Russell Westbrook took a lot of shots this season.
By a lot, I mean 1,941. And by 1,941, I mean leading the league in attempted field goals. And by leading the league in attempts, I mean 400 more than the second most frequent gunner, James Harden.
So obviously there have been a lot of questions asked as to whether or not Westbrook is shooting too much. Blasphemers even go so far as to say that Russ “isn’t making his teammates better” because he shoots so frequently, a claim so ludicrous and so easily-rebutted that I’m not even going to give it the time of day. Enes Kanter said it far better than I could.
But thinking back on all of the times I said to myself “Oh no Russ is going to shoot this no matter what” and all of the other separate times I said “Oh no Russ needs to shoot this no matter what” got me wondering — how many shots should Westbrook really be taking per game?
So I opened up Basketball Reference and an Excel spreadsheet and charted them all, not really sure what I’d find. Just from the eye test gained by watching a great deal of Thunder games, and honestly common sense, I assumed the games where he was heaving up an extremely high number of shots would lead to losses. Games in which he was held to very few shot attempts due to technical fouls, foul trouble, or general orneriness probably weren’t great for the team either. I hoped to find a happy medium.
The results actually came in quite clear. Not only was there a happy medium, but there was actually a beautiful sweet spot. As expected, when Westbrook hoisted more than 30 shots in a game, the team went a forgettable 5-7. Between 23 and 30 attempts yielded a pedestrian 16-16 record. And fewer than 20 attempts meant the offense had been disrupted, as the team went 9-10 in those contests.
But if Russ shot 20-22 times? Beautiful. 15 wins, three losses. Sweet spot.
This is Westbrook at his best — still a dominant superstar, still hyper-aggressive, yet not totally throwing a wrench in coach Billy Donovan’s offensive machine with endless isolations. The efficiency was off the charts during these games, with Westbrook averaging nearly 47% from the field, over 41% from three, while also stuffing the stat sheet with 12.5 rebounds and 11.7 assists. All of those numbers are significant increases over his season averages.
It’s not just his individual performance that benefits either, as the psychological effect of 65 field goal attempts spread around the team boosted the Thunder to 108.9 points per game. Victor Oladipo, probably the primary recipient of these extra shots, recorded six 20-point games with Russ in his sweet spot, including his season-high of 29 points (against none other than the Houston Rockets).
These weren’t garbage wins either, as this set of games included a win over the Spurs, two over the Grizzlies, and most appropriately the team’s sole win during the season over these same Rockets. Their team point differential of +7.7 during these games would have ranked second best in the league (small sample size, but still).
Numbers, numbers numbers. Sometimes they can be a bit too much. But essentially in every way the Thunder was a better team when Russell Westbrook shot 20-22 times.
Obviously he can’t, nor should he, control exactly how many shots he will take in any contest. He’s going to play with his usual reckless abandon. He’s going to lead this team, taking as many shots as he feels is necessary to give the team the best opportunity to win.
This discovery really just speaks to a mindset, a feeling that all Thunder fans have had throughout the season. Westbrook should be doing the most for the team, but not necessarily everything.
This first round series is not about Westbrook vs. Harden. The MVP race is over and the ballots have been sent off. They will both be sensational, but their supporting casts will decide who wins.
Deep playoff runs are built on performances such as Thabo Sefolosha’s 19 points and 6 steals in 2012 against the Spurs, or Serge Ibaka’s perfect 11 for 11, 26 point performance in the very next game, or even Reggie Jackson’s 32-point night against the Grizzlies in 2014.
While it’s impossible to know how Westbrook will change (or not change) his playing style during this playoff series, I know what he should do. What I want him to do in tonight’s game.
That’s shoot the ball 20, 21, or 22 times. I’ll take my chances from there.