Can Russell Westbrook become more of an off-ball threat for Paul George?
In many ways, Paul George is the perfect running mate for Russell Westbrook. Whereas there were always questions about who was the No. 1 option when Westbrook and Kevin Durant were teammates — the result of two league MVPs having to share the ball on a team built around their strengths — George is better suited to take on a complementary role because of his ability space the floor at a high rate and willingness to make plays as a secondary ball-handler when needed.
The former means George will give Westbrook more space to work with on offense than Victor Oladipo could. The latter means Westbrook will still be the primary creator for the Thunder, only now he has someone who can keep the offense afloat when the ball isn’t in his hands. The combination should make the Thunder far more competitive than they were last season without as much focus on whose team it is.
For the Thunder to reach their full potential, though, Westbrook will have to make some sacrifices following a season in which he had free rein offensively. Although over half of George’s baskets last season were assisted, he’s one of the league’s best at scoring in the pick-and-roll (92.3 percentile) and isolation (72.5 percentile). He isn’t necessarily good enough in those situations to carry a team offensively all by himself like Westbrook and Durant are, but he is good enough to warrant the sort of touches that will force Westbrook to become more of an off-ball presence.
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Based on the Thunder’s makeup last season, it should come as no surprise that Westbrook’s frequency off-ball dipped. While he’s never been a volume scorer off-ball, there were a number of differences in his first season without Durant. To name one in particular: Westbrook went from scoring 12.5 percent of his points in isolation in 2015-16 to 19.0 percent in 2016-17. It was the difference between him ranking No. 15 in isolation scoring per game in 2015-16 and ranking No. 2 in 2016-17. As a result, his frequency on spot-ups, post-ups and cuts took a hit.
With George now on the team, Westbrook won’t have to be as dependent on isolations and could see those spot-up, post-up and cut numbers increase once again. The question then becomes whether or not Westbrook changes his game enough for the Thunder to be one of the Western Conference’s elite teams.
The most notable of those play types is spot-ups considering how important shooting is in today’s NBA. The good news is Westbrook is coming off of a season in which he made 53 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. It’s the most he’s ever made in a single season. For context, he made a total of 72 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in the three seasons before Durant joined the Warriors. Those shots made up as much as 7.7 percent of his offense during that time and as little as 4.8 percent of his offense.
Catch-and-shoot 3-pointers only made up 7.7 percent of Westbrook’s offense last season, but his attempts almost doubled when compared to 2015-16. He converted 35.6 percent of those opportunities, which was slightly above league average.
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.
(It’s worth noting that James Harden scored a similarly low percentage of his points off of spot-ups last season, but it marked a career-low for him as opposed to it being around a career-average for Westbrook. Harden therefore has a much larger sample size to draw from as a spot-up shooter when evaluating his fit next to Chris Paul than Westbrook does when looking at his fit next to George).
Westbrook can, of course, make a difference in other areas when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands. For example, his speed and athleticism makes him a terrifying cutter. Plays like this could become a staple next season, with George coming off a down screen from Steven Adams and one of them finding Westbrook cutting backdoor for a layup when his defender falls asleep:
It’s almost the best of both worlds when Westbrook isn’t pushing the pace in transition or creating in the pick-and-roll. George can establish himself as a threat both as a shooter coming off of a screen and a scorer coming off of a pick-and-roll. It also engages Adams, one of the best rollers in the NBA, while giving Westbrook an opportunity to score without five defenders watching his every move. The Thunder didn’t have someone who could take that sort of pressure off of Westbrook last year, so they’d be wise to maximize the potential of another volume scorer.
Creating mismatches will be an important part of the Thunder’s offense next season as well. Being the dominant pick-and-roll scorers they are, Westbrook and George can be used as the screener and ball handler depending on the matchups. If they get the switch they’re looking for, they can then exploit the mismatch in isolation by attacking 1-on-1 in ways similar to LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.
It’s what Durant and Westbrook do on the following possession, although Westbrook probably should’ve given the ball to Durant to attack Stephen Curry instead of taking one of the league’s premiere wing defenders off the dribble for a contested mid-range pull-up. It’s plays like this that can help him become a more efficient scorer if he fully embraces George as a secondary scorer next season.
If he does turn to George in those situations, his catch-and-shoot jumper will once again become a factor. He proved he can knock them down at a decent rate last season on an increasing sample size. Now it’s a matter of making it a bigger part of his game while maintaining the same levels of efficiency.
To be clear, it’s not as though he has to completely transform his game to make room for George. The reason the Thunder were smart to trade for George is because he should be able to fit in well with Westbrook as a versatile shooter who is better suited than Durant to be the secondary playmaker Westbrook needs to maximize his potential. It’s why Westbrook could be an MVP candidate again, especially if he substitutes some of his counting stats for greater efficiency.
Even so, the difference between him thriving in that role and being average — even if it’s only for a few possessions per game — is what could elevate the Thunder to the next level. One would signify him and George establishing the rythme they need to play off of each other effectively. The other could still lead to positive results, but it might hold them back from competing with the Rockets, Warriors and Spurs in the Western Conference and the Cavaliers and Celtics in the Eastern Conference.
Based on how much the Thunder have riding on next season, Westbrook and George don’t have much time to figure it out either.