trusting the ball, the system and the movement to do the work for him.
"[Westbrook]'s a video game. He may surprise you guys, but I've been seeing it for eight years." Kevin Durant
It's not all on Westbrook, though. The Thunder roster don't include a lot of high-level playmaking passers beyond Westbrook and Durant. That's a key focus for Donovan: to work to develop the Thunder big men into "transporters" of the ball who can free up teammates for looks. Because as a team, the Thunder have never passed the ball very liberally. They currently rank dead last in the league averaging 267.4 passes per game. Last season they were 26th at 276.5.
"I've studied that in great detail in the offseason, and there's really not a correlation in terms of teams' offensive efficiency in terms of how many passes they make," Donovan said. "We've just got to be mindful of getting off high quality shots. If we can get off high quality shots with one or two passes, I'm OK with that. It's just all about what kind of shot you're getting."
Form is supposed to follow function, and in the Thunder's case, the offense is functioning at a ridiculously high level -- second in the league in efficiency behind only the preposterous Warriors -- while still carrying plenty of unsettling flaws. With Westbrook on the floor, the Thunder score a silly 113.0 points per 100 possessions. Whatever he's doing, however he's doing it, is working. Really, really well.
"Russell is an aggressive, attacking point guard who has a lot of years' experience under his belt," Donovan said. "I feel like my job as a coach is to enhance him and allow him to be who he is. In doing that, I don't want him to be a 'conventional point guard,' and I don't want him to be a 'scoring point guard.' I want him to be himself."
Which won't ever be a problem. Because if one player is sure of who he is and what he does, it's Russell Westbrook. Even if he doesn't want to talk about it.