In a disappointing and potentially franchise-altering first-round series loss, Russell Westbrook used up 38 percent of Oklahoma City possessions with a shot, drawn foul or turnover -- a larger share than LeBron James accounted for in almost single-handedly dragging Cleveland past Indiana. Westbrook's usage rate was almost the same as LeBron's in the 2015 Finals, when James carried an injury-riddled misfit crew within two games of the championship.
Facing elimination, with every teammate but the redoubtable Steven Adams bricking away, Westbrook attempted a jaw-dropping 43 shots. He somehow launched 19 triples. He made seven. Utah coaches and players were happy with almost all of them.
There is something wrong with this. Just how wrong it is, why the Thunder still play this way, and what it means for their uncertain future are matters of debate.
In November 2014, when both Westbrook and Kevin Durant were out with injuries, Scott Brooks implemented something of a motion offense. Nothing fancy: enter the ball to the elbow, cut and screen for each other, move it side-to-side.
For those Thunder, it was revolutionary. Sitting in the Barclays Center after a shootaround, Andre Roberson talked with something approaching wonder about getting to do things with the ball. It was fun! "Not just a little fun," Roberson told me then. "Sharing the ball, playing for each other -- I'm loving it."
No one expected the Thunder to play that way when Westbrook and Durant returned. That would have been stupid. Stars are stars because they hoard the ball, draw defenders, and set up lesser teammates with easier shots than those teammates could generate on their own. The Thunder had two superstars who could get anywhere they wanted. Embracing a Spursy egalitarian style would have been doctrinaire and self-defeating.
But the Thunder did want Westbrook and Durant to watch and realize they could let go a little -- that the offense would be less predictable in the postseason if they sacrificed some time of possession and moved around a bit. "Every team can take something from what [the Spurs] do," Nick Collison told me then. "We've seen that in the playoffs, we have to move the ball more and rely less on one-on-one."
Two Novembers later, Durant was gone, and Billy Donovan, Brooks' successor, took a seat in the team's practice facility and grew animated discussing the challenge of building a new playbook from scratch. Those Thunder were light on shooting; Donovan knew defenses would clog the paint against Westbrook, and that Thunder could not win big playing a straight-ahead style.
If the Thunder didn't have the shooting to create floor spacing, Donovan said, they would "create floor movement. If we swing it and swing it, it gives the defense more chances to make a mistake."
Donovan was talking about constructing a broader offensive system, just like Brooks and other Thunder elders had years earlier. It never happened. The Utah series laid it bare, again: The Thunder have no system.
They have plays: various Westbrook and Paul George pick-and-rolls; George looping across the foul line and catching the ball on the move; pindowns for George like the ones Oklahoma City ran for Durant; their pet crunch-time "Hawk" set in which George, Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony all screen for each other; antique Anthony isolations.
If that first action leads nowhere, there often is no second one. Whoever has the ball either passes it to Westbrook, or shoots.
Westbrook has longed jacked too many 3s considering his (well) below-average accuracy on them. This is a 31 percent career 3-point shooter running a pick-and-roll, and then dribbling backward into a contested triple:
Contested 3s are still better than contested, ultra-long 2s. Sometimes, Westbrook just dribbles up and shoots those before anything even happens:
Sometimes, he shoots out of a pick-and-roll without really using the pick:
These are terrible shots. You can admire Westbrook's courage, his will to win, his spirit, and still realize these are terrible shots. They are distinct from his most comfortable shot -- that 16- or 17-foot elbow jumper he eases into after dribbling around a crushing Adams pick that gets him daylight. These are 20- and 22-footers attempted without having gained any advantage.
Boil it down, and they are what separate Westbrook from every other ball-dominant superstar: about five long midrange jumpers per game. Every superstar holds the ball, and shoots a lot. Westbrook's time of possession stats have been in line with those of James Harden, John Wall, Chris Paul, LeBron James, and other master manipulators. He and Harden attempted about the same number of shots per 36 minutes. Harden surpassed Westbrook as the league leader in usage rate after Westbrook destroyed the all-time single-season record a year ago.
