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Can Lakers' Russell Westbrook change his game from explosive to efficient?
National Basketball Association

Can Lakers' Russell Westbrook change his game from explosive to efficient?

Updated Nov. 11, 2021 3:51 p.m. ET

By Ric Bucher
FOX Sports NBA Analyst

Lakers fans have finally been treated to the full Russell Westbrook Experience, as some like to refer to it, the way you’d refer to an amusement park ride as an "experience."

Watching Westbrook generates the same bouillabaisse of heart-pounding anxiety and elation, the sense that everything is going a little faster than is safe or sensible.

That isn’t just what anyone who has watched Westbrook over his 14-year career feels, though. Several NBA executives and coaches have concluded that’s also what Westbrook feels, particularly in big moments, which might explain why he has consistently produced prodigious stat lines but with a high degree of inefficiency, particularly when it comes to scoring in the clutch. 


He is shooting a career-low 41% overall, 28% on 3-pointers and 65% from the free-throw line since joining the Lakers. 

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Aside from playing for the first time in his hometown and for the team he loved as a kid, Westbrook might be facing his last shot at a championship ring, putting his emotional needle in the red more than ever.

"The pressure has to have gone up on him," an assistant coach who works with shooters said. "With some guys, you can see the anxiety in their faces."

Westbrook, 33, is renowned for his conditioning and still appears to be in peak shape. But close observers have noted that he is not as explosive laterally. He tries to go by defenders with a change of speed, which is harder to do when opponents don’t fear your jump shot and are working with a three-foot cushion. That, too, can affect everything from a player’s general confidence to the mechanics of his shooting stroke.

All this is happening to Westbrook when, as a Laker, he might have more attention on him than ever.

"He’s playing in a major media market for the first time, and he’s not Superman anymore," said one NBA executive who knows Westbrook well. "Russell’s game at his peak was two things: supreme athleticism and supreme heart and determination. It was never a skill-based game. He never beat you with skill. He beat you with relentless effort.

"Now, as a declining athlete, to keep coming and coming, even if it means having 10 turnovers, to win you a game, playing with guys who have good basketball IQs? That’s hard to do."

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Westbrook found a way to do it against the Miami Heat on Wednesday, producing one of his signature triple-doubles in a sloppy, error-strewn Lakers victory in overtime. But he was also two turnovers shy of an inauspicious quadruple-double, another one of his trademarks. 

Along the way, he lit up every inch of the fans' emotional spectrum. He had 10 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter, yet he dribbled out the clock and hoisted an off-target 3-point shot that could’ve won the game in regulation. He made some big shots and snared some vital rebounds and committed some dumb fouls and inopportune turnovers.

Screaming with joy, cursing in disbelief, collapsing in despair and screaming once more — that has long been the Westbrook Experience, and so far, nothing has changed but his location. The NBA executive believes it doesn’t — or didn’t — have to be that way.

"If I had the chance to coach Russ in his prime, I would’ve told him, ‘For the first 40 minutes, you can be Russell Westbrook, but if you want to be a champion, the last eight minutes we’re going to have to be a student of the game,'" the executive said. "We’re going to pay attention to time, score, what to look for, what kind of shot we want. No one has ever done that with him. No one had the will or the guts to tell him."

The rival executive understands, nevertheless, why Lakers GM Rob Pelinka is the latest in a line of GMs who were enticed by Westbrook’s relentless drive and energy. 

"It’s hard to turn that down," he said. "Because it gives you a chance. But in the back of your mind, you have to be thinking, ‘Eh, he’s going to come up short.’ Because for the last minute, the other team can scheme up something to keep him out of the lane. Run somebody at him. Make him make a decision."

There have been many primary ballhandlers who weren’t highly efficient shooters when they arrived in the NBA — Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups, Allen Iverson, to name a few — but most of them steadily improved and enjoyed a stretch from their mid-20s to their mid-30s when they were regarded as clutch, even at the free-throw line.

Indications are that Westbrook’s prime has come and gone. He shot better than 80% from the free-throw line in seven of his first eight seasons in the league, but three of the past four years, he has been in the mid-60s. As a 3-point shooter, he had a stretch of four consecutive years in which he shot better than 30%, but he has cracked that mark only once in the past five years.

"He’s a quick-fiber guy," the assistant coach said. "He’s so athletic and explosive, he hangs in the air and winds up shooting it on the way down, which makes it an upper-body shot. That tends to flatten a shot and make it more variable. 

"Guys who are clutch shooters tend to slow down under pressure. They know exactly how much time they have and need. The ball even seems to travel slowly through the air. That’s not Russ. He has a hard, direct-line shot, and it has to go in perfectly, or it’s not going in. It’s all or nothing."

One puzzling aspect of Westbrook’s shooting struggles is that he’s a renowned gym rat, so it wouldn’t be for lack of time devoted to working on his shot, particularly free throws. But there are countless players who can make 25 shots in a row in practice and still struggle in games. "Free-throw shooting is a by-product of your mental state," the executive said.

The Lakers and their fans are obviously hoping Westbrook can find a way to be more efficient, even if it's playing in more of a contributing role when LeBron James returns from his abdominal strain. The blueprint would be Derrick Rose with the New York Knicks

Rose and Westbrook were represented by the same L.A.-based agency and in their early years worked out together regularly in the Santa Monica High School gym during the offseason. Rose, too, had early success overwhelming opponents with his supreme athleticism and relentless drive — until knee injuries nearly ended his career. He had no choice but to refine his skills, be more efficient, play more deliberately and improve his shooting. 

The result: He’s shooting career highs from both the 3-point arc (48%) and the free-throw line (92.9%). 

Westbrook has also had his share of knee injuries, which have clearly impacted his lateral explosiveness, but none as devastating as Rose’s. The result: Westbrook has never had to temper or transform his game the way Rose has.

"Derrick is aging better," the executive said. "He learned to shoot better, and his basketball IQ is higher. But Derrick was always a point guard. Russell was an athlete who played the position."

What are the chances Westbrook can still make a similar shift or transformation?

"I respect the guy a lot, and he’s a good dude, but it’s too late now," the executive said. "After being a league MVP and averaging triple-doubles, I can’t see him changing. That ship sailed a long time ago."

Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, "Rebound," the story of NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young onset Parkinson’s, and "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," the story of NBA center Yao Ming. He also has a daily podcast, "On The Ball with Ric Bucher." Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.


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