(Today we kick off our annual end of season Thunder player grades, where we evaluate the Thunder roster's performance, one by one. First up - the most divisive superstar on the planet, Russell Westbrook)
Full Name: Russell Westbrook Jr.
Contract Status: Westbrook is heading into the last year of his five year, $78.6 million deal. He will make $17.8 million in his final year, as he heads into free agency with Serge Ibaka (and potentially Kevin Durant) next summer.
Depending on how high the cap rises, which is rumoured to be close to $108 million, Westbrook is likely heading for a contract double the size of his current one. He's worth every penny though.
Interesting Factoid: Here's two that couldn't be split! Westbrook is left handed in everything he does - except shooting. Autographs, throwing things, all left handed. Westbrook was also accepted into Stanford on an academic scholarship, and is incredibly intelligent. Here's some more fun facts about the NBA's biggest character.
Per Basketball Reference, here's some of Russell's greatest on court achievements:
- A five time All Star and two time All Star MVP, both in the last two seasons.
- Four time All-NBA Second Team selection, this season was his debut All-NBA First Team selection.
- 4th in NBA MVP Voting the last two seasons.
- 2014-15 NBA Scoring Champion, with a career best 28.1ppg.
- 2015-16 was his first season with 10 or more assists per game, with 10.4apg (2nd in the NBA).
- 36th in NBA History in PPG (21.5), 18th in APG (7.6).
- 2015-16; 8th in the NBA in PPG (23.5), 2nd in APG (10.4apg), 5th in SPG (2.0), alongside 7.8rpg, a career high.
- His pregame rituals with Cameron Payne are the stuff of legend:
Pre-Season/Early Season Expectations
This needed to be the year. With a full training camp of good health and a loaded roster, perhaps 2015-16 would be the year the Thunder got the luck they needed and would finally fulfill the potential that they have teased since the start of the decade.
Several of the league's leading analysts felt this could be their year, with a versatility and power not many other teams could match. There was also the long standing question of Westbrook's fit alongside his close friend and superstar teammate Kevin Durant, though that question has never been a concern for those inside the organization.
Westbrook also hoped to enjoy a full season of good health, after his spotless NBA record was tainted by knee and hand injuries the past two seasons. With a new coach and fresh ideas, it might finally be the season the Thunder figure it all out.
Regular Season Grade: A
It's hard to believe that despite Westbrook's outstanding production, he doesn't receive a perfect grade. However, Westbrook's part in the Thunder's late game failures, which saw them lose 14 fourth quarter leads, docks him down from an A+ to an A.
His struggles in clutch situations were very real, as he shot 39% in those minutes, including just 20% from three. Additionally, in the last minute of games where he has drawn intense criticism, the Thunder's star guard shot only 30% (10 of 33) per NBAMiner.com. This is something that will need to be addressed going forward.
Outside of that though, Westbrook was simply outstanding for the Thunder and put them on his back when his team needed him. He did this from the start of the season, logging 33 points and 10 assists on opening night to beat the San Antonio Spurs at home.
The following game, Westbrook and Durant carried Oklahoma City to a win in one of the games of the entire season, an overtime win in Orlando over the Magic that included one of the craziest endings to regulation ever seen. Westbrook dropped 48 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists in the barrage. It was truly incredible to see. He finished November averaging 26.0ppg, 7.6rpg, 9.9apg.
Perhaps Westbrook's greatest feats this season were his incredible 18 triple doubles, five more than any other player in the league. In fact, outside of Draymond Green who had 13, no player had more than six. It was the most since Magic Johnson's 18 in 1981-82, that's how truly incredible Westbrook's feat is.
The way he fills the box score is truly unique, and not even peak LeBron James could match it the way that Westbrook can get it done. He's learned more and more each season the ways in which he can use his powers for good and not for evil.
If scoring is needed, he can take over a quarter with his phenomenal ability to get to the basket at will. Early in games, he has learned to get his teammates involved and get the ball in their hands in good spots on offense. His incredible leap makes rebounding over most players in the league easy, which saves offensive possessions or ends defensive possessions.
There was a point in the season after Steph Curry was widely accepted as the outstanding MVP candidate that discussion pushed towards who was the worthy number two in the race. LeBron James had a case, Kawhi Leonard was making a push, Kevin Durant was in the conversation. Westbrook though was trying to separate himself from the chasing pack.
