Thunder general manager Sam Presti has pinpointed a possible theme for Russell Westbrook’s summer: 3-point shooting. Specifically, shooting off the catch,
“I see him late at night in this gym working on that,” Presti said at his end of-season press conference. “His ability to continue to catch and shoot, knock shots down, I think is a big part of his continued evolution as a player.”
But Westbrook’s evolution as a shooter means more than just making or missing. Simply creating more catch-and-shoot looks can help him improve.
Though Westbrook has always been a below-average 3-point shooter, he’s far more successful as a spot-up threat than as a pull-up one.
He's weaved in and out of solid seasons and unacceptable ones throughout his career, but has hit 34 percent of catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts since Second Spectrum began tracking that type of data in 2013-14. And while Westbrook’s catch-and-shoot accuracy is still below league average, a 3-point shot that has a 34 percent chance at going in is usually an efficient one. It means more than one point per possession, a top-tier figure for a half-court offense.
The Thunder’s half-court attack was one of the worst in the NBA this season, 21st in points per possession, according to Synergy Sports.
Shot selection certainly played a role in the struggles. Shot creation, as well. It’s a subtler part of what Presti's reference signifies: better shots mean more successful offense. The challenge is finding Westbrook those opportunities. And that takes modification
A player can’t collect catch-and-shoot looks when he already has the ball. And Westbrook is not going to receive many inside an offense that perennially finishes at or near the bottom of the NBA in total passes per game, a direct effect of his preferred playing style, one that has always intertwined with his basketball identity.
Of Westbrook’s 4.1 3-pointers per game this year, only 1.1 came on catch-and-shoot opportunities, per Second Spectrum, in line with his career ratio. But if the Thunder want him to see more spot-up opportunities, it requires change. Even subtle adjustments that involve relinquishing no control of the offense can make a difference.
Part of the reason the Thunder offense doesn’t involve much movement is because of Westbrook’s on-ball tendencies. Thunder coach Billy Donovan attempted to implement some off-ball plays early in the season — and even in 2016-17 with Victor Oladipo — that Westbrook waved off enough to phase out of the offense by midseason. But that’s not the only way Westbrook has kept motion out. He doesn’t move much when he’s off the ball either, instead hanging around the wing or the corner and waiting for the rock to return to him.
He will run off screens but almost only during scripted moments, specifically out of Donovan’s sideline out-of-bounds plays, which often include the reigning MVP coming off stagger screens and receiving an inbounds pass above the 3-point line. He rarely sets picks, too.
ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently wrote about how few ball-screens Westbrook sets. There aren’t many more off the ball, either.
He set only 167 off-ball screens this year, according to Second Spectrum data supplied to The Transcript. For reference, Golden State’s Stephen Curry set 507 — and he played 29 fewer games than Westbrook.
It’s a misconception that off-ball screens are only to open up a teammate. In fact, guards setting picks can scramble a defense so much that those actions can free screeners galore for shots. Curry sets creative screens to open himself for catch-and-shoot 3s all the time. And the Thunder understand this concept well. OKC shooting guard Alex Abrines popped to the arc off flare screens all season. It turned into one of the most common ways for him to receive spot-up 3s.
It could be one for Westbrook, too. Of course, that would require change.
Presti believing in some kind of adjustment is the first step.
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.