Loading scores...
Deep Dives

Is Russ Westbrook's Efficiency Boost For Real?

by Mike Gallagher
Updated On: May 26, 2020, 1:39 pm ET

Over the last few years, Russell Westbrook was one of the most polarizing players in reality and in category-based fantasy leagues. In other words, there are #takes. For fantasy up until this year, he routinely would rack up points, boards, dimes and steals, but would slaughter the turnover, FG% and FT% categories in nine-category leagues while not making many treys (FT% in previous two years, specifically). For points leagues or in DFS, Westbrook came into the 2019-20 season as a top-four player in each of the previous five seasons. However, in nine-category leagues, Westbrook had been trending down, coming in at 32 in 2018-19, 24, nine (MVP season) and eight in 2015-16. Of course, the downward trend, joining up with James Harden in a new system, and another knee procedure made him a popular fade in fantasy for 2019-20.  Here are his stats over the last five seasons (via NBA.com, all stats via NBA.com unless noted).

Prior to this year, the main reason why he trended down was because of falling off in FT%, but he was able to correct that in 2019-20 while also getting a massive boost in FG% from 2018-19. He also really improved as a scorer in 2019-20 in a tradeoff for his assists, and we’ll be going over how he smashed in the 2020 part of this season. The other key part of Westbrook’s fantasy output over his career is that he’s been able to stay healthy despite a whole lot of surgeries. Before we go through how he turned it around in 2019-20, let’s go over some of his key injuries over his career.

  • In the first five years of his career, Westbrook was flawless with zero missed games during the regular season. Incredible. However, he suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee during the 2013 playoffs in the infamous collision with Patrick Beverley.
  • In October before the 2013-14 season, Westbrook needed a second surgery on his right knee with an arthroscopic knee procedure and was supposed to miss several weeks of the regular season. Shockingly, Westbrook made it back for the third game of the season. Rotoworld literally had “Shocker: Russell Westbrook to play on Sunday” as the headline to his blurb. Westbrook did get a rest game on Nov. 24. After Christmas, Westbrook had swelling in his troublesome right knee, and it kept him out for two months (28 games). He was resting in back-to-back sets after that, but did suffer another minor right knee injury.
  • In 2014-15, Westbrook suffered a fractured right hand in October to keep him out for 14 games. Westbrook also had facial surgery and amazingly missed just one game.
  • In 2015-16, Westbrook played in each of the first 78 games of the season and sat out two of the last four for rest. 
  • In his MVP 2016-17 season, Westbrook needed to miss just one game in April.
  • For the 2017-18 season, Westbrook had a PRP treatment on his right knee in September, but was able to play in every game up until Feb. 8 when he sprained his left ankle. That’s it.
  • For the 2018-19 season, Westbrook had yet another arthroscopic right knee surgery in September, but he only needed to miss two games to start the season. Westbrook had his worst ankle sprain of his career with six missed games in November, but after that he played in every game except for one in March. After the season ended, Westbrook had surgery on his finger and yet another right knee surgery that was described as proactive maintenance.
  • In 2019-20, the Rockets had some clear back-to-back restrictions on Westbrook with him sitting in one game of back-to-back sets over the 64-game season. It was mostly rest, but he did miss two games because of a thumb injury in February.

Imagine if Pat-Bev hadn’t collided with Westy. The history on his right knee is very scary, but besides that major issue Westbrook’s durability is LeBron-like. His lack of muscle pulls over his career is kind of absurd, too. As he gets older, it’ll be interesting to see how his knee holds up, and is he going to have another arthroscopic surgery after the 2019-20 season?

Most of you guys know Westbrook’s offensive game pretty well. A lot of drives to the basket, getting out in transition, and too many jumpers over his career. If you’ve ever played head-to-head, nine-cat fantasy hoops and you have Westbrook for a Sunday game in a tight FG% matchup, you cringe whenever he shoots jumpers. With the Rockets this season, he clearly cut down on those and traded off for shots at the rim. Here’s a look at his efficiency on jumpers (first column), how often he shot them (second), his FG% at the rim (third), and how often he shot those (fourth).

 

Clearly the Rockets had him trade off jumpers for some at-rim shots, which is absolutely huge. Taking it a step further, in the 2020 part of the season, Westbrook’s at-rim shots accounted for 53.2% of his shots and he made 63.3%. This is extremely encouraging stuff and shows Westbrook’s big boost in FG% is no fluke.

As you probably know, Westbrook has been the drive guy over the years. In 2019-20, he led the league in drives per game, and he’s led the league in three of the last four years (third in 2018-19 to James Harden and DeMar DeRozan). Plus, he’s really shown big improvement on efficiency on that scoring opportunity over the years. In 2019-20, he made a very impressive 56.2% of his shots off drives, which crushes his previous bests (50.6% in 2018-19, 49.7% in 2017-18, 44.4% in 2016-17, 47.6% in 2015-16, 43.0% in 2014-15). If you look at those FG%s on drives, you’ll notice a pretty clear trend of improvement on his efficiency. In the 2020 part of the season, Westbrook was at a ridiculous 23.1 drives per game to account for 14.9 points per game in those 23. To put that in perspective, the highest drives per game over the course of a whole season ever is 20.1 (Westbrook, 2016-17) and the most points of them is 14.0 (Harden, 2018-19). In the 2019 portion of this season, Westbrook was at just 18.4 drives per game and 9.2 points. Just like the shot selection paragraph above, it’s clear Westbrook’s scoring efficiency increase is tied to his changes on drives. Big time.

