Russell Westbrook is overrated

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There, I said it.

He’s an often spectacular player and can be really fun to watch. He was simply unstoppable in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA finals, scoring 43 points on an array of amazing moves in front of a large national television audience (though the Thunder lost). But as he gets ready to return to action after having missed about half the season so far and analysts heap praise on him, it’s worth pointing out a couple of things:

1) in his first 25 games this season, Westbrook was a league average player by Wins Produced. Why? For starters, he’s just not a very good shooter. In fact, he’s pretty much the definition of average – an overall 43% shooter for his career from the field, which is pretty much exactly how efficiently the average point guard shoots the basketball. Westbrook is below average from distance, more or less average from two point range and, because he gets to the line more than the typical point guard and shoots a good percentage from there, is better than the typical point guard from the charity stripe. Put it all together and Westbrook has, for his career, a true shooting percentage slightly below the norm for point guards. Westbrook improved his game as a shooter enough in 2012-13 – he was pretty much exactly average in terms of true shooting percentage – that he had a very good year overall, though not nearly the superstar performance that his reputation suggests.

2) In fact, the greatest strength in Westbrook’s game is one that almost never gets talked about – he’s an outstanding rebounder for his position. He’s also very good in racking up steals. He dishes out more assists per minute than the typical point guard, but also turns the ball over more. In 2013-14, his assist to turnover ratio prior to his injury was less than 2 to 1. That is not good – well below the rate of an average NBA point guard (Chris Paul has a ratio of 4.5 to 1 this year and 4 to 1 for his career. He’s also a way more efficient shooter than Westbrook). In fairness to Westbrook, though this has never been a strength of his game, he’s been worse than usual so far this season in that category and is likely to improve as he resumes playing.

It’s a constant mantra among analysts that Westbrook is a “shoot first” point guard and, therefore, atypical for his position. That’s fine. But one would presume that a shoot first point guard with Westbrook’s reputation would be, you know, a good shooter. Westbrook really isn’t.

It’s typical for those who tout players like Westbrook, or Melo, or Kobe, to argue that the high volume of shots they take benefits their team because that player draws attention from his teammates and opens up the floor for them. There’s really no evidence for this – it’s just kind of an assumption. But it’s an especially silly one in the case of Westbrook. After all, in answer to the question – who would take those extra shots if Westbrook didn’t? – the answer is, um, pretty obvious. In fact, leaving aside KD, who has absolutely flourished in Westbrook’s absence, Oklahoma City’s got plenty of guys who can put the ball in the basket consistently – they’re third in the NBA in team field goal percentage.

Westbrook’s 25, he had his best season last year and he can certainly still grow as a player. But great he is not.

Quick aside: just saw Jeremy Schaap file a report on the USA women’s hockey team’s heartbreaking loss today in the gold medal game against Canada. Schaap began by quoting Karl Marx: “history repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce.” Quoting Marx – not part of your average sports report….

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