Music: Otis Redding
It’s only natural to compare Russell Westbrook to Derrick Rose. Even in a league fully-stocked with superb athletes, the two fourth year guards are clearly on another plane of athleticism. But their styles of play are actually pretty distinct, which is perhaps a result of the different roles each player must fill for his team.
With the Bulls, everything necessarily flows through Rose. But Westbrook has a more complex responsibility. He must be able to whiten his knuckles with the pedal to the medal, then the next moment be willing to take a deep breath and hand the keys to one of his talented teammates.
Westbrook gets to the rim as well as almost anyone in the league. I say almost, because although Westbrook shot a staggering 40 percent of his field goals attempts at the rim last year (converting 60 percent of them), Tony Parker took 43 percent of his attempts in close, and made an even higher percentage of them than Westbrook.
Parker, who still has his burst, is something of a genius when it comes to curling in a layup with his off hand while at full stretch moving and away from the basket. He also has the benefit of playing in a San Antonio offense that affords him plenty of opportunities to find his way to the rim by catering to his strengths as a ball handler in transition, and a devastating cutter from off the ball in the half court.
The Thunder try to do the same for Westbrook, filling the lanes to aid his transition assaults by spreading the defense and by sending him plenty of pick and rolls in the half court. And when he gets space in the open court, Westbrook is every bit as difficult to corral as Parker. But after witnessing James Harden’s emergence as pick and roll dynamo, the Thunder would be well served by taking advantage of Westbrook’s excellent cutting instincts by giving him more regular opportunities to be a finisher from off the ball, rather than a creator on it.
Over the years, one cut in particular has been good to Tony Parker, and he gets a look at it almost every single time down the court. Kevin Arnovitz informed me the play is called “Motion Weak,” and a number of teams run something similar (the 76ers call it “Thru”). You can see it in the video above: Parker passes the ball to the wing then sprints down the middle of the court to a spot right under the rim before curling hard off of a simple downscreen. Every so often, Parker’s man will jump the screen, allowing Parker to hop back door, or he’ll get hung up on the screen giving Parker a crease to the rim.
This sort of opportunity would be especially fruitful for Westbrook because he’s a genuine lob threat. It also has the dual benefit of occupying the weakside defense, creating more space for Durant, et al. Generating more motion also increases the likelihood that Westbrook, who flies to the rim for offensive rebounds just like he does on his dribble drives, will be forgotten when it comes time to box out
Westbrook’s background as an off-guard is generally only raised as a point of criticism—the reason why he doesn’t pass enough. Yet for a point guard, Westbrook possesses a real knack for finding cutting lanes, one he displayed against Dallas and Memphis in last year’s playoffs.
Last year, after he giving up the ball in the Thunder offense, Westbrook too often drifted to the weakside where he has little to contribute as he’s not a spot up shooter.
But used this way: as a ball-handling creator in transition and a off-ball finisher in the half court, Westbrook combines the best parts of the point guard and off guard roles—a throat-seizing Tony Parker/Dwyane Wade hybrid.
Even with a one largely dimensional offensive approach, Westbrook didn’t exactly struggle last year. Players that are constantly messing things up don’t use 30% of the possessions in a top 5 offense. Putting a greater emphasis on off-ball action would make Westbrook even more efficient, and diversify a Thunder attack that had an ugly tendency to bog down for long stretches in last year’s playoffs.