Despite his countless triple-doubles, Westbrook is not satisfied with the end results.
We’ve witnessed over the past several seasons — especially since the departure of James Harden and Kevin Durant — that Westbrook often plays as a one-man wrecking crew and at a dizzying pace. But it hasn’t really worked.
Consider the facts: The Oklahoma City Thunder have been bounced from the playoffs in the first round in each of the past three seasons, including the ongoing 2018-19 NBA postseason campaign by the Portland Trail Blazers, after back-to-back defeats to the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz.
For the past three seasons, Westbrook has strung together the only three triple-double season averages since all-time great Oscar Robertson’s celebrated achievement in 1961-62.
In 2016-17, Westbrook produced 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists in the regular season. In 2017-18, he posted these totals: 25.6, 10.1 and 10.3. This season, he finished with 22.9, 11.1 and 10.7.
But it’s not enough.
The Thunder need more balanced, more cohesive play.
It’s not just about Westbrook’s imprint on every aspect of the team’s game. And yes, he often takes too many shots, especially when you factor in the percentage that they produce (24 total shots per game, .425 field-goal percentage in 2016-17; 21.1, .449 the next season; and 20.2, .428 this season).
What’s more, his playoff totals have not been adequate despite averaging a headline-grabbing 37.4 points per game in 2016-17, 29.3 last season and 22.8 this season. His shooting percentages have gone down significantly in the past three postseasons, putting his larger game under the metaphorical microscope. He shot .388 in 2016-17 (including 13 of 49 from 3-point range), .398 overall the next season (15 of 42 from beyond the arc) and .360 against the Blazers (11 of 34 from deep).
Now 30, Westbrook admits changes must be made.
He acknowledged as much a few days after Blazers hero Damian Lillard’s miraculous buzzer-beater ended the Thunder’s playoff aspirations.
“There used to be conversations if I was a ball hog, but now I lead the league in assists for the past three years or whatever it is, that’s getting squashed out,” Westbrook told reporters. “So now the conversation is about shooting. Next year I’m going to become a better shooter….”
Speaking to reporters last Monday in Oklahoma City, Thunder general manager Sam Presti insisted that the organization expects Westbrook to make some adjustments as it regroups for the 2019-20 season.
Do you think it’s possible for him to shed some of the emotion that creates technical fouls and 3-pointers early in the shot clock without a pass but keep the emotion? he was asked.
“Yeah, well, I think, listen, there’s evolution,” Presti commented. “Here’s what I’d say about that. I know he probably wouldn’t want to — you may not realize it, but he’s really evolved as a player. I mean, it’s kind of like, I don’t know, I’m not going to dissect that, but the bottom line is, like I said earlier, when you’re 25 years old and you’re getting criticized for all these things, you look up, you’re 30, and you’re doing a lot of those things significantly better, there’s evolution.
“He wasn’t, like I said earlier, he wasn’t hitting the corners like he hits the corners now. Listen, I don’t know if they’re keeping stats like this, but he’s stacking the league in loose balls. I think that’s been pretty regular. He took more — he finished better around the rim. Shot distribution was actually trending and a little bit different than it’s been in the past. He’s missing — right now, he didn’t shoot the ball well this season, but I don’t think that’s a sign that he’s not evolving. I think he is evolving in some ways.
“But I know he may not want that moniker, but the bottom line is he has evolved.”
Time will tell if Westbrook and the Thunder can evolve in a big, bold way and experience postseason success in the Westbrook era.
Ed Odeven, an Arizona State University graduate, is a veteran sports journalist based in Tokyo. He is The Japan Times’ chief basketball reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @ed_odeven