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Russell Westbrook’s Thunder evolution requires something both same and different

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Westbrook’s game features something reminiscent yet new in approach.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Brooklyn Nets Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Presti worked his magic this summer.

It should have come as no surprise. He does this every summer. Victor Oladipo. Paul George. Carmelo Anthony (an exciting acquisition at the time). The OKC Thunder GM has found ways to bring talented players to a small, rural market, all while playing alongside one of the most ball-dominant players of his generation.

How Presti works his dark magic, we remain clueless.

This summer, Presti finagled his way to swapping Carmelo Anthony for Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Atlanta Hawks starting point guard Dennis Schroder. The Thunder, unshackled by both a contract and a player who didn’t fit, emerged with the most complete team they’ve had since 2012, the year they made the NBA Finals.

On paper, it was all there. But the annual unanswered question reared its ugly head: Can Russell Westbrook play with other stars and win?

The answer this time (so far) is a resounding “yes.”

Westbrook this year

Westbrook has altered his playing style in each of the last three years. This year, when Schroder shares the floor with him, he’s changed again.

Here are Russ’ stats over the last 3 years:

Russ is on a slow descent from his historic 16’/17’ season. He’s shooting the ball less and — surprisingly — playing more defense. He’s deferring to Paul George and Dennis Schroder more to initiate the offense.

Here’s the wrinkle — he’s giving the ball up more, yet this is the best he’s been in years.

At the time of writing, Russell Westbrook has his second-best offensive rating ever (112.9), his 3rd best defensive rating ever (102.1), and his 3rd best net rating ever (10.8), and the highest FG percentage of his career (47.2%), all of this while shooting the ball less than he has in the last three years.

But his production is largely the same Westbrookian production.

He’s picking his spots, making the right play, and loosening his grip on the reins. The result is a systematic OKC offense and dominant defense (with plenty of help from George, Adams and the gang). It is the best team OKC has had in years, with the best plus-minus numbers for almost every OKC player, including Westbrook.

In 2016/2017, Russ averaged 5.8 seconds per touch. He held the ball because he was the one who had to make the play anyway. In 2017/2018, he averaged 5.7. This year, he’s averaging 5.1, his most dramatic change between seasons since tracking data has been available.

5.8 to 5.1 seconds may not seem like much, but it’s almost an entire second. It makes an enormous difference.

Fewer are the possessions when Westbrook holds the ball, leaving a lead-footed offense to fend for itself. Instead, we have more moments when Russ sits within the design of the offense, content to work as the leader of the unit rather than act as the entire unit himself.

Deferring

Notice at the start of this clip, there’s a wide open runway for Russ to attack to the rim. Slowly but surely, Russ is putting the ball where it needs to be. This play shows Russ actively choosing the right play over his play.

The same can be said for the play above. All during the most recent Golden State game, Russ fed his team. This must be indicative of some sort of small evolution in Russ’ game. He begins the process of entering into one of his signature shots, sees the defense shade his direction and leverages that to Schroder’s benefit.

Let me be very clear: Russ still takes these shots. He isn’t a totally different player. But he is an evolving player. He’s taking two fewer shots a game than last year, and five fewer shots a game than two years ago. He’s accommodating his teammates.

Russ, again, is using his own offensive gravity to the benefit of his team. Those who dislike Westbrook no matter what he does will point to plays like this and call it stat-padding.

Is it stat-padding to hit the open man? Russ has the speed to blow right by Sexton and the other help defenders–we’ve watched him do it for a decade now. Instead of forcing the shot, we see him give the ball to a wide open teammate, a teammate he instinctively knew would be there because he’s now looking for them.

One more below.

Russ, per usual, brings the ball down the court. Willingly, he gives the ball up. There is action between PG and Adams off-ball. Russ can see that PG won’t likely shoot the ball off the screen and gives him the ball anyway, letting PG make the play he sees fit.

It All Adds Up

Russ is playing differently.

For perhaps the first time, we are watching Russell Westbrook play within a system, and not simply be the system. He is using his gravity to create for teammates, and he’s even taking entire possessions off-ball.

Westbrook is averaging 84 touches a game, down from 95 touches a game last year, and 94 the year before that.

He’s taking the fewest shots per game since he shared the court with KD. He’s letting go.

Sometimes, the old Westbrook comes back. Against Denver, Russ went 1-12 on threes. These were the shots we’d quietly and painfully stomach when Russ didn’t have much help. But now, we know he knows better.

In their recent game against the Nets, both sides of the Westbrook coin had their moments. In the first half, Russ was his old self: careening down the lane throwing last second, less than ideal passes or attempting layups between 3 defenders. As the Thunder’s early lead diminished, Russ’ aggression increased on both ends of the court. He was trying to do everything, and in part because of it, the Thunder found themselves down by 23 during the 3rd quarter.

Then things shifted. Russ began facilitating and paying attention to his teammates. The Nets’ lead began to shrink, and when Russ realized that Paul George had the hot hand, he kept giving him the ball in George’s heat zones. Russ assisted George 4 times in the 4th quarter, including on the game winner.

Per Brett Dawson of the Athletic, Westbrook took eight second half shots, whereas George took 18. In the fourth quarter, Russ took just two shots, and George took 12.

When Russ realizes internally he doesn’t have to do it all and lets go, it gives the space to let a Paul George or even Dennis Schröder run wild.

Though he remains imperfect, for the longest time, Russ was not a two-sided coin. He was a one sided coin: full-throttle, every second. Now we see him stepping back, letting his teammates do what they do best.

Here’s a player who is taking fewer shots, has the ball for less time, has the ball for fewer minutes, and is posting some of the best efficiency numbers of his career. All by enabling his teammates and letting go.

The dynamo that is Russell Westbrook is still blasting his way through defenses, but now he’s sharing his firepower with teammates, and it has made his own flame that much brighter.

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Reid Belew is a writer based in Chattanooga, TN. He’s got a lovely wife, a goofy dog, and an obsession for ranking things. Follow him on Twitter at @ReidBelew.