Name: Russell Westbrook
Nickname: Russ, Honey Badger, Cat, Russheed Wallace
Player History: Russell Westbrook's name came to be known to the public when he played for UCLA. UCLA was a consistent national title threat during Westbrook's tenure, but they never never able to make it past the Final Four. Back then, Westbrook suffered from constant questions as to whether he was a real point guard, for he loved to drive the lane in his signature crazy fashion. He didn't spend much of his time developing traditional point guard skills as a kid, and there were a lot of questions about his jumper. But numbers don't lie, and his aggressive man-to-man defense combined with his athleticism and rebounding ability served to make him one of the top prospects heading into the 2008 NBA Draft.
He was drafted third overall by the Seattle Supersonics, just weeks before their move to Oklahoma City. At the time, the team was headed by P.J. Carlesimo, a coach known for playing games at a snail's pace and being notoriously tough on rookies. As a result, Westbrook sat on the bench behind Earl Watson....for 13 games, before the 1-12 record caused Carlesimo to be fired. Scott Brooks took over and immediately thrust Russell Westbrook into the starting point guard position. Westbrook hasn't shown any signs of vacating the position, and hasn't missed a single game in his four year NBA career.
But the story doesn't end there. Early on in his NBA career, Russ was haunted by the same problems he had in college, and many were constantly calling for his replacement. In his first season, he only had two more assists than he did turnovers, and he shot below 40% from the field. But his trial by fire actually helped him on the road to success. He eventually developed a series of "go-to" plays with guys like Nenad Krstic, helping his assist total and the Thunder's offensive effectiveness. His reckless drives into the lane were still there, but he was learning basic ways of getting the offense started, and his other numbers remain consistently strong.
Westbrooks downfalls seemed to be centered around his personality, he didn't get the nickname "Russheed Wallace" for nothing. He has known to be a bit too headstrong, losing his temper and making reckless charges into the lane. This was a huge concern for him heading out of the 2011 Western Conference Finals, as some analysts thought he single-handedly destroyed the Thunder's chances of winning that series with his poorly timed outbursts. His jumper was also a huge concern. his three point percentage had improved, but he was still an atrocious 33% from behind the line, and wasn't consistent from anywhere inside the arc.
Heading into the season, my expectations for Russell Westbrook were moreso centered around the team's offense as a whole. During some of of the fourth quarters of that Dallas series, it would be Russ and KD against the world. Hardly another player would touch the ball, and the offense would stagnate as a result. I never questioned his ability to run the point (though some did), and I thought he could use some work knowing where other players were on the floor, and relying on them to make plays, even if he couldn't set them up.
Otherwise, he needed to be a bit more on-point defensively. He can totally forget his assignments in the heat of a fast game, and sometimes he'd make offensive plays that gas him too much to get back on defense effectively. His offense needed to get a bit more diverse, and I'd have liked to see him work off the ball more often. But despite all of his flaws, I was expecting another great season. Regardless, it was how well he was able to work with and mask his flaws that would be a huge defining factor for the Thunder's success.
Regular Season Grade: A-
Russell Westbrook's regular season got off to a slow start, to put it mildly. He was terrible in the first couple of games, seemingly having not recovered from the West Finals. He even finished a game without registering a single field goal. Bu,t during the fourth game of the season, he got a huge lift from OKC's crowd during a free throw.
For me, this was the real start of Westbrook's season. After this game, Westbrook started to get back into his groove, regularly scoring over 20 points a game and shooting tremendous percentages from inside the arc. But Russell's style of play changed and evolved a bit as the season went on.
Example 1: The Mid-Range Jumper
Westbrook began to fall in love with his mid-range shot this season, and so did all of Oklahoma City. He has the athleticism to run up to the free throw line, stop on a dime, and rise for a perfect-looking jumper, as if he had walked up to his mark. The shot isn't a perfect-looking arc, rather, it's a straight lazer, homing in on the back of the rim with precision and clanking in. The jumper can be streaky and was hard to develop at first, but it eventually became a hallmark of Westbrook's game, and was key in the Dallas series.
Example 2: Deferring to KD and Harden
Ball control was a key knock on Westbrook in 2010-2011, and it still is today. But even though Westbrook's turnovers haven't gone down while his assists have, his offensive efficiency has gone up, and so has that of the team. He's still the main point guard in all respects and runs plays, but now it's not uncommon to see him defer the ball to Kevin Durant or James Harden as the team walks up the court. This works, because Kevin Durant loves isolation plays and can pass out of the post effectively, while James Harden has excellent court vision, and rarely makes a bad pass. This also semi-effectively controls Westbrook's late game tempers, as he's not as liable to make full-court charges that end up in a wasted possession.