Through the last 18 games of the season, Westbrook had a ridiculous 9 triple doubles. This included back-to-back performances, then 3 consecutive triple doubles (the first player to do so in seven years). His critics like to say he hasn't changed, but Westbrook has developed the Basketball IQ to know when and where his skills apply best.
However there are still heavy turnover and defensive consistency issues. Through the regular season his defense resembled a turnstile, and sometimes his runs of scoring mirrored his runs of turnovers. It's a part of who he is, but this is a trait that has to be curbed for the Thunder to be successful.
Sometimes though when he breaks out into the open floor, all of those concerns suddenly float away:
Perhaps though it is the amount of energy he expends offensively, carrying such a big burden that he needs to learn better when to defer to Kevin Durant and the rest of the team which would allow him to be a more rounded player. He did so in the post season, and this might have been a learning curve for him and the team.
Most Notable Game/Moment
The dunks were incredible, and to pick one is difficult. But in terms of performance, his complete display against Portland was something else. On March 14th he logged 17 points (7-11 shooting with no threes), 10 rebounds, 16 assists, 2 steals and 1 block in only 28 minutes. Important; zero turnovers. It was the ultimate Russ performance.
It was Westbrook at his very best. When he plays like this, it's hard to find any team in the NBA that can beat the Thunder.
Post Season Grade: A
They were so close. So crazily close to a return to the NBA Finals. But history and the greatness of the Warriors stood in their way. That doesn't change the fact that Westbrook had a sensational postseason, with absolutely sensational numbers across the board:
- First Round (Mavericks): 26.0ppg (46-38-76 percent shooting splits), 7.2rpg, 11.2apg, 1.6spg.
- Semi Finals (Spurs): 25.2ppg (38-29-92 percent shooting splits), 6.5rpg, 10.5apg, 2.0spg.
- Conference Finals (Warriors): 26.7ppg (40-32-82 percent shooting splits), 7.0rpg, 11.3apg, 3.7spg.
- Advanced: PER 26.9, TS% .515, 52.4% Assist Percentage, 34.3% Usage Rate, 11.7+ BPM.
Unfortunately though, Westbrook, along with the rest of the Thunder, slipped at the wrong time. His defense regressed into the regular season version, and crucial turnovers cost the team late in game six and throughout the last three games of the series.
Westbrook's shooting was also not up to standard through the last two rounds. 38% and 40% from the field against the Spurs and Warriors indicates that his shot selection needs to improve, particularly from downtown. 30% on almost six attempts per game is too many, and it's time to consider the Dwyane Wade approach to shooting from long range.
Wade, a 28% career three point shooter, almost completely eradicated the three pointer from his game over the years. Yes there are still situational opportunities, but his attempts have gone down and his game has thrived. Westbrook still has the explosion to blow by defenders; settling for jump shots is a bail out for defenders.
That being said, his improvement as a leader and playmaker was on full display, which was perfectly described here per ESPN. In the postseason there was no player more effective or efficient as setting up his teammates.
That doesn't take away though from what was a sensational postseason display from Westbrook. He dragged the Thunder to a game five road victory in San Antonio, and despite the 8 turnovers it was his best display of the entire postseason. His triple double in the game four blowout of the Warriors was mightily impressive too.
It wasn't all doom and gloom despite their elimination, but there are lessons to be learned from their heartbreak.
Here is where it gets interesting. Kevin Durant's free agency this summer affects everything for Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and the Thunder going forward. If KD re-signs (likely for a year with a player option for 2017-18), then the three players head into free agency next summer.
Outside of that though, they have at least once more chance to chase a title together in their primes in Oklahoma City. Westbrook is the best he has ever been, and his decision making and leadership is improving every season. He is the only player in the league who is in control while playing out of control at the same time.
This past season had high stakes, but next season truly is championship or bust for Oklahoma City. They showed what they could do this post season, and now the test is whether it carries over to next season or not. Can Billy Donovan and his superstars carry over what they learned in beating the Spurs and being so close to beating the Warriors?
Westbrook has developed terrific chemistry with all of the Thunder's key players, this is vital. His connection with Enes Kanter and Steven Adams in the pick and roll. Finding Serge Ibaka wide open jump shots. Finding Kevin Durant anywhere. Backdoor passes to Andre Roberson. The Thunder offense is unstoppable.
Defensively is the challenge, can they (and Westbrook) find a way to continue that defensive intensity and suffocating qualities that swarmed their biggest Western rivals.
The Thunder were so close. Can Westbrook get even better and push them over the line at last?