OKLAHOMA CITY — Russell Westbrook made sure last season went his way. He may not have that control this year.
Westbrook and four-time All-Star Paul George, whom the Oklahoma City Thunder traded for earlier in the month, will have to learn to coexist. And the two may have only one year to do it. Both are looking at the possibility of becoming free agents in 2018.
It’s possible no one else understands Westbrook, the player, better than longtime Thunder veteran Nick Collison, who has been his teammate all 10 years of the reigning MVP’s career. And with Westbrook coming off a season during which he governed a team’s offense as much as any individual ever, Collison is confident his point guard can scale back the workload with a different roster around him.
“He’s won at a high level his whole career since our first year,” Collison told The Transcript. “So, he had an incredible statistical season, but winning is always what he’s been about.”
Westbrook is an improved passer since he first came into the NBA. There’s no question about that, considering many didn’t think he was even a point guard when he first stepped on a pro court. But he grew more ball-dominant than ever last season.
He broke the usage rate record, meaning he ended a higher percentage of his team’s possessions while he was on the floor with one of his own shots, turnovers or him getting fouled than any player in the history of the stat, which goes back more than 40 years. He led the NBA in assist rate, the percentage of his teammates’ buckets he assisted while he was on the floor, as much an indicator that a player often has the ball in his hands as it is that he’s passing willingly. He was also the NBA’s leader in touches per game and average time of possession, per NBA.com’s SportVU data.
But all that occurred inside a roster made up of younger players and limited creators. Maybe, just maybe, with George and other offensive weapons around him — like the recently signed Patrick Patterson or the developing Steven Adams, Doug McDermott, Jerami Grant and Alex Abrines — he can adapt.
“I think Russell is incredibly smart, and last year I think he managed the game very well even though he set these records for usage and had the ball and took a lot of shots, all those things,” Collison said. “But he really, in my mind, was managing the game really well for the most part. And he just had a lot of young guys he was trying to bring along. He was being aggressive when he felt like that was the best thing to do.”
George, in some ways, is the perfect superstar to play next to Westbrook. He thrives off the ball.
He made 42 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers last year, per SportVU, the fourth-best accuracy of anyone with as many attempts as him, behind only Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson, Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal and Houston Rockets sharpshooter Ryan Anderson. And George is far from a stand-still weapon off the ball, running off all different types of screens more effectively than many other players of his stature.
Yet, George still needs to ball to maximize his effectiveness. He’s elite leading the pick-and-roll. And he’ll want shots to find comfort within the offense — and reasonably, to remain happy throughout the year. He still used 29 percent of his team’s possessions last season. Westbrook’s record-breaking usage rate was a shade below 41 percent.
There’s only 100 percent to go around. And there are three other players on the floor. Something has to come down.
“I think [Westbrook] understands he’s got Paul George on the wing and he’s got Patterson and he’s got Steven rolling to the basket. I think he’ll figure it out,” Collison said. “I just think he’s really smart, and he’ll figure it out.”
Yet, Westbrook has always been shot-happy. And he furthered those habits last year. Whether his 2016-17 method was far too extreme or simply necessary given the limited offensive talent around him, it’s a style that could be difficult to break right away, especially with new players figuring out the inevitably different kind of offense OKC will run this season.
Collison believes, however, that when circumstances change, so will approach.
“As good a year as he had last year, I think there were also times where he was frustrated with us not playing as well. I think he’ll embrace a guy like Paul George because he thinks it’s going to make us a better team,” Collison said. “He’ll embrace that, because he wants to win. That’s very important to him.”