Example 3: More Threes
This is kind of a negative change, but Westbrook has taken it upon himself to shoot about twice as many threes as he did in 2010-2011, despite the season being 16 games shorter. Russ doesn't like to work off-ball, so a lot of his threes are dribbles up to the three point line that clank badly off the rim. All that's really left to say is, "Ugh."
Aside from his change in play, Westbrook had a variety of memorable moments in the regular season. Remember his 36 point performance against San Antonio that was slammed by Coach Nick of BBallBreakdown? How about when he combined with Kevin Durant for 85 Points in a double overtime masterpiece against the Timberwolves? Westbrook had a career-high 45 himself, and pretty much spoon-fed the victory to the Thunder in the second overtime. Or the time when Westbrook led the charge in Boston, where he's had many memorable games, and sealed the win with a ice-cold three? When he forced overtime against the Blazers with a game-saving block against Nicholas Batum? Hell, just watch his NBA Top 10. This dude is IN-sane. So insane that I'm probably forgetting half of the crap he pulled off this season.
All of that being said, Westbrook's production did take a bit of a dip late in the season, as the packed schedule began to take its' toll. The entire team fell victim to Spring Fever this April, and Westbrook was no exception. His overall production was down, and he was getting hassled by bigger guards. But all of that would soon be forgotten....
Post-Season Grade: A (overall)
In the playoffs, Russell Westbrook showed an ability to change and grow beyond himself, depending on the situation. If Russ was in a state, he would simultaneously be solid, liquid, and gas, just so he's ready for any situation. He can defend, he can score, he can distribute, and he can help his team. Even though there were a few bumps on the road, this team simply would not have gotten to the Finals without Russell Westbrook.
Round 1: A
Everyone wants to remember the series with the Mavericks as the one where Durant's insane bounce shot sent the Thunder to victory in Game 1. But a series is played in four games, and what Kevin Durant did in Game 1 was equalled by what Westbrook did in Game 2. It wasn't defined by any moment or play, in fact, he barely shows up in the highlights. But the fact is, he pretty much fueled the Thunder early in the game, hardly made any stupid plays, and hit a clutch three in the fourth. He did his job, the Thunder won the game, and the tone was set.
Game 3 wasn't even close by the time the final buzzer sounded, but Russell Westbrook's performance was no less impressive. He was back to his old reckless self, and, without any ball movement, managed to push the Thunder's lead to impressive heights in the third quarter. But, not only was Westbrook beasting, he was beasting responsibly. He knew to stay out of the middle of the lane, where the Mavericks converged on him during the Western Conference Finals. And his mid-range jumper was in full force.
Game 4 was a lot quieter for Westbrook, as Jason Kidd had a renaissance and started draining a bunch of threes. Westbrook struggled from the field, and he was part of the reason the Thunder were down by 13 going into the fourth. But what's important is that he rebounded from it and became more of a facilitator. He did his part in shutting down Jason Kidd late, and he deferred to the hot hands (Kevin Durant and James Harden), leading to a stunning victory and four game sweep of the Mavs.
Round 2 : B+
Westbrook's play was a reflection of the Thunder's play in their series against the Lakers. Four quality games and one egg. Game 1 was like a dream with the Thunder pushing the ball against the Lakers and leaving so many players open for Westbrook to pass it to. Hardly any turnovers were committed, and the lane was wide open for business. Game 2 was rougher around the edges, but the Thunder pulled through in the end. Westbrook was getting killed in the lane and only had three points in the entire second half, but he did limit his turnovers and shut down Ramon Sessions. The big negative is the huge defensive miss he had on the final play of the game, leaving Steve Blake wide open for the final shot. Blake missed, but Westbrook's blown assignment could have very well shifted the series in the Lakers' favor.
Game 3 was a bunch of follies, and you could see it coming if you saw Westbrook in Game 2. His defense went to nothing, as both Sessions and Blake had productive nights from the floor. He got blocked in the lane more than once, went 0-3 from beyond the arc, and nearly got into a fight with Jordan Hill. The game basically came down to free throws, and Westbrook couldn't really do anything to get the offense going but force the ball.