So a couple times you’ve seen the “2020 portion of the season” come up on Russ in this column. In that span, he averaged 31.7 points, 8.1 boards, 6.8 dimes, 1.9 steals, 4.6 turnovers and 0.7 treys on a 53/32/75 shooting line. He outscored everyone in the Western Conference per game (Bradley Beal 33.6, Damian Lillard just behind Russ at 31.0). The strong FG% on big volume made him a top-10 player in the FG% category over this span (min of 12 games). It made him a first-round value in nine-category leagues per game and a top-eight player in eight cat.

One thing that was a little different in the 2020 part compared to 2019 was Clint Capela. Here are his per-36 stats with and without Capela this season:

  • With (909 minutes): 24.3 points, 7.4 boards, 7.1 dimes, 1.8 steals, 4.5 turnovers, 1.2 treys on 50.2 TS% with a 31.4 usage rate and a +2.2 net rating
  • Without (600): 29.6 points, 8.9 boards, 7.8 boards, 1.4 steals, 4.1 turnovers, 0.7 treys on 55.3 TS% with a 33.1 usage rate and a +5.7 net rating

It’s abundantly clear that Westbrook was a more productive player when he wasn’t next to Capela. Westbrook was also at a blistering 109.9 pace without Capela. You love to see it.

Besides Westbrook’s knee, the biggest concern coming into the season was how he was going to fit with James Harden. Westbrook and Harden are the top two for highest usage rate ever in a season with Westbrook's 41.7% in 2016-17 and Harden's 40.5% in 2018-19. Of course, Harden is going to play all 48 minutes. As you might expect, Westbrook was ridiculously productive when Harden was on the bench in 2019-20, putting up a per-36 line of 34.8 points, 8.2 boards, 10.2 dimes, 1.8 steals, 6.6 turnovers (yikes) and 0.7 treys on a 39.9 usage rate, 55.6 TS% and 111.6 pace. With Harden he was a 25/8/6 guy with worse efficiency and slower pace, too. That’s still pretty good and in the 2020 part of the season it increased to 28/8/5 on a 32.2 usage rate, 56.4 TS% and a 105.4 pace even with The Beard. You’ll take that all day in about 2/3s of his time, and he will just fill it up in the 12 minutes per game with Harden. Just for fun, over the 89 minutes in 2020 without Harden and Capela, Westbrook put up a per-36 line of 39.6 points, 9.3 boards, 12.1 dimes, 2.0 steals, 0.4 treys and 5.2 turnovers on 57.5 FG%.

Even with the Harden factor, Westbrook was still able to get his transition possessions to 7.4 per game to tie Giannis Antetokounmpo for the league lead (Russ has led the league in this category in every season since 2016-17). That 7.4 is the highest number recorded per game since the NBA started tracking it in 2015-16. He also shot 55.9% on his transition possessions, which is up from 50.2 in 2018-19, 55.2% in 2017-18 and 50.9% in 2016-17.

So far, it’s clear that the move to the Rockets has made Russ a better scorer and he’s done so on a bigger FGA volume compared to the previous two seasons. Of course, there was a little bit of a trade off in assists and boards. Westbrook’s season triple-double streak snapped with ease, which we kind of saw coming because of the Harden factor. Westbrook’s time with the ball in his hands was just 5.7 minutes per game to rank just 22nd in the NBA in 2019-20. He certainly made the most of his touches with only Harden having a higher points-per-touch average than Westbrook among the top 22 guys for time of possession. In 2018-19, Westbrook ranked fourth in touch time per game, and he led the league at 9.1 in 2017-18. There’s a very strong correlation on touch time and assists, so Westbrook’s dimes probably won’t be in the 10 neighborhood like they were in his OKC days. That’s fine, though.

Westbrook upping his FT% to 77.7% from 65.6% in 2018-19 was key for him to being a fantasy stud again. He had routinely been in the 80% neighborhood to start his career, but really fell off to 73.7% in 2017-18. On its face, his output at the line on the road was a huge difference. In 2018-19, shot just 62.6% from the line on the road, but increased it all the way to 80.3% in 2019-20. In 2017-18 when his FT% started to dip, he was way worse on the road, but he was actually better on the road in the previous two seasons. Getting the road woes fixed is huge. Additionally, in the first quarter, Russ made just 63.8% of his free throws in 2018-19, but increased it to 81.0% in 2019-20. One of the more puzzling parts of his poor shooting in the 2018-19 season was he still made 78.6% of his free throws in the clutch, and he’s shot 83.0% in the clutch over his last eight seasons.

We haven’t really touched on Russ’ rebounding yet, but we sort of covered it when we hit the Capela splits. Eight boards per game is certainly doable next year, and that’ll do for a guard. We also haven’t hit his turnovers specifically yet. He turns it over a lot. #Analysis

Westbrook’s age is possibly the second-biggest negative here as he will turn 32 in November. Getting back-to-back rest is likely close to a lock unless the Rockets are playing huge games. Although, maybe he doesn’t need a knee clean up this year, so maybe he can have a rare healthy offseason without knee surgery affecting how his season starts.

The change of scenery to an offensive system that suits his style of play has been fantastic for his value. It’s easy to be sold on his red-hot 2020 output being sustainable for 2020-21, and Westbrook was the No. 2 player per game in DFS in this frequently mentioned 23-game span. If Westbrook doesn’t get his knee cleaned up this offseason, I’d certainly consider him at the first-round turn in nine-category leagues and I’d even consider him over Luka Doncic (probably not, though). If Westbrook does need his knee cleaned up, that means he’s likely getting back-to-back rest again, but there’s still enough value to take him in the 15-20 range in standard leagues. He’s obviously a first-round pick in points leagues regardless, and he’d be worth a top-five pick without an offseason surgery. Russ still has plenty left in the tank.

Mike Gallagher

Mike Gallagher has covered fantasy hoops for eight years and this season is his second with NBC Sports Edge. You can find him on Twitter talking about a player's shots at the rim.