Do OKC Thunder Have a ‘Russell Westbrook Problem?’

The most memorable moment from the Portland Trail Blazers’ series-sealing win came at the buzzer. Damian Lillard concluded his eff-you performance with a step-back triple over the outstretched arms of Paul George. The shot was equal parts impressive, absurd and hilarious.

Nobody will forget Lillard waving “goodbye” to the Thunder after the near-40 foot bomb.

But the most telling stretch of the game came towards the end of the second quarter. The Oklahoma City Thunder had dominated for most of the half, but the Blazers were making a run. Then this sequence happened:

It was yet another case of Russell Westbrook doing entirely too much.

He missed a pull-up jumper before Lillard converted the tough layup at the beginning of the clip. Instead of slowing things down, Westbrook sped up in an effort to answer. He missed, fell wildly and left his team disadvantaged in transition.

It was Bad Russ wrapped up into one nine-point swing.

This isn’t to say that Westbrook was awful in Game 5. He notched a triple-double (29-12-14) while also adding four steals and two blocks. Even after that poor stretch, he gave the Thunder the lead with a jumper shortly after the Curry three.

Ultimately, however, Westbrook was a minus in Game 5, as he was during the series overall. He isn’t the only reason the Thunder suffered yet another first round exit, but it’s time to discuss his impact, his warts and what that means for the Thunder moving forward.

Accepting westbrook’s limitations

Apr 14, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) scores over Portland Trail Blazers in the first half in game one of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Westbrook is still insanely good at basketball.

You don’t average a triple-double for an entire season without being very good. You sure as heck don’t average a triple-double for three years in a row without being good. That fact has been meme’d on NBA Twitter, but it’s important not to lose sight of Westbrook’s wide-ranging production.

He remains a heat-seeking missile with the ball in his hands. It doesn’t take much for him to bulldoze his way to the rim. The ferocity and the quickness in which he gets to the rim forces defenses to react. Those reactions open passing windows, windows that Westbrook has been hitting with regularity over the last four years.

It’s that controlled madness that allows the Thunder to survive on offense, even with a limited arsenal of weapons beyond Westbrook and Paul George. But there’s only so much the latter can do, especially as his explosiveness starts to wane ever so slightly.

As the competition gets stiffer, game-plans become more detailed. Teams don’t just duck under screens against Westbrook; they give him an extra foot or two of cushion. Help defenders don’t just shade off of non-shooters; they begin to ignore them completely.

The floor becomes more cramped. The pick-and-roll tightrope becomes more difficult to walk. The pull-up jumper becomes more important, a necessary lifeline needed to loosen up the defense.

This is where Westbrook fails.

It’s hard to emphasize just how poor of a shooter he is. Not only does he shoot poorly from deep (31.5 percent over the last three seasons), he shoots often (5.6 attempts over that time frame). Even worse, the largest share of those threes come off the bounce.

Via Second Spectrum tracking data, Westbrook shot 26.4 percent on 212 pull-up three attempts this season. Among the 69 players that attempted at least 100 pull-up threes, only Kent Bazemore (25.9 percent) and Malik Monk (24.3 percent) were less efficient.

Westbrook taking and bricking those hurts. But him missing pull-up middies at the elbow, a staple of his offensive repertoire, pretty much killed him this postseason. If he can’t nail those at a steady pace, his offensive value drops quite a bit.

Building around westbrook

Apr 21, 2019; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) reacts after scoring a three point basket against the Portland Trail Blazers during the first half in game four of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

If the Thunder are going to rock with Westbrook as the head of the snake, they have to alter their team-building approach.

GM Sam Presti has long been regarded as one of the best in the business. He obviously has a type—just look at the plethora of athletic, rangy wings that he’s drafted or signed during his reign—but there has to be a shift.

The Thunder have ranked 30th, 24th and 22nd in three-point percentage during Westbrook’s three-year triple-double run. Despite this, they’ve ranked 15th, 7th, and 16th in offensive rating during that same span. It’s impressive that Westbrook has turned water into wine with the lack of spacing, but it’s also no surprise that the Thunder have sputtered during the postseason.

This has to change.

Heading into the offseason, the Thunder will have two plus-shooters aside from George on the books for next season: Jerami Grant (39.2 percent on 3.7 attempts) and Terrance Ferguson (36.6 on 3.9 attempts). Grant developing into a killer corner shooter was one of the most underrated storylines of the season. It helps, but teams don’t poop themselves trying to run him off the line.

If the Thunder plan on maximizing Westbrook, they have to add shooters. They won’t have the cap space to go after a guy like Bojan Bogdanovic or JJ Redick (unless he’s willing to take quite a pay cut). But a tier or two below their status? (Hello, Wayne Ellington!) That seems reasonable.

Adding a big man that can space the floor—Mike Scott, anyone?—would also be helpful since the Patrick Patterson signing just hasn’t worked out over the last couple years.

don’t be afraid of the nuclear option

Apr 23, 2019; Portland, OR, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives on Portland Trail Blazers forward Zach Collins (33) in the first half of game five of the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

There is a 99.9 percent chance that Westbrook will remain a member of the Thunder throughout the duration of his contract.

In addition to being one of the league’s best players, he embodies the “us against the world” motto that the Thunder (and their fans) seem to live by. He’s the Thunder’s longest-tenured player, the lone holdover from the (future) MVP trio the Thunder had with Kevin Durant and James Harden. He’s almost surely not going anywhere.

But, man, that contract could be rough.

Westbrook is slotted to make $38.1 million next season, and will be making a little over $46 million in 2022 if he accepts his player option. Considering he’ll be 34 years old at that time, it’s hard to imagine him turning down that much money.

The Thunder don’t have much maneuverability this summer, either. George is making a ton; Steven Adams is making north of $25 million. Dennis Shroeder and Andre Roberson will be making roughly $26 million combined. They’re all decent deals individually, but it’s a collective mess when comparing that to the team’s current ceiling.

Hitting on shooters and improving around the margins is obviously the first priority. Beyond that, doesn’t it make sense to at least explore what Westbrook’s market may be?

This isn’t the John Wall situation, a guy who’s making super-max money without a super-max resume (but with a lengthy rehab on deck). At worst, Westbrook is a top-12 player that has proven he can lift the floor of a team with his rim attacks. He may not be good enough to be the undisputed  No. 1 option on a title contender anymore, but he could help a middling playoff team make the next step.

The Miami Heat, for example, have wings (Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow), a stopgap point guard (Goran Dragic), and versatile forwards (Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson) that could interest the Thunder in a potential package.

Westbrook has an obvious West Coast connection from his college days. If the Lakers strike out this summer, could they package their young guys for him? Westbrook would certainly qualify as the second star LeBron James wants.

Whatever path the Thunder decide to take—building differently around Westbrook or selling high—can be justified. They just have to make sure they don’t stand pat. The current iteration of this team isn’t good enough to contend. Some of that falls on Westbrook’s poor shooting and questionable decision-making; a lot of that falls on the failure to build the right roster around him.

This summer must come with a hard look in the mirror and immediate action.

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