But Westbrook rebounded with a stupendous Game 4. Sure, Kevin Durant clinched the game, while all Russ did was score 37 points. But, gosh, was Westbrook a sight. He looked like an Olympic sprinter running into the lane, while the Lakers stood like statues, doing nothing to stop him. He very nearly injured himself by slipping right before the half, but you couldn't tell by his play later in the game. Westbrook couldn't stop dominating, and he was a huge factor in overcoming the Lakers late fourth quarter lead.
Game 5? Well, it was a coda more than anything. But for Westbrook, it was just a continuation of the party. I'm pretty sure this dude could party constantly for weeks with no sleep. I mean, did you see this shot? No seriously, click on that link. It's all you need to know about Russell Westbrook in Game 5.
Round 3: A-
In this series, we saw Westbrook move from the role of a scorer to the role of....well, something else. He wasn't a huge facilitator in the traditional sense, and I struggle to think of the amazing assists he's made. But after the Spurs studied game tape of Westbrook playing against the Lakers, they knew they'd have to commit more than one defender to him, and they did. This led to Westbrook making easy passes to the open man, and helping the flow of the offense.
Moreover, he became a bit of a shut down defender in this series. After some serious follies against bad Laker point guards, covered above, he was able to shut down Tony Parker at key points in the series. Parker didn't have more than 20 in Games 3, 4, and 5. Sure, Westbrook struggled from the field in those games as well, but he out-assisted Parker 26-12 in those four games.
As far as individual moments go, because of his limited offensive performance, it's harder to pinpoint great moments, but they're still there to be found. Like, oh, I don't know, this dunk over Kawhi Leonard? Or this alley-oop over Stephen Jackson?
The NBA Finals saw Westbrook shift back to his old self. He combined the best aspects of his game from the Mavs series (his jumpers), the Lakers series (his ability on the break and in the lane) and the Spurs series (his defense) to make the ultimate Russell Westbrook bonanza.
Some say he took too many shots, but when the game is on the line and you're being guarded by Mario Chalmers, you've got to take advantage of it. He was beyond words in Game 4, essentially destroying the Heat with 43 fantastic points. This is what happens when you let him loose. Honey Badger simply DON'T CARE. He'll surf across the Pacific Ocean on a wave so large that he's actually able to reach Miami from the opposite coast. That's how incredible that game was.
All in all, I can't blame Westbrook from his NBA Finals performance, at all. He wasn't really a part of what lost us this series, which was bad lineups and endless exploitation of mismatches. There were times when Chalmers was effective, but that was mostly when he somehow ended up playing against Kevin Durant or Derek Fisher, both of whom he could easily exploit.
Yeah, he totally bombed Game 5, but everybody bombed Game 5. And I'd say it's offset by his 11 assists in Game 1, this layup in Game 2, and his infamous post-game shirts. Some will continue to criticize Westbrook for how he played in the Finals, and there is a case to be made. Still, I'm in the camp that says Russell Westbrook was the least of our worries during the Finals, and that there's much bigger issues to address.
The Olympics: C+
It's hard to judge Westbrook in a tournament where the United States soundly trounced every smidgen of competition they faced. Westbrook was on the edge of the rotation and didn't really get too much serious game action, but he did what he could with what he had. He'll probably be most remembered for this garbage time dunk over Juan Gutierrez in the Semi-Finals. He was a nice source of highlights in the late going, and he had a few nice assists, but it's all relative. In any case, given his minutes, he played better than Deron Williams and Chris Paul. That's saying something.
Most Memorable Game:
43 Points in the Finals against the Heat. Need I say more?
Most Memorable Single Moment:
I'm gonna have to go with his incredible "flip-shot" in game 5 against the Lakers. After being brutally fouled, he has the presence of mind to throw up the ball, and we all watched it thunk into the basket. He finishes the play with the traditional Westbrook high-step, and for many fans, it symbolized the ultimate triumph over the Lakers.
Heading into the 2012-2013 Season, I can't help but thinking that Westbrook is on the up and up. He's improved his stats in every category but assists every single season, and having Maynor in the lineup next year should free him up to work off-the ball a little more. Hopefully he'll continue to develop his shot, and maybe a little court vision as well. But, most importantly, he'll have a whole new wardrobe for us to admire. And there will be many great dunks to come. I don't know what else I can say, other than...."Honey Badger Don't Care".
A: Far exceeded expectations
B: Exceeded expectations
C: Met expectations
D: Did not meet expectations
F: Fell far short of expectations
Other Player Grades:
What do you think of Russell Westbrook's 2011-12 campaign? Do you agree or disagree with what I've said? Let us know by dropping a vote or posting a comment!