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Sounds of Thunder: For Russell Westbrook and Domantas Sabonis, Five is the magic number

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Like baking a cake, too much or too little of one ingredient will spoil the outcome.

Nelson Chenault @ USA TODAY Sports

As most of you know, I have been broadcasting LIVE broadcasts from Welcome to Loud City’s Facebook page. Whenever possible I do a pre-game, a halftime, and a post-game show, and in the latter I review the game stats. Over the course of a season, certain trends begin to separate themselves as fairly reliable indicators of the team’s success, and the Thunder post many of them on their press releases. Here is an example:

Some numbers jump out. When the Thunder shoot above 50% they are 10 and 1, but when their opponent shoots over 50% they are 0 and 8. It’s important for the bench to score, for the team to score more than their opponent in the paint, out-rebound the opposition, and it is important that scoring load be spread around.

Whether he likes it or not, Russell Westbrook is the key behind most of these trends, and it all begins when he gets 10 or more assists. The Thunder’s record stands at 21 and 15 after the loss in Charlotte. The Thunder are 16 and 5 when Westbrook reaches double digits in assists, and simple math leaves us with the sad fact that the Thunder are 5 and 10 when he does not.

When Russell is racking up assists, the chances of 5 or more Thunder players reaching double digits obliviously goes up and when that happens, the Thunder are 15 and 5. Almost the identical record as Russell’s 10+ assist line. The two are joined at the hip and leads to one simple conclusion. Westbrook either passes the ball, or the Thunder lose at a high percentage.

His pocket passing in the paint leads to the 14-3 winning edge the Thunder enjoy when they win the points in the paint stat because he is attacking the defense rather than settling as well as directly implementing the Thunder’s 2nd most important player, Steven Adams. Getting his teammates involved is infectious, and generally leads to better bench production and more quality shots, which then lead to that all important stat of 10 and 1 when the Thunder shoot 50% or better.

In my LIVE halftime and post-game shows, I have pointed to a stat that is becoming a barometer to how committed Westbrook is to involving his teammates. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here it is:

It’s simple. When Westbrook has attempted 9 or more 3-point shots this season, the Thunder are 1 and 5. On the flip side, when Russ takes 3 or less shots from distance, the Thunder are 6 and 2. Westbrook is hitting 31.6% of his three-point attempts, which is slightly above his career average of 30.4%, but the truth is this; there are only two spots he should attempt 3’s: the left corner and the top of the key:

And in the final 3 minutes of a quarter, only one:

(Note to Billy Donovan, if you need a three and you want Russ to take it, refer to this last image and plan accordingly.)

When it comes to 3-point shooting, there is no way nice way to put it. As a two-zone shooter, any shot not taken from the top of the key or left corner pushes the Thunder’s overall shooting percentage down and should only be taken as a last resort, and definitely not when there are 5 or more seconds left on the shot clock.

Any three Westbrook shoots from either wing or the right corner are going to miss 74% of the time at best. The numbers don’t lie, and all I see looking at the top image are 129 missed opportunities to rack up the stat that does win games - assists.

I am not suggesting that Westbrook stop trying to score. That would be ridiculous:

What I propose is understanding statistically reliable evidence of a limitation and adjusting accordingly.

First, when the shot clock is beginning to run out and the team looks to Westbrook to bale them out, he should do his best to take that shot from the top of the key and not the wing. That can’t always happen, but the more times it does the better.

Second, Westbrook should never, ever, come down the floor and fire off a 3 from the wing early in the shot clock. 72% of those plays turn into nothing but an empty possession. However, if an open opportunity should present itself when he is at the top of the key, take it with discretion and all attempt to gain a 2 for 1 possession edge at the end of quarters should be taken; otherwise, run a play. It may not turn into a 2 for 1, but at least it will be one quality set vs 2 rushed train wrecks.

The onus of winning falls squarely on Westbrook’s shoulders and how effective he is at involving his teammates. There is little he can do when their shots aren’t falling, but taking them out of the equation all together is a recipe for disaster.

Sometimes Less is More

I have always mentally set Russ’s magic number for taking 3’s at five. Five or less is good, more is bad. A closer inspection indicates that number isn’t exactly on target as the numbers break down like this:

  • 3 or less, 6 - 2.
  • 4, 3 - 1
  • 5, 3 - 4
  • 6, 3 - 1
  • 7, 3 - 1
  • 8, 2 - 1
  • 9 or more, 1 - 5

I stick by 5 as the measuring stick because at five or less, the Thunder are 12 and 7, but 12 and 12 at 5 or more and it really has nothing to do with whether Westbrook is making the shot or not. It simply seems to be an indication of how committed he is in any given game to get his teammates involved. It goes hand and hand with his total shot attempts. When Westbrook takes 28 or more shots, the Thunder are 3 and 5, but 18 and 10 when he takes 27 or less. Considering the loss to the Hornets, Westbrook attempted 9 shots in the first quarter, and at the end of it, the Thunder trailed 27-22.

There is no getting around it. Russ HAS to pad the assist stat at all costs. Let the triple-double train roll and snide remarks from the cucumber sandwich crowd be damned:

Sure.... achieving a triple-double is tough and expecting one every night is a huge load to put on any one player, but that needs to be Russell’s mindset going into every game.

If I could earn just 5 minutes of Westbrook’s time, I would tell him to ignore those haters, it has absolutely nothing to do with stealing the spotlight. I would remind him that he has repeatedly said countless times he does whatever it takes to help his team win. Well, here is the blueprint. Go for Oscar Robinson’s record and forget the naysayers. Going for that triple-double season right now is NOT showboating, it’s what is best for this team because it will take the team to achieve it.

I know it’s a crappy deal Mr. Vossler, but the Thunder need you, they need more warp speed... can you handle it?

Sometimes More is Better

On the opposite side of the Westbrook coin is Thunder rookie, Domantas Sabonis. He is the second best 3-point shooter on the team at 39.3%, and is hitting 43.3% of all his shots. The problem is...he isn’t taking them.

In the loss to Milwaukee, during 28 minutes of court time, Sabonis only took 1 shot. The starters already carry a low offensive production player in Andre Roberson; they don’t need 2. Sabonis can shoot and needs to shoot more.

I understand he is a rookie that is trying to find his way while deferring to veterans, and I realize how effective he is distributing the ball and maintaining motion in the offense. But this team is so much better when he shoots, and like Westbrook, the magic number is 5.

When Domas takes 5 or more shots the Thunder is 17 and 9. When he takes 4 or less the numbers drop to 4 and 6. To drive the point home, the more shots Sabonis takes, the more the team wins. When he takes 7 or more, the team has recorded a 7 and 2 record and are 3 and 0 in games in which Domas has taken 9 shots. Five is the minimum, the bare minimum.

Much like Roberson was doing earlier in the season, Sabonis is disrupting the flow of the offense when he turns down open shots. Further, when he is on the left side of the court, there isn’t a better option percentage wise than Sabonis.

Some perspective. With Ben Simmons sidelined with a left foot injury, ex-Sooner Buddy Hield is considered by many as the front-runner for Rookie-of-the-Year honors. Compare Sabonis’s shot chart to Hield’s:

This is a no-brainer.... Mr. Vossler needs your help.

Shoot the ball, Domas.