EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Suns-Clippers series preview, Pt. 3: Russell Westbrook is the X-factor

Apr 12, 2023, 10:04 AM | Updated: 11:38 am

Russell Westbrook, Suns, Clippers...

Russell Westbrook #0 of the LA Clippers stands on the court during their game against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on March 03, 2023 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

PHOENIX — There has been no more polarizing player in the last decade of NBA basketball than Russell Westbrook.

The first-ballot Hall of Famer, 2016-17 Most Valuable Player, nine-time All-Star and nine-time All-NBA honoree is one of the best point guards of all time. He is third in total assists, 21st in steals, 32nd in points and 89th in rebounds.

But as is the case with a lot of declines, his was rather sudden through stints in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles. The latter was with the Lakers, and after getting traded to the Utah Jazz at the deadline, the 34-year-old was waived and picked up by the Clippers. And even when he was at his peak, an unstoppable slashing wrecking ball with athleticism unlike we’ve ever seen and a passing touch rivaling anyone, endless debates ensued about how valuable of a player he really was.

There was less of a debate over the last couple of years. Westbrook’s chaotic, volatile style of play became problematic to a team’s flow when it wasn’t his team anymore. When it was less about his teammates adapting to him and more about him adapting to his teammates, struggles ensued. More importantly, his hit-or-miss defense became a more consistent miss. The lack of engagement off the ball or multiple efforts was a sore thumb. The trade-off for his below-average efficiency shooting the ball just wasn’t worth it anymore.

But Westbrook in the past has shown an ability to adjust his playstyle to what his team needs out of it, particularly during his underrated run with the Houston Rockets in 2020.

His new team, the Clippers, will need it more than ever as underdogs versus the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. Considering that plus Paul George’s injury and the gap between Westbrook’s ceiling and floor, he is undeniably the X-factor of the series.

Through 21 games for Los Angeles, Westbrook is playing his best basketball in years. He’s averaging 15.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 3.4 turnovers per game while shooting 48.9% from the field and 35.6% at 3-point range, two huge upticks we’ll cover in a bit.

There was skepticism surrounding his arrival and head coach Ty Lue inserting Westbrook into the starting lineup but the benefits of Westbrook are clear. Los Angeles hasn’t had a downhill playmaker running the show while capable of making any pass to punish the defense since, well, Chris Paul.

It has been a huge boost, avoiding the slog of more isolation-based offense that we saw in droves during the 2021 Western Conference Finals.

The Clippers on the season finished 26th in assist-to-turnover ratio, and while Westbrook is a turnover-prone player, his 2.25 mark with L.A. is a solid return rate compared to its 1.68 as a team. Los Angeles over those final 21 games tied for seventh in offensive rating (117.4) after previously sitting 21st (112.8).

Westbrook is an exceptional playmaker. There is a difference between a good passer and a good playmaker. A playmaker can set up their own passing opportunities thanks to the pressure it puts on the defense and create openings by themselves. The years of experience being “The Guy” have Westbrook a step ahead once his dribble starts. He knows where he’s going, which defender is going to come from where and the angle that will present him a passing chance. When it’s there, he will see it and find the particular pass that best suits the delivery.

It bothers me that part of Westbrook’s reputation with all his triple-doubles is how he chased those. That diminishes how awesome he was at the main thing point guards are supposed to do.

At this stage of his career, Westbrook still forces extra attention as a driver. Phoenix cannot allow Westbrook to make one-pass plays for open shots off its rotations or he will bury them.

I can hear you asking, “Is the second defender really necessary?” Well, considering the fact that Westbrook still has a speed and strength combination like a Transformer modeled off a hybrid of a rocket and a tank, yes. The on-ball guy especially has to be on his Ps and Qs. A driving lane is curtains.

Everything outside of those pluses — and his attitude with the ball attempting to maximize those opportunities to find teammates — is what will swing his impact.

Westbrook’s efficiency is a career outlier and it’s just a matter if he can sustain it in the playoffs. The safe bet is that he cannot. Then again, when the Dallas Mavericks bounced Phoenix in seven games last year, their five primary off-ball shooters outside of Luka Doncic and Jalen Brunson shot 44.7% from 3-point range. Outliers can happen in April, May and June as well.

Westbrook is shooting 46% on midrange shots with the Clippers, per Cleaning the Glass. The 41-for-90 mark is a type of knockdown rate he hasn’t had since 2016 when he shot 42% from the midrange. Westbrook fluttered around the mid-30s in-between those years.