But Westbrook has generally shot more often than all of those guys. Most of the excess manifests as long midrange jump shots. Put simply, Westbrook is an average jump shooter who takes too many contested jump shots worth two points. Harden's "worst" shots are worth three points. James, Paul, Harden, and the others in this group shoot better from deep.
Westbrook is not as innovative a passer as James or Harden. He has led the league in assists mostly making drive-and-kick passes the defense expects. It is a tribute to Westbrook's greatness that he can break apart defenses so often, and so completely, as to lead the NBA in assists making expected passes. James and Harden make unexpected passes. They are two and three steps ahead. James especially triggers passing sequences. The Thunder ranking dead last in total passes is an annual tradition.
A team can win at the highest level with Westbrook heading its offense. The Thunder almost got there in 2012, 2014, and 2016. Injuries torpedoed their 2013 and 2014 playoff runs. Given good health, they might have won a title playing almost exactly as they are now.
Of course, those teams had Westbrook, Durant, and Serge Ibaka together at or near their absolute apex as athletes -- and with Harden alongside them, coming off the bench (and holy hell does that feel like a different life) during their 2012 Finals run. It is very, very hard -- to the point of being unreasonable to claim it as an end goal -- for any franchise to collect so much young supernova talent at once. It is irreplicable for Oklahoma City now. Westbrook is 29, and the Thunder are capped out.
That realization has produced a lot of pondering about how the Thunder got here, and what sort of system might fit Westbrook best. Start here: He has to have the ball. Defenses don't guard him closely when he doesn't have it. He has shown little aptitude as a cutter. A shaky jumper and a habit of standing still off the ball are often intertwined and compounding: Blah shooters don't draw as much attention moving around, so they decide not to move. Washington Wizards fans are familiar.
A lot of folks have wondered if Westbrook might have developed better habits had he played alongside accomplished big-man playmakers. He had a nice chemistry with Collison. Westbrook's prime unfortunately coincided with Collison's twilight. Adams improves every year, but he's not a hub.
Ibaka was hesitant and confused when he received the ball in space in Oklahoma City. (Also: Ibaka developed more as a ball-mover in one year in Toronto than in seven seasons with the Thunder.)
It's fun to imagine how Westbrook might have rounded out his game with Marc Gasol or Nikola Jokic serving as the Tim Duncan to Westbrook's Tony Parker. The Thunder were excited about Domantas Sabonis for this precise reason. They traded Sabonis for George, and not much about the current version of Westbrook suggests he would mesh well with any of these guys.
The obvious answer: Unleash Westbrook as the angriest, fastest, spread pick-and-roll point guard in NBA history. Turn those five ugly jumpers into lobs or 3s. There is no defense for a Westbrook-Adams pick-and-roll with three shooters surrounding it.
The Thunder have long known this. In their final two seasons with Durant, their offense evolved in this direction. Early in their careers, Westbrook and Durant touched the ball about the same amount, and ran almost the same number of pick-and-rolls, per SportVU tracking data examined then. Those numbers skewed toward Westbrook in 2015 and 2016. Ibaka grew into a reliable 3-point shooter, Adams into a lob crammer:
Durant worked more off the ball, the league's deadliest spot-up threat. This was intentional. "That's what we want," Collison told me in February 2016. "Russell's decision-making has gotten really good. We want Kevin catching the ball and attacking closeouts. He's getting easier shots now."
Durant left five months later. Finding a second star for a spread pick-and-roll attack is tricky. The natural partner is an elite dive-and-dunk big who can run the offense in stretches -- Amar'e Stoudemire for Steve Nash. Anthony Davis would be the peak iteration, though he may be too good for even the loftiest version of the role.
A perimeter co-star will always be off on the side, reactive, finding points that come to him. George, slithery and a little overmatched as a permanent first option, is ideal. You can average 20 or 25 points that way. George did. Durant won an MVP next to Westbrook, and took over more of the offense in crunch time.
