There’s no denying that Russell Westbrook is coming off of a historic year. The hyper-athletic point guard led the league in scoring, with 31.6 points per game. He averaged a triple-double for the season, was voted first-team All-NBA, and was awarded the Most Valuable Player for the season.
You might think, then, that he puts a little bit of fear in the hearts of opposing teams. Well, apparently that’s not the case with the Golden State Warriors.
In a recent The Lowe Post podcast, ESPN’s Zach Lowe revealed that the Warriors think Westbrook is relatively easy to guard. In the words of Lowe (as transcribed by Bleacher Report), the Dubs think Westbrook’s “style of play is so easy to defend; it’s like cake to them.”
Lowe also added that Golden State “doesn’t fear” the reigning MVP, which suggests that they’re fairly comfortable with the game plan against him.
While this might sound a little shocking at first, it really shouldn’t be. For all of Westbrook’s skill and athletic prowess, he has holes in his offensive game that can be exposed by an elite defense.
For starters, Westbrook is not a particularly good three-point shooter. At 34.3% last year, and 31.3% for his career, he’s formidable, but hardly a dangerous weapon.
Since Steve Kerr and Ron Adams took over the Warriors’ defense, they’ve made a point of leaving bad shooters unguarded. You saw it in the 2015 and 2016 playoffs, when they essentially left Tony Allen and Andre Roberson alone.
The Warriors realize that they can give Westbrook space on the perimeter. This not only dares him to take ineffective threes and long twos, but allows the defense to place itself in a position where they can more effectively defend Westbrook should he drive to the rim.
This has worked brilliantly against Westbrook. Last season, in four games against Golden State, Westbrook shot just 37.5% from the field. He averaged 27.3 points per game, but it took him 20 shots and 12.5 free throws per game to achieve those numbers.
It’s more than just ineffective scoring, though. By sagging off of Westbrook and packing the paint, the Warriors force the Thunder’s star into congested areas, where bad decisions are made.
In the four contests last year, Westbrook committed 32 turnovers, which is nearly as many assists as he had, and more field goals than he made. It’s also a whopping 8 per game.
The Dubs’ also held Westbrook to an offensive rating of 98, meaning the Thunder scored 98 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. That’s 14 points fewer than Westbrook’s season average.
While Westbrook is certainly an elite player, his style of play suggests that elite defenses can have a strong impact when game-planning against him. With the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, Westbrook may become a bit more effective against the Warriors going forward.
Then again, he also struggled against the Warriors when Kevin Durant was on the Thunder, so I’d guess that the Warriors’ lack of fear isn’t changed by Westbrook’s new teammates...