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Russell Westbrook's Next Step

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HoopSpeak chief Beckley Mason wrote up a great post today, examining Russell Westbrook and one possible play-style trajectory that could suit him well. Westbrook only has to look a few hours south down I-35 to see it.

Russell Westbrook's Next Step: The Tony Parker Cut | HoopSpeak

Take a look at the video that Mason has pieced together to see how the two compare and contrast.

Mason breaks down the comparison into a few categories, so be sure to listen closely. I offer a few more comments below the fold.

The first element that we have to keep in mind is that Tony Parker is a 10 year veteran, while Russell Westbrook is entering year four. Not only does Parker have over twice as much experience as Westbrook, but he also has the advantage of playing in the same Spurs system for the same Spurs coach (Gregg Popovich) for the duration. Those two facets should not be forgotten when we consider how Parker is able to get better shots in a more efficient manner; it is not merely because Parker has the experience, but his coach has the experience as well in how to most effectively deploy his point guard.

1. Transition

Both players are extremely quick and horizontally explosive in the open court. The difference we see now though is that Parker has much better body control. He knows how to vary his pace and seldom puts himself in a position where he can get called for an offensive foul. Parker also has a light touch around the rim and can finish with either hand. He is like a wide receiver probing for the seam in the defense.

Westbrook plays in the transition like a running back let lose in the defensive backfield. Much like a miniature LeBron James, Westbrook maximizes his strength and vertical explosiveness in order to finish at the rim. Although Westbrook is more prone to picking up offensive fouls by playing this way, the style also enabled him to get to the free throw line over 300 more times than Parker last season.

The biggest area where Westbrook can learn from Parker is in adjusting his open court speed in order to get defenses off-balance and then seek to find seams in the transition defense rather than try to go over or through it.

2. Weakside Cuts

The exploitation of weakside cuts within a half-court offense depends on understanding both the defensive player as well as the defensive set. I would wager that since the Spurs team has thrived on defense for so long, reading a defense has become second nature to Parker. Along with that, he has joined forces with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for quite some time, so all three players know each others' tendencies well. Duncan and Ginobili know when Parker is about to slash to the rim and have learned to deliver the passes he needs.

Westbrook too has developed a nose for the rim. As you can see in some of the footage, when he sees his defender turn his head, Westbrook immediately slashes to the rim. With the defense out of position, Westbrook is adept at either finishing strong or using his strength to draw the foul. However, as we can see above, much of this style of play is dependent on teammates who can deliver the ball. Parker has Duncan and Ginobili; Westbrook has several other players who, while talented, are still learning the game. Certainly Kevin Durant and James Harden are capable of delivering a crisp pass, but just as important is the knowledge of when to send the pass to the cutting Westbrook. As Durant, Harden, and others learn to see what Westbrook is trying to do, they will become more accustomed to his hard slashes to the rim and they will learn to set him up with the passes he needs in order to finish strong.

3. Curls/Backcuts

The first thing you should notice in Mason's clip is that Parker engages the Spurs offense very early, often from the back-court. The pass is delivered up the court for the wing player to set up the offense, thereby freeing Parker to run his cuts and curls down the middle. Ergo, the point guard in the Spurs offense often spends very little time with his hands on the ball. Once Parker gets down to the baseline, he is free to read the subtle screens and back-picks that his teammates set, springing him for close shots at the rim.

Pay close attention to the shot clock in those four Spurs sets. In each case, the offense has in-bounded the ball and engaged its offense within three to four seconds. The rapid engagement leaves them with a solid 20 seconds to run whatever play they want to. In the plays Mason shows, each shot is close to the rim and goes up within 10 seconds.

Contrast that efficiency with what we saw frequently from the Thunder last season. Westbrook would walk the ball up, using 6-8 seconds of the shot clock just to get the ball into the front court. A play would be called and screens would be set, but if the first set of screens failed, very little time remained for a second option to develop. As a result, Westbrook would often hang onto the ball too long, the play clock would run down, and the Thunder would have to force a sub-optimal shot.

Consider Mason's observation:

"Now imagine if Russell Westbrook was coming off those curls and looking for those backdoors every single time down the court"

There was one specific game that I remember last season where the Thunder and Westbrook took this approach that Mason describes. It was in Game Five of the Western Conference Finals, a game where the Thunder gallantly fought in but were unable to stave off elimination against Dallas. In that game, Scott Brooks moved Westbrook off the ball and allowed the offense to flow through their super sub, James Harden. Harden worked hard to set up Westbrook in places where he could cut to the rim or draw the foul. As a result, Westbrook finished with a game high 31 points. While his shooting percentage was not great (11-28), it was obvious that the Mavericks had no answer for Westbrook's play. In retrospect, Westbrook was playing in the way we see Parker play in Mason's footage above. Westbrook let go of the ball early and then used his dynamic physical skill set to receive the ball and attack. On top of that, Westbrook was able to gather eight rebounds (four offensive) and still collect five assists.

Popovich has figured out how to use Parker in ways that maximize his skills to generate shots. Brooks showed that he can do the same with Westbrook in that Game Five, and hopefully this Thunder approach will continue.

4. The In-Betweens

The last element that underscores the difference between Parker and Westbrook is what I call the "in-between game." Parker has never been a dead-eye outside shooter in the way that Steve Nash is, but over time he developed both a medium-range game and a teardrop shot that he can make with regularity. This in-between game enables Parker to put defenses completely on their heels, because if they play his drive, he can pull up and make the 12 footer. If they crowd Parker out high, he will drive past them with ease.

Parker's in-between game (and Westbrook's lack thereof) is the one thing that separates the two the most. Westbrook is comfortable setting up and shooting the outside shot (33% from 3-point range) and he is excellent taking the ball to the rim. However, in that middle area from about 10 to 15 feet out, Westbrook appears hesitant in what he wants to do. He does not yet seem confident driving the ball hard and pulling up from 10 feet out, a la Nash, or penetrating and then leaning in with the teardrop the way Parker does.

As I wrote following the Game One loss in the WCF, Dallas seemed to bait Westbrook into that middle area intentionally, knowing that even this close to the rim, he'd be at his least effective. Westbrook was able to get into the lane easily, but he never knew exactly what to do when he got there. As a result, Westbrook's play was contained.

If Westbrook can close this particular gap, I think that he will make great strides in combining his finishing ability with Parker's scoring efficiency. That is the next step.