Is Russell Westbrook a Top 20 player?

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Bleacher Report has released its annual report on the top 100 NBA players for the current 2019-20 season. In my opinion, these lists aren’t too interesting to look at on a year-to-year basis, as there usually aren’t that many changes in such a short time span or any real surprises. For example, LeBron James has been at the top or upper echelon of this list ever since I could walk. But this year, in the words of the great Stephen A. Smith, something downright blasphemous occurred on this typically uneventful, annually generated list. Russell Westbrook was listed as the 22nd best player in the NBA.

Let’s try to understand what that means in context. Bleacher Report is making the claim that 21 players on planet Earth are more valuable than a nine-time All-Star who has averaged a triple-double for the last two years and is the only point guard since Magic Johnson that has been able to dominate the paint like a center. Can we really say this 6-foot-3 dynamo isn’t a top 20 player? Westbrook, given all his accolades and intangibles, is easily top 20 or even arguably top ten. Today, we are channeling our inner myth busters and clearing the name of the most admirably volatile competitor, hilarious interviewee and bold dresser in the game today.

Skillset:

There are very few players in the world that can put pressure on a defense like Russell Westbrook. It takes the former MVP 3.36 seconds to cover the length of the court from baseline to baseline and he has been recorded at a top speed of 21.6 mph when driving to the basket. This downhill speed, in addition to Westbrook’s ability to stop on a dime, makes him elite in the open court and causes defenses to implode. He is simply unguardable one-on-one. Westbrook’s ability to collapse the defense also helps him create plays for his teammates which has resulted in him leading the league in assists twice. His handle, athleticism and midrange prowess make him an ideal combination of strength and finesse.

Westbrook is also one of the few players in the NBA with the rare talent to supersede a lack of a consistent three-point shot. He is the NBA equivalent of fusing the Flash and the Hulk. To all the superhero aficionados out there, I understand I am fusing universes with this metaphor but bear with me. Westbrook is the most athletic point guard ever, period and end of discussion. Additionally, he is one of the best rebounding guards, has recently developed a post-game under the guidance of Kobe Bryant and is able to will teams into the playoffs like several sub-par Oklahoma City (OKC)Thunder teams after the departure of Kevin Durant to the Warriors. This diverse skill set will add longevity to his game and skyrockets his value in the current NBA market.

Intangibles:


Russel Westbrook for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011.  Photo in the    public domain

Russel Westbrook for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011. Photo in the public domain

There are some aspects of basketball that you can learn once you get to the league, there are some characteristics that are better developed at an early age and then there are some qualities that someone is just born with. Russell Westbrook was born to compete. He plays the game with unbridled aggression that we haven’t seen since the Black Mamba himself took the court.

This drive was only magnified by the tragic death of his best friend, Khelcey Barrs III, shortly before both achieved their dream of playing for UCLA together. Barrs, who at the time was a promising 16-year-old prospect, died of an enlarged heart in a pickup game in May 2004. Westbrook now wears a wristband every day on his right wrist engraved with KB3 to honor him. He says that wearing that wrist band makes him a better person and player, and motivates him to give everything he has on the hardwood every game. The greatest basketball player ever, Michael Jordan himself, has stated that he epitomizes the values of his Jordan brand as being a relentless, vindictive competitor of the highest order.

Current Production:

Westbrook has thrived in Houston’s system and is in MVP form. Aside from Kevin Durant, OKC teams in recent years have struggled to surround Westbrook with the requisite outside shooting needed to make him most effective. Having wing players such as Thabo Sefolosha and Andre Roberson that can’t shoot allows opposing defenses to stack the paint, crowding driving lanes and consequently limiting Westbrooks’s greatest strength.

Advanced NBA analytics show that Westbrook is well above league average in regards to finishing at the basket and this is exactly what the Houston Rockets require to create the open threes that catalyze their offense. They needed a slashing interior threat that would not take up space in the lane. After trading away center Clint Capela, who played his last game on Jan. 29th, to free up the paint, the Rockets’ small-ball lineup has blitzed the league with fast-paced exciting basketball in ways that would make coach Mike D’Antoni’s mid-2000’s Phoenix teams proud.

The Rockets currently rank No. 4 in the league in PACE, which measures the number of possessions a team uses per game. This means the Rockets are getting more shots up which plays into the hands of their high octane three-point shooting offense. This playstyle has done wonders for Westbrook’s game. Westbrook is taking approximately four more shots per night within ten feet, up to 15.1 from 11.3 since Jan. 30th. He is also capitalizing on far more of these opportunities, converting on 62% of inside this range in comparison to the 56.1% he shot when Capela was in the lineup. Houston has the system, the personnel and the guts to maximize their window for success, even if it means engaging in unorthodox tactics. It is time to appreciate that this risk of going small has paid off and the decision to switch point guards from Chris Paul to Russel Westbrook has been a huge part of that.

Westbrook’s ability to push the tempo and exploit the mismatches of their playmaker heavy lineup has resulted in Houston earning a 118.0 offensive rating, second-best in the league, and an

8.3 net rating that ranks fourth in the league. While Harden’s greatness can’t be taken for granted, it is clear that Westbrook is the engine of this team. He sets the tone, the personality and the pace for a team that has a puncher’s chance to knock out any one of the western conference heavyweights.

Takeaways:

With averages of 27.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.0 assists per game, does his cumulative impact not warrant top 10 consideration or, at minimum, top 20? I think he is without a doubt top 11 and a strong argument can be made for top ten consideration. Should he really rank below the likes of second fiddle Khris Middleton, Ben Simmons who remains an offensive liability, a diminished Kyle Lowry and others? All of these players are great in their own right but this is Russell Westbrook we’re talking about. Whether its lifetime achievement or current production, he’s got to be given his respect and placed higher than twenty-second.


Karthik Iyer is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at karthik.iyer@uconn.edu.

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