Last week, ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss took a look at some of the league's "layup masters." Interestingly, Russell Westbrook wasn't one of the players that cracked the list (LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, Tony Parker and Marcus Thornton were the four that Strauss named best). Instead Westbrook found himself "in the middle", shooting 58.7% on layups. Here's what Strauss had to say about him specifically:
Westbrook might be the player whose facility at making layups simply means he gets to the rim a bunch. That's not entirely fair, though, because Westbrook can and does finish with either hand.
You just wouldn't expect the dynamic point guard to be a whole 12 percent worse on layups than LeBron, given Westbrook's elite speed and hops. It appears, from the video clips, as if Westbrook flies into the lane with more desire than strategy, willing the ball toward what might be the hoop. That's nitpicking because, even if Westbrook is only OK at converting layup attempts, it matters more that he is creating so many of them.
Now, there's no disputing that Westbrook is a talented slasher. He has incredible explosiveness and speed in getting to the rim. Whether in the half-court or on the fast break, Westbrook can be an absolute blur when he attacks. He rarely settles for jumpers when a driving lane is open. Looking to the numbers that Strauss provided, he attempted 478 layups–121 more than LeBron James even attempted. That's a lot of layups.
Even at the rim, Westbrook has all of the physical tools to be a great finisher. He has remarkable strength in finishing through contact and a combination of hops and body control that allow him to adjust his shot in mid-air against bigger defenders. Often, it takes him just a few steps from the perimeter to get airborne for a layup that he can finish.
Why then is Westbrook just "in the middle"? Strauss said he "flies into the lane with more desire than strategy, willing the ball toward what might be the hoop." There's definitely truth to that statement. For all of the layups Westbrook attempted, an awful lot of them seemed unnecessarily forced. Sure, Westbrook can make difficult layups. He does it often, making regular appearances on the highlight reel with extremely tough layups around the rim that see him contort or twist around the defense.
Interestingly, it may be that high volume of difficult layups that sets back Westbrook's percentage. A lot of the layups he attempts, whether makes or misses, are poorly advised in the first place. The degree of difficulty on the video above was high, as Westbrook has to contend with a player on his back as well as adjust his shot in mid-air to account for Luke Ridnour contesting him. You have to credit Westbrook's ability to make the shot look relatively easy, and it goes back to his body control and athleticism.
While he's capable of making difficult shots, Westbrook often is prone to forcing layups without a particular plan. As good as he is at finishing them, there won't ever be a player converting tough shots at a high rate, Westbrook included. It probably doesn't help that he knows he has all the tools necessary to finish those layups, nudging him towards shooting more of them than may be ideal. Certainly, Westbrook isn't shy about putting shots up (though he has improved his drive-and-kick ability noticeably, especially with teammates outside of his immediate line of vision). Many times, it feels like he's trying more to just get a shot up (and maybe get a foul called and earn a trip to the free throw line) rather than get a particularly good look at the rim.
There's a fine line between reckless and aggressive. Westbrook toes that line as much as anybody in the NBA. Many of his makes come from charging towards the rim wildly. His speed and unpredictability keeps the defense on their toes, which also opens up the opportunity for him to pull up for his ever-improving mid-range jumper. Westbrook can and will change his speed around the paint to throw off defenders, but he uses that as an option to compliment his one-speed charges right at the rim.
The thing is, even if he throws up out-of-control layups here and there, the Thunder don't have many players that can create their shot the way Westbrook does. Regardless of shot quality, there are times where they simply need shot opportunities to get something going. As Strauss said, "even if Westbrook is only OK at converting layup attempts, it matters more that he is creating so many of them." Go back to the number of layups Westbrook attempted, an astonishing 478. The importance of that sheer number of attempts, which dwarfs the number of attempts of any other players in Strauss' post, can't be overstated. Westbrook's value as a slasher is more dependent on sheer quantity than outstanding quality for Oklahoma City. For what it's worth, Westbrook even does a pretty good job of rebounding and cleaning up his misses at the rim.
It makes Westbrook's issue with layups tricky to solve. Do you, in the end, swallow the average percentage for the sheer volume of attempts that he can create? While that's the same logic that can lead to overvaluing such players as J.R. Smith or Brandon Jennings, it works for the Thunder. On the other hand, asking Westbrook to reign himself in during his drives to the rim is also asking him to play in a way that directly takes away from one of the assets that has made him so successful. He has the tools to finish better around the rim, but it's not exactly the way Westbrook has made his living so far.
I think that the Thunder are content with Westbrook as is. When you watch Westbrook's misses, you're generally okay with him taking those shots. Within the context of Westbrook's abilities, they're makeable shots that simply don't always fall because of their difficulty. In a way, Westbrook's aggression is a good antecedent to Kevin Durant. Durant is ultra-efficient and damn near unstoppable, offsetting Westbrook's middling percentage. On the other hand, Westbrook's aggressiveness forces the defense to hone in on him just as much as they do with Durant, allowing both to thrive.
Despite Westbrook's clear on-court contribution, I also think that Westbrook can be fine-tuned. Further improvement of little things will go a long way in bringing his percentage north of the 60% mark. Body control/balance in mid-air is one of his strengths, but he does have a tendency to lean too hard into his layup or go too fast along with the momentum from diving towards the rim.
Westbrook's continued improvement in dishing the ball will also help as he learns to understand which shots he probably shouldn't bother attempting. Particularly in scenarios where Westbrook gets by his defender and meets the big man at the rim, he will learn not only to make the defense shift, but also when the defense is about to shift and use that anticipation to create open space for teammates instead of forcing contested layups.
Then, there are times where Westbrook simply needs to reel himself in just a bit, like when he puts up a shot after an off-ball cut to the rim, fast break opportunities that he rushes, or finger rolls where he's going too fast to get a proper feel for where the rim is.
One last thing that might be nice to see from Westbrook is to further use his ability to change speeds in the lane (via hesitation, crossover, etc.), as well as a few moves mixed in (hopstep, spin, eurostep). Many of Westbrook's drives are straightforward attempts to the rim, and he definitely has shown that he's capable of taking advantage of changing speeds or using layup moves. Mixing them in more often gives him better shot opportunities, and it can be done without reaching the point where it compromises his identity as a wildly aggressive slasher first.
The bottom line, however, is that Westbrook is an elite player as is. It might be obvious, but it simply goes back to his unique skillset of being able to explode to the rim so easily. Sometimes, it feels like he's leaving points on the table with some of his misses, but he offsets middling percentage with staggering volume.
There is no need for him to restructure his approach in spite of his average percentage, and in fact that could easily be something that harms him. Bringing the percentage up through fine-tuning to maximize the return on all of the attempts is really all Westbrook needs. He may be "in the middle" by the percentages, but nobody matches Westbrook in terms of production.
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