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Can Russell Westbrook justify taking more than 30 shots?

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We take a look at the numbers and see whether Westbrook's recent run has been truly beneficial for the Thunder.

Some of those shots are tough!
Some of those shots are tough!
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

The following comment has 1,312 upvotes and counting on NBA Reddit:

OKC is now 2-7 when Westbrook scores more than 35

At first, this statement had me outraged. I found it really misleading. I mean, Westbrook played 8 of those 9 games without KD.  Also, the opponents were tough, with 7 of the 9 games coming against teams with winning records. Also also, 6 of 9 of those games were on the road.

Still though, Westbrook should be better than a 2-7 record, and he really does seem to be crossing a philosophical line. Russ has been flirting with Oscar Robertson's untouchable triple-double average for weeks now, something that's only done by players at the top of the game. Westbrook's numbers appear to put him in elite company, but is it really justified when the wins aren't coming?

Clearly, we need to take a deeper look at the numbers.

The Inevitable KD Comparison

Before this season, Westbrook had never taken more than 30 shots in a regular season game. This season, Westbrook has cracked 30 shots 8 times. This covers all but one of the games mentioned in the Reddit post, so it seems like the fairest criteria on which to base Westbrook's play. Russ can't necessarily control how many points or foul calls he gets, but he can directly choose how many shots to take.

For comparison, Kevin Durant has taken more than 30 shots eleven times over the course of his career. KD's record in those games is 7-4, compared to Westbrook's 2-6. Obviously this is an extremely limited sample size amongst different teams, so this should be taken with a grain of salt.

Was it the bench's fault?

In the eight games where Westbrook has taken more than 30 shots, his plus/minus rating is -38, or -4.75 points per game. On the whole, the Thunder's team plus/minus rating was -11. That means, while Westbrook was off the floor, the Thunder had a 27 point edge on their opponents, or 3.375 points per game.

Those numbers are pretty small, so let's look at whether Westbrook or the bench performed better in each individual loss. I'm going to use the Popcorn Machine as a guide, and have included links to each game's page.

  • December 23rd, Portland: Westbrook is on the floor for Portland's 13-3 run at the end of the game, and only partially contributes to OKC's two most major runs. Meanwhile, the bench is responsible for kickstarting a couple of big leads in the late first and early fourth. The bench has the better game.
  • January 28th, New York: This game was pretty much dead even. Both Westbrook and the bench made some inroads early, and both share the blame for giving up huge leads in the fourth. Neither had a better game.
  • February 6th, New Orleans: Westbrook propels the Thunder to a 12 point lead in the third, but steadily loses that lead over the course of the quarter. The bench comes out and gives up a 5-0 run to start the fourth, forcing Westbrook to keep it close before the eventual loss. Westbrook has the better game.
  • February 17th, Portland: The bench gives up a 5-0 run in the first, but turn out to be the catalysts behind a monster 22-7 second quarter run. Westbrook is on the floor for all of Portland's major runs, and is part of the lineup that gives up a crucial 20-6 run in the fourth. The bench has the better game.
  • February 26th, Phoenix: The bench gives up a 9-0 run to start the fourth quarter, giving the Suns an 11 point lead. The Thunder wouldn't battle the game back to overtime until Westbrook's return. Westbrook has the better game.
  • March 5th, Chicago: The bench pretty much treads water during their time on the floor. Westbrook was killer during the first three quarters, but followed it up with a 2-9 performance in the fourth marked by a bunch of Chicago runs. The bench has the better game.

The big takeaway here is that all of the losses definitely have something to do with Westbrook, but the impact of the bench also can't be denied. I mean, when your bench can only put up good numbers against New York and Portland, that should be somewhat of an indicator as to what Westbrook's had to work with.

How are the players around him doing?

The only two players who have started with Westbrook in all eight 30+ shot games are Serge Ibaka and Andre Roberson. In those 8 games, Ibaka is averaging 13 points compared to a season average of 14, while Roberson is averaging 2 points compared to a season average of 3. Thus, it's pretty easy to tell that Westbrook's teammates aren't any better or worse off when he takes 30 shots or more.

Is Westbrook running out of gas?

Producing such huge numbers requires a lot of energy, and as such Westbrook has been fading in the fourth quarter. Westbrook takes 9 of his 30 shots during the fourth on average, but only hits 39% of them. Russ' normal percentage during the 8 games in question is 43%, including his fourth quarter shots. So it's clear that Russ sees at least a slight dip in his production towards the end of the game, and that's bad when every possession matters.

How does Russ do head-to-head with other PGs?

Opposing starting point guards during the 8 game streak are shooting 50%. It's clear that Westbrook's defense is taking a hit from his increased usage. This is including Tyreke Evans' 5 of 20 performance on February 6th, which Westbrook doesn't deserve a lot of credit for causing.

Conclusions

So, here's what we know. KD has had a better record in the same situation, and Westbrook's elevated play is not leading to more offense for OKC's other players. We also know that Westbrook's elevated level of offense is likely leading to a decreased level of play in the fourth quarter, and that it's leading to some lackluster defense. Worst of all, the bench unit appears to be hurting while Westbrook is off the floor.

Obviously, the easiest solution is just to await the return of KD and Adams. KD is the more obvious of the two, as he will suck up quite a few of Westbrook's possessions. But the presence of Adams may play a large role as well. Should Adams start, that may move Kanter to the bench and give that unit a bit more offensive firepower. And don't forget about Kyle Singler, whose presence on the bench will give the Thunder even more range.

But as it is, Westbrook's level of usage isn't sustainable against high quality opponents. With the Thunder recently acquiring more competent offensive talent like D.J. Augustin and Enes Kanter, the team needs to do a better job of distributing their possessions from game to game. There's no reason for Westbrook to be so ridiculously involved when it's going to hurt him late in the game and on defense, especially with how stacked the point guard position is in the West.

I never thought I'd be writing this, but....Westbrook needs to shoot the ball just a little less.