The anomaly really comes at 3-point range, where Westbrook’s 36% number is the first to go north of 30% since 2017. The even larger discrepancy comes on non-corner 3s. He’s 19-of-42 (45%), and to go back to a threshold of 30%, he’s only gone above that twice in his career and the last time was again 2017.

All of this is meant to illustrate that the Suns will be more than OK with Westbrook beating them with jumpers. Every possession that ends with him taking a jumper, especially a 3, will be considered a victory. They will test that math all series long.

And that’s where Westbrook has to balance between maintaining his confidence but also not giving the defense what it wants.

You may remember one of the most bizarre defensive gameplans we’ve seen in recent memory going viral: Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green took the Westbrook matchup so he could play the freest of free safety roles by not guarding Westbrook in early March. Green was not only rolling out the red carpet all the way inside 5 feet, but he would completely abandon Westbrook to sit under the basket to act as a second line of, erm, defense for other ball-handlers.

Westbrook shot 3-of-12 in that game with six assists and four turnovers.

I do not expect the Suns to go to these extremes. But whoever gets this matchup — likely Paul or Devin Booker — will certainly give Westbrook room.

The Kevin Durant-Russell Westbrook clash

Yes, we should briefly mention the Kevin Durant angle of this in the first playoff matchup for the former Thunder teammates in their long, illustrious basketball journeys.

Durant and Westbrook were teammates for the first eight years of Westbrook’s career in Oklahoma City, where they grew as players and people while logging 82 playoff games together. That included one trip to the NBA Finals and another three separate appearances in the Western Conference Finals. Durant left for the Warriors, who the Thunder lost to in that last WCF outing.

Reports at the time indicated Westbrook believed Durant was staying after a meeting but Durant denies giving off that impression.

The spicy levels of potential drama inside Durant’s split from OKC and Westbrook had a spotlight shined on the two for so long that anyone would have been permanently blinded by its effects. There has never been much direct confirmation that there was a “rift” between the two.

Durant said in the past that a lot of it was the media playing it up while Westbrook said in 2017 it really wasn’t up to him whether or not they’d re-kindle a relationship. Durant supposedly texted Westbrook about his decision and that was that.

Westbrook said on Wednesday there’s “no beef” and it’s all respect now.

Regardless of the tea, it resulted in the best basketball commercial of the last 15 years. Westbrook and others danced to Lil Uzi Vert’s “Do What I Want” in his new Jordan ad that started airing at the beginning of his first year without Durant. The video was later removed from its original sources upon release, an indication that the subliminal messaging there didn’t result in a desirable long-term effect for the folks over at Durant’s Nike and Westbrook’s Jordan.

It still lives on the internet in all its glory, cropped for weird quality to avoid copyright infringement.

Glorious.

Anyway, the reason I wanted to include that video is it should reflect some of what we remember about Westbrook. Not the stat-padding debates, how the back half of his career took a hard left or all the teams where it didn’t work out.

He’s a vibrant guy that is by all accounts a tremendous human being. He left nearly a five-figure tip for the hotel workers at the bubble in Orlando and his Why Not? Foundation does tremendous work.

The absolute ruthlessness hard-wired into his DNA as a competitor and his style of play paints a certain picture, but all his former teammates and coaches always give off the vibe that they love the guy and having him on their side. George, a running mate in OKC and now L.A., raves about him and how Westbrook uniquely gets to know every teammate individually.

Suns head coach Monty Williams was an assistant coach in Oklahoma City for one season, 2015-16, and spoke Sunday on his time with Westbrook.

“My time with Russell was enjoyable,” Williams said. “I think when you’re around high-level, highly competitive guys that are shading something, they challenge you indirectly and directly. I thought that helped me grow as a coach. Having been around Kevin and Russ when they were so young and still at least being a part of their development stages earlier in their careers, that was pretty cool for me. Those two guys set the tone for that organization. We’d have 11 (a.m.) practices and those two guys would be on the floor at 8:30, 9 in the morning getting their shooting in, (then) go shower, have breakfast and then come practice.

“And that had a huge impact on me, and I could always tell guys the stories of how hard they work. He’s one of the guys that, I’ve never seen an MVP get criticized and marginalized the way he has and I’ve always felt like a lot of it was kind of weird. I’m not in the locker rooms he’s been in but I know he’s one of the best players historically in the game and I really enjoyed my time with him. We butted heads every so often in a good way and it helped me to grow as a coach so I appreciated my time with Russ.”

Maybe Westbrook’s got a few more playoff moments in him.

It’s the unexpected swan song his legendary run deserves, and the Suns have to be ready for the possibility of it, avoiding the dismissal of an all-timer unlike the too-many basketball fans who, unfortunately, embrace it.

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