Russell Westbrook has a well-chronicled love/hate relationship with the talking head media. Lest we feel the urge to skip down memory lane, the commentary is out there if you are so inclined. What we are beginning to see now however is a recognition that, hey, this Westbrook guy is not only pretty talented, but is translating his prodigious athletic ability into a winning brand of basketball. SB Nation Kansas City's Eddie Maisonet has this to say:
Westbrook's evolution as a playmaker has been evident, and the stats back it up. Let me just throw share a couple of factoids with you real quick that you may or may not have known.
Russell Westbrook is 6th in the NBA in scoring, 21.1
T-4th in assists, 8.5
T-6th in steals, 1.95
T-8th in free throw attempts, 5.9
T-1st in OHSHITHEJUSTDIDTHATWOWGOODNESSGRACIOUS (tied with LeBron James)
Maisonet argues that Westbrook should not only be considered higher in the All-Star voting hierarchy, but as a strong consideration for league MVP as well.
What has changed from a year ago? Aside from the numbers game, the easiest answer is the same answer we ascribe to Kevin Durant. Another year playing high stakes basketball increases the number of situations and scenarios a player sees, which increases a player's ability to assign the proper solution to each kind as it arises.
Westbrook has always been a point guard project, learning how to see the court and respond to it the same way that it comes more naturally to players like Chris Paul and Jason Kidd. For Westbrook, the ability is not innate, so he has had to learn how to do it. This is perhaps the greatest compliment you can give to Westbrook - he is actually learning to do it. Yes, his assists have jumped substantially year-over-year, but stats can be misleading. What is more important is that the team has jumped in assist totals year-over-year, and both Westbrook and Durant's ability to understand defenses is a huge part of that.
One of my long-standing criticisms of the Thunder and Westbrook in particular is that, despite an overflowing wealth of talent and skill, they too often would make the opposing defense's job easier than it should be through quick shots, lack of patience, and lack of knowledge on how to attack. When an entire defense knows that Westbrook is going to pull up for a 15-footer, it makes everybody's defensive responsibility a lot easier. The way OKC is working to change that, to make the defense work, is by employing more working parts to generate scoring opportunities. The byproduct is that openings that never appeared before are suddenly blossoming like flowers in Spring. All Westbrook needed to do was to learn how to see it better and wait for the play to develop.
To be sure, what I find most interesting about Maisonet's analysis is that Westbrook is doing all this despite, in my opinion, not even playing his own brand of offense very well. Purely from an eye test observation, Westbrook looks like his shooting mechanics are broken. At the end of last year, he was zipping down the court and raising up and shooting technically perfect jumpers every time, most evidenced by his playoff series against the Lakers and game 4 of the Finals versus the Heat. These days however, he's still working out the kinks (the same kinks we saw at the beginning of last season) where his jumper's elevation is inconsistent, he's splaying his legs out, and instead of a natural shooting motion it is more mechanical and inconsistent. As a result, we've seen more 1-5 shooting starts of games than otherwise. Westbrook is even struggling to finish at the rim, as we most recently saw against the Hornets on Dec. 12. All this to say that yes, Westbrook is rapidly evolving this season, but up to this point I'd probably just give his personal offense a 'B' for a grade. There is an entire level of offense that he has yet to hit consistently, but if last season was any indication, he's going to get it in gear by around late January.
Where Westbrook has really shown growth this season is his attention to defense, and that is perhaps the biggest reason why his overall game is working out well. Westbrook has a reputation as a gambler, and while in the past that has led to breathtaking breakaway slams, the byproduct of such a scheme is that he would get burned by much lesser guards on a regular basis. By employing better the simple mantra, "just stay in front of your man," he and the Thunder defense overall has done a much better job in defending the perimeter, which places OKC in the top 3rd in defense rather than the bottom 3rd, which is what we saw in the first half of last season.
Is Westbrook the best PG in the league? Probably not, but here is a better question - is he the most valuable PG in the league? All I know is this: he is the only PG right now who can, on a consistent basis, do both this:
As well as this:
And as I mentioned before, that's 'B' level stuff for Russ. There is more to come.