Those guys still get their playcalls, and they eat when the alpha dog rests. But breaking from the spread pick-and-roll to force-feed them makes it harder to build a coherent system.
Every would-be contender needs those second and third stars. Harden revealed the limits of a one-man spread pick-and-roll attack last season. LeBron is reliving them now. Houston responded in the most basic way: sign that second perimeter star, and stagger minutes so rigidly that they almost play more apart than together. That way, Harden barely has to democratize. That is an easier sell for the new star, just as playing alongside a pass-first conductor like Nash might be an easier sell than playing the same role alongside Westbrook. Five shots a game.
Regardless, the Thunder never provided Westbrook the personnel to go all-in on a spread pick-and-roll. In the draft, they erred toward defense, athleticism, and length, figuring they could turn college power forwards into wings and teach them to shoot. They have almost always had one nonthreatening shooter-- Roberson, Jerami Grant, Thabo Sefolosha, others -- mucking up driving lanes.
They took a shot on Dion Waiters becoming the dream 3-and-D player. None of their bets beyond Adams since the 2012 Harden trade -- from which they are still recovering -- hit big.
They were low-odds bets; Oklahoma City hasn't had cap space, and they've mostly avoided the luxury tax. They drafted in the 20s. They knew they would have little shot at luring big-time free agents, so they chased younger players they could re-sign via matching rights -- Victor Oladipo, Waiters, Enes Kanter, Iman Shumpert (an on-again, off-again target). Top-five picks who hit the trade market before they turn 25 usually arrive there because they are deeply flawed in some way. The Thunder either couldn't iron out those flaws, or traded those players again only to see them flourish elsewhere (e.g., Oladipo).
Playing with so many young guys might have fed Westbrook's instincts to dominate. Winning so much that way, so early, might have made it harder for him to adjust. (These are popular theories among those who have been around the team.)
Oklahoma City's failure to develop an offensive system goes beyond Westbrook. But we have been talking about this problem for almost 10 years. The coach has changed, the bench has changed, the stars around him have changed.
Westbrook's heart is in the right place; he wants to win, and when he takes a lot of shots, it is because he has concluded that is the best path to winning. More than one person described Westbrook's process as doing math while scanning the floor: he knows he can hit X percentage from this spot. A teammate can only do better if they are in the right spot, in rhythm, in the middle of a good game. Passing brings the risk of a turnover -- lowering the expected points per possession. There is a method.
And for two straight years post-Durant, Oklahoma City's offense disintegrated with Westbrook on the bench. George couldn't reverse that trend. It says a lot about Westbrook's greatness, and the Thunder's shaky bench. It also stems from the Thunder's style: When one person is the system, the whole thing collapses when that person rests.
Some within the Cavs have long hinted that Cleveland's inability to score with LeBron on the bench -- even with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the floor -- stemmed from LeBron's similar centrality. Westbrook is not LeBron. He is not quite Harden as a one-man offense.
This is why those who shrugged at Westbrook's 43 shots in Game 6, arguing he had to shoot so often because everyone else failed, missed the bigger picture. The point is not to cherry-pick one shooting binge and explain it away. The point is to look at that shooting binge, and at the specific shots George and Anthony missed, and wonder how it all might have unfolded had the Thunder ever installed a larger offensive infrastructure. Would George have even been there, or might the Thunder have gotten further unlocking the all-around games Oladipo and Sabonis flashed in Indiana? And remember: The Thunder tried to change the offense, and talked about it openly over many years.
It's hard -- maybe impossible -- to win a title with a one-man offense when there are three or four players doing the same thing at a slightly higher level. The Thunder need other stars, and a coherent system that enables them -- an offense that persists beyond one desultory action. To find both, they need Westbrook to play a little differently. It doesn't have to be some sea change. It can be a bunch of little things -- starting with those five shots a game -- that add up to something larger.