It was one of those games when Russell Westbrook was in attack mode throughout the game. Unfortunately, the Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Portland Trail Blazers 108-100 on Saturday. The Thunder’s spitfire point guard had taken 31 field goal attempts for the game but only made 12 of them.
“You know you’re not going to make every shot,” Westbrook said. “Just keep attacking, stay with it and continue to play together.”
Westbrook is handling the ball too much. Per NBA.com’s Advanced Stats, he is second in the league in touches at 95.3 per game. After the Thunder traded for two All-Stars in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony this past offseason, Westbrook should have been averaging fewer touches for the team. Instead, he is averaging more per game than last year when he didn’t have any high-profile teammates.
This season, Westbrook is averaging 21.2 attempts per game, more than four attempts per game higher than George’s regular output and nearly six more than Anthony. He leads the league in this category, just slightly above the league’s leading scorer, James Harden. For a playmaker who has two other gifted scorers around him, that is unacceptable.
Over his last six games, Westbrook has been taking more shots at 22.8 per game as the Thunder have struggled to find consistency.
To his credit, Westbrook dialed it down the last two games, shooting only as necessary with 14 and 15 shots a game. As a result, the Thunder won against the Phoenix Suns and the San Antonio Spurs decisively.
For the Thunder to play better, they need to get the ball out of Westbrook’s hands and hand over some of the playmaking duties to George. If the Thunder want to go deep in the playoffs and even all the way to the Finals, maybe it’s time for Westbrook to take on some of the two-guard duties.
The thought of Westbrook as a shooting guard is an intriguing possibility since he takes more shots than anyone from his team anyway.
If the Thunder had to do it all over again, would Westbrook’s career have been better if he played shooting guard?
One player who shot just as much as he does and is dynamic as any scoring small man is Allen Iverson. Listed generously at 6 feet, Iverson is considered pound-for-pound greatest scorer the league has ever seen. The Answer owns four scoring titles despite giving up 20 to 40 pounds against other shooting guards night in and night out.
The Philadelphia 76ers initially penciled in Iverson as a point guard, pairing him with Jerry Stackhouse, a 6-foot-6 two-guard who was also a big-time scorer. Because of his size, or lack of it, everyone thought that Iverson should be playing point guard. It wasn’t until Larry Brown took over the coaching reins of the Sixers that the team realized the kind of talent they really had—Iverson was a shooting guard, not a point guard.
So Stackhouse was traded to give Iverson more room to score and surrounded him with players who could complement him and play tough defense. That lineup resulted in one of the Sixers’ most successful seasons in recent memory. In 2001, these Sixers went all the way to the NBA Finals. Though they would eventually fall to the Lakers juggernaut led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, Iverson’s Sixers was the only team to beat them throughout the playoffs.
Westbrook and Iverson are practically mirror images of one another. If Westbrook had decided to give up playing the point, he could have followed in the footsteps of the Sixers dynamic scorer. The organization would have had to acquire another guard who can score without the basketball.
In order to make this work, Kevin Durant, his co-star with the Thunder for several years would have had to play point forward for them in order for Westbrook to move without the ball. Durant has the ballhandling skills necessary to make this work.
Of course, as a shooting guard, the UCLA alum would be required to shoot threes more consistently.
This would pose a huge problem for the Thunder as Westbrook has never been known as a good three-point shooter. Throughout his career, his shooting from deep has been erratic with his highest percentage topping off at 34.3 percent. Even his best is far from acceptable.
What Westbrook can do best is drive to the basket with reckless abandon. His explosive drives to the basket have been in highlight reels on a weekly basis since his career started. Additionally, he has a midrange jumper that he could have developed further into a more consistent weapon in his arsenal.
Even Iverson was never a good three-point shooter and look at how many points he scored despite that deficiency.
Could this set up have worked for Westbrook? Fansided.com’s Scott Rafferty noted the increase in Westbrook’s catch-and-shoot three-pointers last season and how good he was at it.
“Westbrook’s success in that regard helped him become one of the best spot-up shooters in the entire league last season. He ranked in the 87.6 percentile with 1.16 points per spot-up possession, according to NBA.com, putting him on the same page as a number of 3-point shooters such as Jae Crowder, Ryan Anderson, Dirk Nowitzki and Klay Thompson. The bad news? Those plays made up only 4.7 percent of Westbrook’s offense, which was equivalent to traditional big men such as John Henson, Jonas Valanciunas, Mason Plumlee and Jakob Poeltl.”
Unlike Iverson, however, Westbrook is more likely to pass the ball when a scoring opportunity isn’t available to him. He loves to score but he also has a keen sense of awareness of where the rest of his teammates are. Despite his proclivity for hogging the ball, there are very few players who rival his combination of scoring and passing.
George could play the point forward position similar to what LeBron James does for the Cavaliers. This will free up Westbrook to attack the defense without having to worry about facilitating the team’s offense. Though it’s late in the season to be implementing something new to the Thunder offense, coach Billy Donovan can introduce the team to a few sets within games that they can run with George as the playmaker.
By doing this, Westbrook can pick his spots when he’s a point guard and when he’s playing the shooting guard position, he can wreak havoc on the defense and exploit its weaknesses. He won’t need to concern himself about other scoring options since he is the primary scorer at this time.
As a shooting guard, however, Westbrook would have had less assists, keeping him from averaging a triple-double for a season. Last year, Westbrook joined Oscar Robertson as the only players to average a triple-double for a season.
While it’s hard to quantify Westbrook’s career path had he played shooting guard rather than point guard, it’s possible that he would have led the league in scoring a few times. Whether that translates to more wins for the Thunder is unsure but regardless of what position he had played the last few years, Westbrook would still be one of the best players in the game and one of the greatest guards of all-time.