The Whiteboard: The problem with Russell Westbrook’s shot selection

Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports /

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The Lakers are working through myriad problems right now but Russell Westbrook is the most obvious by far. In Wednesday night’s loss to the Sacramento Kings, he shot 2-of-14 from the field and missed all five of his 3-point attempts. He’s not the only reason the team has lost as many games as they’ve won but his struggles have a way of sticking out like a sore thumb when the Lakers lose — in the last eight Lakers’ losses he’s shot 39.1 percent from the field and 15.0 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

He’s still producing rebounds and assists and, generally, avoiding turnovers at a decent rate. He’s just shooting really, really poorly.

Because he is (and has been) such a shaky shooter and because he’s always taken so many shots, the conversation has often revolved around his shot selection. Just imagine how much more effective he could be if he’d just knock off the pull-up jumpers and the forced attempts through a double team. It’s worth then pointing out that while he is in the midst of one of the worst shooting seasons of his career (which is saying something), he’s actually improved his shot selection a lot.

Russell Westbrook has actually taken better shots with the Los Angeles Lakers

According to Basketball-Reference, 35.3 percent of Westbrook’s shots this season have come within three feet of the basket, nearly double his percentage from last season. His MoreyBall percentage (the percentage of his scoring opportunities that have come at the rim, at the free-throw line or from beyond the arc) is near a career-high. Pull-up 2-pointers have never made up a smaller share of his shot attempts and he’s attempted more catch-and-shoot 3s this year than pull-ups, a far cry from his time in Oklahoma City where he was routinely averaging more than two pull-up 3s for every catch-and-shoot attempt.

Fans and media members have been screaming for Westbrook to change his shot selection for years and he’s really made some changes this season. The problem is that — through declining athleticism, nagging injuries or simple bad luck — he’s never been less effective even from the high-value scoring areas.

Westbrook is shooting just 58.8 percent within the three feet of the basket this season, his lowest mark in four years and his third-lowest mark since 2010-11. He’s shooting 28.8 percent on 3-pointers, including 25.3 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts and just 32.0 percent on attempts where there is no defender within six feet of him. He’s also, weirdly, shooting just 65.6 percent from the free-throw line, tied for the worst mark of his career.

And there is the real issue. In a generic, idealized sense, Westbrook has really improved his shot selection this season. The problem is that he’s still taking 16.2 shots per game and with the way he’s shooting right now, almost every shot is a bad shot, regardless of location or circumstance.

The Lakers, unfortunately, don’t have a lot of options. Trading Westbrook is a very slim possibility but he’s a negative asset at this point so even if they could find a trade they’d probably be paying someone to take him off their hands rather than improving their team. And given how much work over how many seasons it’s taken to get Westbrook to make even incremental changes in his shot selection it’s hard to imagine the Lakers can convince him to shoot less and abandon the jumper entirely. Cutting his minutes is likely to lead to more conflict.

All that’s really left is toughing things out and hoping for some progression to the mean, which may not be the worse path in the world. Even if Westbrook just progresses to his admittedly below-average career shooting percentages, the changes he’s made to his shot selection could help solve one big problem for the Lakers.

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