NEW YORK — In a season filled with mammoth scoring efforts and a continued embrace of the NBA’s three-point revolution, Russell Westbrook stands as a conspicuous outlier. Fellow MVPs Steph Curry and James Harden have been intent on carrying their teams from beyond the arc this season as they battle for seeding in the Western Conference. Westbrook, by contrast, is missing triples at a near-historic mark.
Of the 1,333 seasons of 180-plus three-point attempts since 2008-09, Westbrook is one just spot out of last place in shooting percentage, with his 23.9% mark from three, ahead of only former 76er Tony Wroten in 2013-14. Westbrook is bricking threes at a worse rate than Andre Roberson, Josh Jackson and Michael-Carter Williams. In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, how worried should the Thunder be about the 2016-17 MVP?
The concern is minimal if you ask Billy Donovan. The fourth-year head coach seemed perplexed by the idea of Westbrook struggling before the Thunder’s 127–109 blowout of the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Monday, dismissing the concerns over Westbrook’s broken jumper.
“Because of his size, his athleticism, his talent, he can impact the game in so many ways even without a hot shooting night,” Donovan said. “He’s a unique person in getting emotionally ready to play every night with incredible effort. I never have to worry, ‘Is No. 0 ready to play tonight?’ We know we’ll always get a strong contribution.”
Donovan can afford to have a rosy outlook considering Oklahoma City’s smooth first half of the season. The Thunder sit third in the West at 28–18 following Monday’s victory, ranking No. 7 in the NBA in net rating. With an elite defense and career-year from Paul George, perhaps a subpar shooting effort from Westbrook isn’t such a problem for the Thunder effort.
Such horrid shooting numbers from Westbrook—including his worst effective field goal percentage since 2009-10—would likely sink Oklahoma City in prior years. The inefficiency paired with near-40% usage is a recipe for disaster, though that caricature of Westbrook is likely a thing of the past. He leads the league in assist rate in 2018-19, on pace for the most dimes in his career. After hovering in Harden territory for the past two seasons, Westbrook is now shouldering the load alongside George, not in spite of him. Westbrook’s usage is at 31.4% this season, less than 2% ahead of George. As George continues his best scoring season yet, Oklahoma City’s point guard has assumed a more traditional role.
“Russ gets it all started for us, his energy and speed is a real problem for other teams” Thunder forward Nerlens Noel told The Crossover prior to Oklahoma City’s victory. “We don’t worry too much about our roles but he’s making an effort to involve everyone and find us free baskets.”
Westbrook continued to stuff the stat sheet on Monday afternoon. He registered five rebounds and five assists in the first 18 minutes and didn’t score until he converted a free throw with 6:20 remaining in the second quarter. Westbrook still made an impact on the first half, registering a trio of deflections and a charge while defending Knicks big man Noah Vonleh. Westbrook ended his night with nine assists as he fell just short of his 14th triple-double of the season. Add in 31 points from George, and the Thunder fired on all cylinders in their second-straight road win.
There’s no guarantee Westbrook’s evolution sticks around in the postseason. Game 6 of the Thunder’s first-round exit against Utah last year featured 46 points from Westbrook on 43 shots. He emptied the chamber as George went 2-of-16 from the field. If Oklahoma City struggles to score in April, Westbrook could revert to his old ways.
Yet through 46 games, it looks as though Westbrook’s evolution is here to stay, in large part due to the strength of his supporting cast. George looks comfortable as an alpha scorer, while Dennis Schroder and Terrance Ferguson are providing a perimeter boost that was previously lacking. Oklahoma City is forming an identity, with a facilitating Westbrook at the heart of its attack.