Before I begin I want to preface this with the fact I believe Russell Westbrook is at worst the 8th best player in the world. Where you have him in that top eight is not important. I will also say I truly have a deep fandom and passion for Russell the player and person. He is our ride or die in Oklahoma, and I would want no one else leading the way. He is the King of the Prairie for a reason, but he has to change in order for this team to rise in the West. I’m not talking wholesale changes. That would be ludicrous. But Russ does have to adjust his game this year in order for this team to reach their ceiling. Criticizing Russ has become almost like treason in Oklahoma. It isn’t right or wrong; it’s just the reality of the fandom. Saying Westbrook needs to evolve isn’t a harsh criticism though because nearly every Hall of Fame caliber star wanting to get over the hump and win a championship has to evolve. While it is wrong to say Russ hasn’t changed over the years, it is equally incorrect to suggest he doesn’t need to change anymore. While we could nitpick every minute detail of Russ’s game, I’m just going to lay out a couple of ways he can improve and evolve next year.
Play a little more off the ball
Great players need to have the ball in their hands, but great players also know how to impact the game away from it as well. Russ hasn’t really shown an aptitude as a screener or cutter, but there have been flashes where him simply moving away from the ball is devastating for the defense. Just floating around and staying active can lull your defender to sleep at times or cause confusion, and when that happens Russ can make them pay.
Russ can also screen from time to time. Rarely will you see him do it, and he shouldn’t do it often. But something as simple as a dribble hand off or a quick screen for George or others can give them that space needed to take advantage.
Here Russ does a mixture of a dribble handoff and ball screen because he was so close to George when he passed it. But look at the space George has coming off of it. Durant had switched to Russ, and Klay was sitting at the free throw line when George came around. George goes full steam ahead right at Klay and gets the bucket. When two players like Russ and PG work together like that it puts an incredible strain on the defense.
Russ can afford to play off the ball a little more this year than in the past because of the acquisition of Dennis Schröder. In his young career Schröder has proven to be a competent scorer and facilitator. He is adept at running an offense and at times shows off the same flashiness we love about Russ. Schröder will be an integral cog in the OKC offense this season allowing Russ to rest and at times play alongside him away from the ball. Russ could benefit from less ball handling responsibilities, and we could see more plays like this from Schröder.
Critical Decision Making
There is nothing more thrilling than a Westbrook go ahead pull-up three. We have all gone berserk when he knocks them down. However, I have found myself praying too many times for a flailing three to somehow drop in crunch time. It’s not only in crunch time. There are a few spots throughout the game where Westbrook takes horrible shots. Sometimes they go in, but it doesn’t change the fact a pull up three off a ball screen for one of the leagues worst three point shooters isn’t a good shot. Neither is a possession where Russ dribbles out the majority of the shot clock and is forced to heave one. These videos below come in the clutch and demonstrate how his decision making in critical moments needs to improve.
While there isn’t much time left in this game there is plenty of time for OKC to try and get a better look, whether it’s a quick two or a game tying three. As you can see Melo was wide open on the opposite wing, but instead Russ took a wild pull up three.
In this instance OKC is down 4 with 1:40 left. Plenty of time to still win this thing. Russ forces a tough pull up three trying to draw a foul, but instead only draws backboard.
This is from a few years ago, so as you can see it isn’t a new phenomenon.
Russ is a fantastic player and simply incredible to watch. I love every second of Russell Westbrook, the good and the bad. Yes, he has the ultra will to win, and the fire of competition burns so brightly inside him that we look past these things. But it’s okay to point out there are a few things he needs to improve for this team to rise in what is about to be an all out war for supremacy in the Western Conference.