Russell Westbrook was really good

October 25, 2022

Russell Westbrook will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame someday, barring a turn toward Curt Schilling’s political stylings, or whatever. That said, it’s worth noting that Westbrook really was a great NBA player for a pretty long time, because in this particular moment, he’s among the very worst players in the league, yet plays like he expects to still be among the best, and it’s unfortunate that, for some, this sad stage might unfairly shade the rest of his career.

From the eye test, Westbrook was different, and it was easy to tell early on. His physical explosiveness was virtually unmatched, but what truly set him apart was a single-mindedness, also cast as fearlessness, about trying to score. Whether there were large men in the paint seeking to alter his shot, or long-armed defenders trying to harass him on the perimeter, Westbrook was unfazed by any of them, and seemingly played with utter conviction that for his team to win, he needed to be entrusted with the ball. Often, that meant Westbrook would dribble out some clock, figure out how to get a slight edge on his defender, and then take it to the rack for a dunk.

Never mind that Kevin Durant was his teammate in Oklahoma City. Never mind that James Harden was also on that squad at the beginning. Westbrook routinely put up usage rates above 30%, leading his team in usage for the last six years that he and Durant played together. And, contrary to some of the sentiment I’ve seen, it wasn’t as if he was volume-compiling points on bad shooting rates — Westbrook was playing like a high-volume star all the way through.

There are, of course, the traditional raw stats, in which he averaged more than 21 points per game for 11 straight seasons, and twice led the league in points per game. He led the league in assists per game three times, averaging at least 8 per game in eight different seasons. And then there’s the rebounding. Even before he apparently made it his mission to grab every uncontested board and start the ball back up the floor himself, Westbrook was a very good rebounding guard. Once Steven Adams ceded the bunny boards to him, he started averaging more than 10 rebounds per game.

Digging a little deeper into the statistical record, you might expect (given the vitriol he sometimes inspires) more advanced stats would ding Westbrook for being a poor three-point shooter and that a more nuanced look would reveal him to be, if not a fraud, at least fraud-adjacent. But it’s not like he was providing basketball junk food like Jordan Clarkson, and those numbers also don’t provide the kind of jarring dissonance one might get contrasting, say, Klay Thompson’s underwhelming advanced stats with his reputation.

Starting with Westbrook’s third year, 2010-11, when he took a big step forward, available advanced statistics largely paint a picture of him as All-Star-to-MVP-candidate level for about a decade. Every year he played enough games to qualify, Westbrook was regularly in the top 10 for Player Efficiency Rating, supporting his reputation as an excellent offensive basketball player.

But what about other measures? And what of his spotty defensive reputation? I like to look at box score plus-minus as a measure of how a player works on his team, and, again, those numbers suggest Westbrook was hugely valuable, and whatever defensive shortcomings he had were dwarfed by his offensive contributions. Year after year, he was among the very best players in the NBA as measured by total box score plus-minus.

For example, in 2015-16, the last season he played in Oklahoma City with Durant, Stephen Curry was far and away the most dominant player in the league, leading in PER with 31.5 and in box score plus-minus with 11.9. Durant was second in PER with 28.2 and Westbrook was third with 27.6. In box score plus-minus, Durant was second with 9.9, while Westbrook was sixth with 7.8. To my mind, the granularity of it doesn’t matter so much as the broad picture: By just about every solid holistic measure we have, Westbrook was among the very best players in the NBA while playing alongside an upper-tier NBA god.

So, what happened when Durant left? Westbrook remained great. The next year, Westbrook averaged a triple-double for the season and led the league in points per game. In advanced stats, he still shone, leading the league in PER and box score plus-minus. Moreover, the Thunder won only eight fewer games and finished sixth in the Western Conference after losing Durant and basically replacing him with Victor Oladipo (not to mention replacing prime Serge Ibaka with rookie Domantas Sabonis).

He started declining in 2017-18, continuing his decline into 2018-19, but still came in 30th among qualifiers in PER and 15th in box score plus-minus, which I would characterize as a lower-end All-Star. The bottom fell out when he went to the Houston Rockets, as he was both diminished as a player and an incredibly poor fit in the system created to maximize Harden’s gifts — he scored 27 points per game, but those truly were empty points that came with far too many misses, and moreover was ugly basketball all the way around. He had a decent bounceback season with the Washington Wizards when he once again became the offense’s focal point, but he was nowhere near the heights he’d once reached. By the time he went to the Lakers, and both he and the team seemed to expect him to be the old Westbrook from the Oklahoma City days, disaster was inevitable.

Westbrook is a terrible NBA player right now, hurting the Lakers much more than he’s helping. But he is also an emaciated husk of his former self, a player who for nine seasons was a legitimate All-Star caliber NBA guard and a positive player for a couple more. Compare to someone like Steve Nash, a point guard whose defense was, charitably, sieve-like, who didn’t find his footing in the NBA until he was 26, and even though he played until he was almost 40, all that still meant that he played at a clear All-Star level for, at most, eight seasons, with several more borderline years where he might have gotten in to the game, itself, based on momentum and reputation. Even in his back-to-back MVP seasons, Nash’s importance as the focal point of a revolutionary offense was the driving factor in giving him those awards, and not his measurable impact on the floor, given that in his first MVP season, Nash finished 17th in PER and 11th in box score plus-minus, and in his second, he finished 14th in PER and 16th in box score plus-minus. Even when eyeballing the more basic statistics of points and assists per game, Nash led the league in assists, but wasn’t a prolific scorer, and guys like Jason Kidd, who led the league in assists per game and assist percentage while scoring at a reasonable clip but also playing far better defense, never won the big award.

This is not to say Nash was undeserving — I would have voted for other players if I had a vote, but he was a great player and, like I said, an incredibly important player to the NBA in those seasons, so it’s perfectly understandable that he won those MVPs. The thing is, Nash never reached the same heights Westbrook did, individually, and even from a team winning perspective, reached the Western Conference Finals three times and never reached the NBA Finals in his eight-year stretch with Phoenix, whereas Westbrook did make one Finals and four Western Conference Finals in his eight years as the co-alpha alongside Durant.

It may feel weird to acknowledge it given that Westbrook is playing awful basketball right now, but the dude shone bright and hard in his generation and absolutely deserves to be mentioned among the greatest players in history. Sure, it’s disrespectful of his career if you if you dismiss his greatness because he ended it embarrassing himself on a flailing Lakers squad, but it’s much more a disservice to yourself. Why deny yourself the pleasure of remembering how awesome any player once was?

(Photo: "Russell Westbrook" by Erik Drost. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)