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Russell Westbrook Can’t Stop Going Left

No one has figured out how to stop Russell Westbrook this season, as evidenced by his season-long triple-double. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his dominance: He’s accomplished much of it while being more predictable than ever on offense.

SEASON DRIVES LEFT DRIVES RIGHT
2016-17 73.7% 26.3%
2015-16 66.4 33.6
2014-15 67.1 32.9
2013-14 64.4 35.6
2012-13 67.4 32.6
2011-12 66.9 33.1
2010-11 54.2 45.8
2009-10 51.8 48.2
2008-09 40.3 59.7
Which way Russell Westbrook drives in one-on-one situations

Source: Synergy Sports Technology

The Oklahoma City Thunder star has gone to his left almost three-quarters of the time when driving one-on-one this season, a career-high rate and an 11 percent increase from last season, according to data from Synergy Sports Technology. Yet despite going to his left on 74 percent of his drives — more frequently than any other NBA guard or small forward — and doing so without nearly as much scoring help as he had before, Westbrook has managed to increase his efficiency when in isolation scenarios. He’s scoring on one-on-one tries 40 percent of the time this season, up from 35 percent in 2015-16.

I went to Oklahoma City this week, hoping to get more insight on what’s changed from Westbrook himself. I gave him a sheet with stats on it that showed which direction he has favored over his career and told him that he could keep it. He glanced down at it briefly and then handed the sheet back, saying, “I don’t want it!”

Westbrook said he goes left so often because he’s simply taking what defenses give him. “People send me left, man — I can’t really tell you much about [why],” said Westbrook, who is ambidextrous but shoots with his right hand. “People send me that way, and if that’s the way they want me to go? I guess they’re seeing the numbers differently than you are. Maybe they think it’s better for them if I go left. I have no idea.”

Defenses, eager to slow Westbrook down any way they can, could indeed be a major part of it. Opposing teams may have picked up on a longstanding tendency of Westbrook’s; throughout his career, he’s been far more likely to drive all the way to the basket when going to his right, while he has more frequently pulled up for jumpers when going left, according to the Synergy data.1 If you’re a defense, you’d rather have Westbrook take a jumper than explode at the rim. Yet defenders’ potential knowledge of Westbrook’s tendencies would make it even more surprising that Westbrook has been able to boost his isolation efficiency so often.

Westbrook’s leftward lean may also be happening because Oklahoma City has a left-handed big man — rookie Domantas Sabonis — who usually operates from the right block. That might be limiting Westbrook’s ability to go toward his right at times.

The other big change for Westbrook this season, of course, is Kevin Durant’s departure. It’d be natural to think that maybe his absence provided more opportunity for Westbrook to roam left. But during Durant’s final season with the Thunder, a greater share of his shot attempts came from the right side of the floor, meaning that there should be more room for Westbrook on the right side this season.

Regardless of why Westbrook is favoring his left, the spike is noteworthy. It’s a statement that Westbrook has come a far way from how he played when he was young. He favored going to his right as a freshman at UCLA, and for good reason: Westbrook was in college basketball’s 98th percentile on right-sided isolation efficiency but in the bottom 1 percent when isolating left, according to Synergy. As a rookie in the NBA, he went right 60 percent of the time. But each season since, Westbrook has played to his left more.

Normally a player would be forced to address an imbalance as extreme as Westbrook’s to keep opponents on their toes. Between intricate film breakdowns and advanced numbers, defenders in today’s NBA have more weapons at their disposal than ever before. But given how well Westbrook has fared in one-on-one situations this season, there may not be a reason for him to change much.

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Footnotes

  1. Westbrook wouldn’t be alone in this regard. All-time great Michael Jordan noted in an ESPN The Magazine profile that LeBron James has the same tendency.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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