After a 10-for-31 showing from the field in a Game 3 loss against the San Antonio Spurs last week, Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook had something to say about his performance. With the win, the Spurs took a 2-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals.
"Too many shots. I think, honestly I gotta do a better job -- like I said before -- of getting guys good shots. [Thunder center] Steven [Adams] got one shot. I gotta get other guys involved to beat this team. Even though I had some shots I make, I gotta read and find ways to get guys good shots. I'll take the blame."
Westbrook did take on more of a facilitator role in the Thunder's Game 4 victory on Sunday (18 attempts, 15 assists). He did the same Tuesday early in Game 5, but then he increased his shooting down the stretch as the Thunder pulled out a close win.
How should Westbrook approach Game 6 on Thursday with a chance to close out the Spurs and move on to a date with the Warriors in the conference finals?
As a point guard with a scorer's mentality, Westbrook's offensive approach has been questioned often since he entered in the league. When Lakers legend Magic Johnson and others famously criticized Westbrook during the 2012 NBA Finals for taking too many shots, in particular for taking shots away from fellow superstar Kevin Durant, analysis showed that Oklahoma City's offense was actually better with Westbrook's usage exceeding Durant's. The optimal balance for the Thunder's offense at that time was actually for both players to have below-average usage, implying a benefit to getting their teammates more involved.
Four years, some injury-shortened title runs, a new coach and several roster changes later, how Westbrook balances scoring and facilitating is still a hot topic. Player-tracking data that allows the thorough tracking of previously difficult metrics (like number of passes) and quantification of otherwise subjective basketball concepts (like shot quality) can give a deeper look into what Westbrook should be doing.
The conclusion from analysis of this type of data is a more pronounced version of what was found back in 2012: Oklahoma City's offense is still good with Westbrook taking lots of shots, but it's truly at its best when he's passing more and shooting less.
To look at how Westbrook's approach affects the Thunder's offense as a whole, the crux of the analysis is a game-by-game look at how Westbrook's passing and shooting rates relate to the team's offense with him on the floor. First, some basics: The Thunder score about 117 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the court, one of the best marks in the league among players who play so many minutes. Westbrook averages 26 shots and 86 passes per 100 possessions while he's on the court.
One basic relationship that holds up is that the Thunder's offensive efficiency (when Westbrook is on the court) declines as Westbrook's shooting rate increases, with a steeper decline in games when he shoots at a rate well above his average (like Game 3 versus the Spurs). Meanwhile, the team's offense is generally more efficient as Westbrook's passing rate increases.
Looking across combinations of shot and pass rates together allows examination of games when Westbrook has an above-average rate in zero, one or both categories. Because shooting and passing are inversely related (one usually comes at the cost of the other), there aren't as many games when both rates are simultaneously above or below average, but there are enough games to look at all four possible combinations.
The Thunder's offense is quite good no matter the distribution of Westbrook's shots and passes, but the offense is more than nine points per 100 possessions better in games when he passes more and shoots less compared to the opposite combination.
That's a large difference across several thousand possessions in each category, indicating a real benefit to the team when Westbrook is taking a more pass-heavy approach.
Digging deeper into how the Thunder succeed more in those games, it really does come down to better shooting -- both in terms of quality of shots and actual shooting percentage. Quantified shot quality (qSQ) measures the difficulty of a shot given the location, shot type, defender's positioning and more to determine how often an average NBA player would make that shot (or group of shots). Quantified shooter impact (qSI) measures how much better or worse than average a shooter's performance is given the quality of shots taken.
In games when Westbrook passes more and shoots less than average, the Thunder's offense takes higher-quality shots and makes them much more frequently than expected than in the reverse types of games. These factors combine to result in a 6 percent difference in effective field goal percentage between the "shoot more" and "pass more" approaches.
Furthering the point that Westbrook can create better shots with passing (rather than shooting) is that his own qSQ this year is 49.4, one of the lowest on the team. Meanwhile, the qSQ for shooters off his passes is 54.3, among the highest on the team. After taking into account his own shooting ability, it's fairly clear that Westbrook generally sets up better-quality shots for his teammates than he takes himself.
The trends above are based on all Thunder games this season, but they also apply to the very small sample of playoff games the Thunder have played so far. Most of their top offensive games have been when Westbrook is shooting relatively less, passing relatively more and setting up good looks for teammates. In the current series against the Spurs, Westbrook had his lowest shot attempt rate and highest passing rate, and set his teammates up for the highest quality shots, in Game 4 -- the Thunder's most efficient offensive game of the series.
If the Thunder want to close out the Spurs and have a shot against the Warriors in the conference finals, it's probably in Westbrook's best interest to heed his own advice after Game 3: shoot less, pass more.